Changes in Science Education
Changes in Science Education

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11 Primary science

Primary science has grown in importance in many countries in recent years and all programmes have faced similar problems of improving the science knowledge of primary teachers, lack of equipment, and, just as significantly, lack of agreement about what sort of science should be taught to young pupils. To illustrate some of the similar issues that have confronted policy makers in many areas of the world, let's look at the establishment of primary science in the UK.

Before 1988, England, Wales and Northern Ireland did not have a national curriculum in science; at the time of writing only guidelines for the curriculum exist in Scotland today. The government policy document Science 5–16 (DES, 1985) that pre-dated the prescribed curriculum did not merely define what should be taught in terms of content such as ‘electricity’ or ‘plants’, but instead rather emphasised the importance of a process approach. Indeed, science curriculum innovation in the middle to late 1980s saw a large number of new courses such as ‘Warwick Process Science’ and ‘Science in Process’ for secondary schools. These focused not on science concepts but rather on processes such as observation, interpretation and classification – aspects critical to ‘the scientific method’. This mood was picked up in the developing primary science curriculum. Although not totally accepted by some (for example, Jenkins, 1987), the teaching profession generally welcomed a move away from what was often considered as merely the memorising of poorly understood facts. In contrast, there emerged a curriculum that might be more accessible to all pupils and which emphasised skills applicable to other areas of life both inside and outside school. The attention to ‘doing’ science – raising questions that could be answered by an investigation – became the cornerstone of the developing primary science. For example, the question ‘What is the best carrier bag?’ would be turned into an investigation question such as ‘Which carrier bag carries the greatest weight?’. To answer such a question, so-called ‘dependent and independent’ variables were identified. At this time, primary teachers (normally untrained in science) were concerned about the introduction of science into their day-to-day work. The rhetoric from those advocating that science should indeed be part of the primary curriculum was that the teachers could ‘learn with the pupils’; it was argued that only the process was important, not the science facts or concepts that the teacher did or did not know. Nowadays, those intending to become primary teachers are required to hold a basic qualification in Science (and in Mathematics and English) as a pre-requisite for their teacher-training course. And yet it is still the case (and was so certainly when primary science was being introduced) that most teachers studied no science when they were at school – or perhaps just one, usually Biology.

Primary science is therefore a recent development. As recently as 1985, Harlen could write a book entitled Primary Science: Taking the Plunge (Harlen, 1985) reflecting the fact that little science was then being taught in primary schools. What was the rationale for its development and what were (and are) the consequences of introducing a subject to a teaching force who have not traditionally taught it, nor have the resources traditionally used to teach it?

During the 1980s ‘push’ on primary science, there was hardly any debate about the issue of Science Knowledge versus Science process amongst teachers and the advisers helping them to implement the new curriculum. Process was all important and science content relegated to a side issue. In an almost content-free science curriculum, ‘good’ pedagogy was that which promoted a questioning attitude amongst pupils and the means of answering such questions. What was important was knowing how to conduct practical work, in particular ‘fair tests’ to find things out. Hence, the doing of the practical work was the most important aspect, not the ‘right’ answer as such. For example, Jelly (1985, p. 47) suggests that a ‘productive question’ is one that will ‘Encourage awareness that varied answers may each be “correct” in its own terms and view achievement as what is learnt in the process of arriving at an answer’. In other words, the process is more important than the answer. However, this view would be very much contested by many – as you saw in both the Reiss and Jenkins readings. However it would be unfair to suggest that Jelly was saying that accepted science ‘facts’ are irrelevant. Rather she was emphasising that the teaching of nature study recalled in the Peacock reading, and such activities as the rote learning of the names of the parts of a flower, should be subservient to the active learning promoted by practical work in the primary classroom.

In time, the pendulum swing from content to process came into a more central, balanced position. Murphy and Scanlon (1994) summarised it as follows:

There emerged a consensus that scientific inquiry was not about following a set of rules or a hierarchy of processes but ‘the practice of a craft – in deciding what to observe, in selecting which observations to pay attention to, in interpreting and discussing inferences and in drawing conclusions from experimental data’ [from Millar, in Woolnough, 1991]. There was also considerable agreement evident in the various published discussions about the nature of scientific observation.

(Murphy and Scanlon, 1994, p. 105)

The science curriculum statement quoted at the start of Section 10 notes that ‘Because science links direct practical experience with ideas, it can engage learners at many levels’. It is this ‘minds-on as well as hands-on’ approach that, in a tacit way, underpinned what is seen as good practice of primary teachers and which continues to this day. The 1980s not only saw the introduction of primary science, but a new emphasis in the initial and in-service education of teachers on a view of learning that recognised that pupils construct meaning by interacting with the environment around them. Rather than considering their task as just explaining ‘new’ phenomena and concepts in a clear and interesting way, teachers came to recognise that, for a fuller understanding, pupils themselves had to make sense of the world around them by seeing how their new experiences, along with the views of others, matched their own preconceived ideas and notions. Everyone has their own ‘common sense’ view of the world which, on occasions, is in conflict with what is being taught in science lessons. Driver (1983) pointed out that teachers (at both primary and secondary levels – and we will see at university level too) failed to take sufficient notice of what was involved when pupils attempted to construct new understandings and integrate these with their existing knowledge of the world. She pointed out some problems with ‘discovery’ pedagogy that can be said to be particularly acute in primary science, where the teachers are often themselves ‘discovering’ alongside the pupil.

