Science – how I think it should be.

If you have been keeping up to date with my weird life series on my personal blog, you will be aware that my brain is quite unique – I was going to say at times, but I think that should probably read all the time! This morning my brain is being rebellious! It has just written the script for my live show on Monday (20:00 on Youtube – plug plug) and it has decided to go into distraction mode! I’m trying to tame it with some caffeine but I would just like to establish a disclaimer now so, if this is your first waffle of mine you have read, please be reassured that the content is usually better…no comment please from you regulars! Anyway – I wanted to waffle about science this week and what my views are about the curriculum and how it should be taught.


This week I’ve been enjoying the science presentations from our second years and it has allowed me not only to listen to their own personal philosophies about their experiences of how science is taught in school but to also think critically about my own views about this. What I present here is just off the top of my head thinking – it will not be supported with academic research and might even appear to be far removed from what you think I should be saying. This isn’t going to change how I teach science in sessions but it might give you something to think about and maybe even engage in the subsequent discussion in the comments, whether you be a student, teacher or scientist.

  • Is it really a core subject… – Along with English and mathematics, science forms one of the three core subjects of the curriculum. It is, and has been for some time, a core subject, despite some practitioners still referring to it as a non core area of study. When the amount of time spent on science within the week is examined, it seriously falls short of the amount of time that English and mathematics receives. Many schools justify this by implementing science weeks or extra specialist days to support the teaching of science. These are, in my humble opinion, fantastic – but do these really equate the time or even the priority of science to the other core subjects. Indeed, English and mathematics are integral to many of the other subjects within the primary curriculum which, through the application of skills learnt in subject specific lessons, increases the time spent on these subjects. Science does have a similar cross discipline approach, especially when related to skills, but this still does not really make the input or engagement equal to the other core subjects. Part of being a core subject means that it is a subject which is formally assessed. I remember the KS1 and KS2 SATs in science and was very pleased when these were removed, due to the factual nature of science that they tested. The negative of the removal of these SATs did mean that the presence of science within the curriculum was further reduced. Now, don’t take the next statement as a reflection of how important I think science is, since I do not rate the importance of a subject by whether it has core status or not. I currently think that it may be beneficial for science to lose its core status. ((I’ll pause here for various gasps of shock and horror)). My thinking behind this is quite simplistic and I’m sure science expert will probably ignite me like a hydrogen filled balloon for saying this. First it will get rid of any formal testing of the subject – I’ll talk more about this in the next section, and second unless someone is going to ensure that it has the equal amount of time spent on it as at least mathematics, then I think it is actually already seen as a foundation subject within schools. (see previous comment about importance and core subjects). You might want to leave this waffle now – but hang on – I haven’t said about the content yet!

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  • Skills or facts?… – I’ve never actually taught a pure year 6 class, although I did, for several years, teach year 5/6. In order to ensure consistency between my class and the ‘pure’ year 6 class, there were many things that were done as a year and one of these things was the provision of the year 6 science revision books. These were a commercially produced book which were given to the children at the start of the year. Although they did contain some information about working scientifically – e.g. key vocabulary and what I consider the most repeatable, and pointless, question in science – “Mary has not kept all the variables the same…is this a fair test?” – the content was mainly focused on facts. Facts, facts, facts. Yes they were accompanied by images and diagrams, but essentially they were facts. Now, being a scientist and mathematician, I enjoy facts, I actually like learning them, but this, for me, is not what either subject is about. Research is so important in science and it is through research that we have discovered or have challenged these facts. Science is not about learning facts, it is about developing skills which allow us to find and challenge these facts and this is what I think the science curriculum should be based on. Science, just the same as learning itself, is all about being curious…why does that happen? why is that that colour? how come that doesn’t happen every time? For me the science curriculum should be based on providing opportunities for these skills to be developed. Yes I know that this is reflected in the working scientifically strand of the document, but is it possible to remove all the content about facts and focus purely on investigations? Often I see children carrying out investigations which have been created to support the facts. If the investigation does not actually go ‘as planned’ this can actually lead to the children formulating or creating misconceptions within their existing schemas. If there was no ‘facts’ or specific content, save the investigation skills, then maybe the children would be able to investigate anything which appeals to them and also discover interesting outcomes. Knowing which colour jelly baby dissolves the fastest in some warm water is more ‘real’ for them rather than discussing the factors which impact on dissolving.

  • Topics or real life – Which brings me to my final point. I have a question for you. Don’t look it up, just think about it and decide on the answer – you can tell someone else before you read on, but don’t read on until you have answered the question…ready…I’ll be checking…ok – here is the question – how big is the planet Jupiter? ((STOP READING AND GIVE YOUR ANSWER)). Unless you are a space geek you probably didn’t know or gave an answer like – “very big”. I’m a science graduate, mathematician and general all round geek and my brain, even with caffeine, finds it very difficult if impossible to actually visualise or comprehend the size of the Jupiter. I understand the science how our body works and, having studied neurophysiology at university, about how the brain works, but the actual concept still amazes me to this day. I often feel that the content of the science curriculum has been design on the premise of what we think children should know at certain ages, rather than what they should be able to understand. If you look at Piaget’s cognitive development stages, most children will be thinking that science is magical for some or maybe all of their first key stage in primary school and why should we change this? I don’t think we should be teaching children the facts about classifications of animals – I want them to be down with the bugs, and watching them and telling me things that are the same or different about them. I know it is mathematics, but I once asked a child to group some shells using one criterion. After returning to him after leaving him to get on with it, I noticed the shells in two distinct groups. Looking at the groups I couldn’t see any recognisable criteria between them. When I asked him why he had grouped them it that way his answer was simple and prompt – these are the ones I saw at the beach at the weekend and these are the ones I didn’t see. Is this the incorrect classification of shells? or is it just a different way of classifying them. I wonder whether Darwin actually was told he was wrong by anyone? What I am trying to say within this section, is that I think the topics need to be looked at within the primary curriculum – especially the facts (see previous section). Some of the concepts are easy to teach in a didactic approach or via textbooks, but they are, in my humble opinion, too difficult for children to understand. In some instances, I don’t think even we, as adults, fully understand the concepts.

  • Remember what I said at the start of this waffle, these are just ideas I have been thinking about on my walks to and from work this week, and I haven’t fully ‘unpicked’ them at the moment. One of the great things about blogging is that you not only get to share your thoughts in this ‘raw format’ but you also get help in clarifying them as people reply and post comments about what you have said/written. I think science is very important for children to engage with. Science for me at primary school, should be about promoting curiosity, asking questions and seeking possible answers not learning order of planets or the acronym for all living things. We should be allowing the children the opportunities to engage with scientific skills and be about encouraging them to ask questions. Theory talks about questions (both teacher and child initiated) being at the heart of science learning and that questions should be handled not answered. I want to hear questions being asked by the children such as – how do the planets stay in space? why does an insect have six legs and why do I look similar/different to him/her? and, in response, I will be saying – “You know I don’t know – but maybe one day you will be able to find out and come back and tell me the answer.” You never know – by actually giving that response we might be inspiring the scientists of the future.

    I look forward to hearing your comments and ideas, please add them in the comments below or send them to me via Twitter(@iwilsonysj), Facebook, Google+ or email.

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