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23/12/2014

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Primary science education

Amy Strange has changed her mind.

Amy Strange has changed her mind.

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As a research scientist turned primary school teacher, I have predictably strong opinions on the place of science in primary school. But I’ve been surprised to see how my view on science education has evolved over the last 12 months of training.

I have been shocked to see how little priority science is given in primary schools. The balance of teaching time, right from the early years, is heavily skewed towards literacy and numeracy while science feels, at best, a poor cousin. During a recent parents’ evening, not one parent asked how their child was doing in science.

National drop

Perhaps we should be worried by this shortfall: in international rankings of science at primary, published last year, the UK dropped from seventh to fifteenth out of fifty countries. The Department for Education blamed this on ill-equipped teachers, but it seems the scrapping in 2010 of national testing of science for year 6 pupils (11 year olds), could also be responsible.

It is obvious that teaching literacy and numeracy should be, and is, of key importance. However, I feel that equipping children with the skills to become scientifically literate citizens of the future is an equally valid goal. But I no longer believe that upping the status of science lessons in primary school to rival literacy and numeracy is the only, or necessarily the best, answer.

Enquiry-based education

Science is not just about knowledge, to be accumulated during science lessons. At its best science involves thinking, reasoning, hypothesizing, testing and rethinking: discovering and understanding the world around you. These are skills that babies are born with, and children are masters at. Their innate curiosity needs to be nurtured and developed into scientific thinking that can be woven into all subjects, and should not remain the preserve of a science lesson.

I think primary aged children will begin to develop as scientists through widespread enquiry-based education, by having opportunity to question, play, explore, construct, talk and discover, to challenge and explore their environment.

Happily this is something I did witness, daily, in schools. It is particularly obvious in the early years, where emphasis is placed on child-centered play and exploration, but even the oldest primary age children thrive on open-ended tasks and opportunities to think and reason, indeed it was invigorating to see such thinking across the curriculum.

Secondary learning

However, once these skills have been developed, I think that there needs to be emphasis on evidence-based learning, at the heart of secondary school science.

The measles outbreak in Wales earlier this year demonstrated the importance of a scientifically literate population. Parents were led by disproportionate media interest, and decided not to vaccinate their children, based on badly reported, over-stated claims. This shows the need to teach the skills required for assessing evidence, so opinions can be based on sound science rather than gut reaction or media hype. The need to develop these skills is equally important in issues such as energy supply, cloning and food technology, where wanting to know why isn’t enough.

So although as a unique discipline science is arguably scant at primary, it is reassuring that the skills required for scientific thinking are infiltrating from the earliest stages, but these need to be further developed and honed from enquiry to evidence based thinking.

I no longer think it matters that parents aren’t concerned about how their primary aged child is performing in ‘science’, as long as they care whether their child is asking questions, is interested in and wants to discover more about the world around them. As a teacher, I know we can foster this every day, in every lesson.

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Dr Amy Strange
Dr Amy Strange is training to be a primary school teacher. She was until recently a post-doctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford.
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Frank Wilson's picture

The Primary Science Education is of utmost importance for young kids to enhance their knowledge and learning curiosity in the broad field of science.
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