They found that on average, across all primary year groups, more than half of classes (58%) did not get two hours of science a week. Figures based on two surveys of teachers. Wellcome also identified a fear among teachers that children would ask a question they would not know the answer to, and a belief that science is messy, expensive, time-consuming. The study was published to mark the launch of Explorify, a new free digital resource for school science.
The history of science for children before the age of 11 has been a chequered one. Being old enough to have started at school in the 1950s, I don’t remember science apart from the occasional nature table. However, it was the age of chemistry sets and, receiving one for my 6th birthday, my bedroom was soon infiltrated by test-tube filled solutions of different colours. The brown stain from spilling some potassium permanganate on the mantelpiece was the end of that and I was banished to the shed. I did write an illustrated story of doing chemistry at home which was published in the school magazine.
Secondary, grammar school, meant an introduction to “real” science, with separate chemistry, physics and biology throughout. My early interest in all things scientific inevitably led to a spell as a lab assistant for a year before starting teacher training; again with science, but later changing to environmental education.
Primary science, by the early 1970s, had become a practical part of school life, and in the context of the integrated day, was facilitated as a group activity, with perhaps eight children working in this way, seeking solutions to challenges. The Nuffield Science 5-13 books provided both the hooks and the challenges, but also the necessary scientific background that was easily available to teachers. Local teacher centres also put on extended courses to support developing teachers. There was significant collective sharing of ideas and challenges.
This way of working continued, in my experiences in Hampshire, through to around 1997, when various strategies appeared, these included QCA guidance on teaching science. While I can accept that, in some authorities, science may not have been a strength, these QCA schemes were a form of recipe science, or science by numbers. As a headteacher, I was determined that we would never use the QCA schemes, as they would downgrade what we were offering.
Working with successive science coordinators and an inspector visit every two years to upskill the coordinator, we developed topic specifications as the basis for each area. Some now call such documents knowledge organisers, but ours were extended documents, with expectations beyond just the knowledge.
Space, time and resources are teacher variables to consider. Dealing with thirty children in a practical subject puts greater strain on each of these. As a result, it can be easier to ignore the practical and simply focus on the knowledge. However, what’s the point of the knowledge if it doesn’t have a use and application? Knowledge is not just to help a reader understand a text, as can sometimes be argued. Science knowledge “lives” when there’s a clear purpose, within the need to find solutions to defined challenges.
Reception children making umbrellas out of different fabrics to keep Dr Foster dry, or a roof for the three pigs house; year one working out how a pulley works to get the lighthouse keeper’s lunch to him; year two discovering whether all daisies have the same number of petals; year three finding out which surface a snail moves fastest on; year six exploring turbine or windmill design.
In all cases, the investigation might enable use and application of aspects of maths and all will allow quality talk, which might then be extended into the need to read or perhaps to record what has been done. In other words, science supports the core subjects.
From the early days of my roles in science education, including a secondment to the Assessment of Performance Unit, as a practical assessor, I have sought to make sense of the processes that underpin learning by children. As a result the central spine of the diagram below became central to thinking, seeking to deepen children’s involvement in their own thinking by scaffolding questioning and challenges.
Challenge. Let children think. Talk and offer coaching and guidance through interactions. Evaluate together. Learn from outcomes. It’s how a scientist might work.