Discovery methods in science teaching put pupils in the role of investigator, giving them the opportunities to perform experiments and test ideas for themselves. What actually happens in classrooms when this approach is used? Although, of course, pupils’ ideas are less sophisticated than those of practising scientists, some interesting parallels can be drawn. The work of Thomas Kuhn indicates that, once a scientific theory or paradigm becomes established, scientists as a community are slow to change their thinking. Pupils, like scientists, view the world through the spectacles of their own preconceptions, and many have difficulty in making the journey from their own intuitions to the ideas presented in science lessons.

(Driver, 1983, p. ii)

Before the introduction of a national curriculum that attempted to organise science education in schools into ‘knowledge and process’ and to set what should be considered at different ages, introducing science into primary schools had some predictable consequences. The curriculum was rather ad hoc. A focus on process rather than content might have been considered ‘good practice’ as I've suggested, but questions for investigation have to link to some genuine content when they are answered. For example, a primary science question such as ‘Can you make your plant grow sideways?’ or ‘What happens if you pinch the leaves off a young growing plant?’ might be more concerned with the practical activity itself but they lead, for that particular group of pupils, to some understanding of tropism in plants.

One other problem is that secondary schools receiving such pupils can't easily cope with the variety of experiences of their incoming pupils and therefore may tend to ignore scientific experience gained at primary school. Science teachers at the secondary school may therefore tend to ‘start again’. Alternatively, secondary teachers would complain that primary teachers had stolen the ‘best bits’ of the theatre of lower secondary science such as the ‘collapsing can’ demonstration of air pressure, so spoiling, from their point of view, some of the excitement and spectacle of lower secondary science lessons. Some 17 years after the publication of Science 5–13, in-service work with secondary teachers still tries to tackle the lack of progress by pupils in the first few years of secondary school. In part, such lack of progress is caused by a failure to recognise fully the now quite extensive and structured science understanding gained by pupils in primary school.

A further consequence of the rather rapid introduction of primary science was the frustration sometimes felt by both pupils and staff of their lack of adequate resources and the restricted science background knowledge of the teachers. Questions such as ‘What sort of home do woodlice like?’ implies some knowledge of different habitats to set up as appropriate choices. ‘What happens if you hold a magnet near a match?’ could be a rather disappointing question to investigate if something clear and unambiguous was expected. However, both questions require resources at least of a basic kind. The style of teaching in primary schools, where questions came from the pupils themselves, implied a ‘string and sealing wax’ approach to equipment. Not here the brass and mahogany apparatus ‘to prove Boyle's Law’ of secondary schools. Although science apparatus manufacturers have moved into the primary science market, most schools still conserve precious funding by using everyday items – only the more specialised items such as bulb and battery holders, compasses and magnets are purchased. Cut-down plastic pop bottles still provide the source of cheap containers. It might be argued that the lack of both laboratories and laboratory equipment is a positive bonus; it reveals that scientific phenomena happen all around us and are not something confined to special rooms with unusual equipment and strange smells.

A final point about the context in which primary science is now conducted is the influence on teaching and learning of a prescribed curriculum linked to an external assessment regime. This is particularly true of the education systems of the UK, but is a relevant point across many countries that have such a curriculum. Some of the former uncertainty over what to teach and when to teach it has been removed by a (rather rapid) succession of curriculum documents. Although some teachers and others complained (and still do) of over-detailed curriculum orders and of teachers no longer being professionals, but merely technicians who administer what others require them to ‘deliver’, some uncertainties have been removed. In particular, the minimum science knowledge and understanding required by teachers is a little clearer, and the knowledge–process split is, in some ways, better defined. However, as Peacock points out, a statutory curriculum that is backed up by testing defines more than just what science in primary schools is like and its relative importance in the curriculum. It also leads to pedagogic strategies that give good test results, often published as ‘performance indicators’ of a school's success. Naturally, teachers are guided by the test results as to what teaching activities lead to ‘good’ science learning.

Teachers, students and pupils have constructed their own critique of the science National Curriculum.… Policymakers need to realise that the participants mediating a codified curriculum topped with a layer of performance indicators will learn to play the game in ways that contradict the often good intentions.

(Nott and Wellington, 1999)

Activity 8

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

Look again at the spider diagram that you constructed in Activity 7, at the area showing ideas and memories about science learning from your primary school. This might have been the most difficult period to call to mind. However, reading this section, and thinking about such procedures as ‘fair tests’ might have jogged your memory. Add on to your diagram any further thoughts and ideas that have now occurred to you.

As a pupil in primary school in the early 1960s, I personally recall little practical work, but vividly remember the ‘nature table’. That carefully labelled mini-museum of my infant class with its large fir cone, abandoned bird's nest and long goose quill feather. In junior school I remember giving a talk about how a jet engine worked, taking many hours to construct my visual-aid diagram of the important parts of the machine from the family encyclopaedia. The cut-away drawings in that book had a certainty and clarity of ‘how things work’ that was very appealing. For me as a pupil, science was a collection of facts that one knew, like the order of the planets, and in that sense no different from memorising the sequence of the succession of kings and queens in history.

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