Teaching science in primary schools

I struggle to understand why science is very largely absent from primary school teaching. Why so many primary teachers either don’t like science or are scared of it or are otherwise reluctant to really accord it the importance it deserves in the NZC. ERO likewise has its concerns, as were made evident recently in its latest report on the state of science teaching. This report, and the two previous reports on science teaching dating back to 2004, suggests that it is not in good heart, with teachers lacking confidence in their ability to teach it effectively.

If we want our children to understand the world (why else would we send them to school?) then coming to understand science is critical. If we want our kids to be effective thinkers, is there any better way than having them actively engage with the concepts developed by scientists to help us understand, and to build, the world we live in? What is there not to like about learning about the world? Especially for we primary teachers who are so fond of telling everyone about the importance of life-long learning.

Well there is now a solution, ready and waiting, for all of you who agree that learning about the world through science is important but don’t know how to teach it well. There is a simple answer that will still do the job really well, that will still ensure that kids go into secondary education enthused about science, that will ensure that you can look ERO in the eye and tell them you have done a fine job of introducing them to science (and social science).

The solution is ... read to them. Not just anything, (although I think that reading to students has slipped somewhat, which is a pity as there is something personal and powerful about the experience), but stories about the concepts of science. And not just any story, but stories from Richard Dawkins’ new book specifically written to make the basic concepts of science comprehensible to kids: ‘The Magic of Reality’. Read one chapter a term from Year 4 onwards. By the time they get to the end of Year 8 they will have a much clearer idea of how the world works and will be busting their guts to get into more detailed examination of concepts through decent experimentation.

Here is an extract from a review of the book by Tim Radford of the Guardian:

“A brilliant introduction to science for children ... as Richard Dawkins confirms again and again in this book – his first for ‘a family audience’ – science composes stories as thrilling as Homer, as profound as Job, and as entertaining as anything by Kipling.

And – in a relatively short book, prodigiously illustrated and beautifully designed – he covers a lot of ground by addressing a series of pleasingly simple questions. Who was the first person? Why are there so many kinds of animals? Why do we have night and day, winter and summer? What is an earthquake? And so on. The answers take us from DNA to the Doppler effect, from hydrogen to hibernation, from rainbows to redshift, from tsunami to tectonic shifts, from perihelion to parallax, from sod's law to shooting stars. Like many science writers before him, he starts with the myths once composed to explain the sun and the moon, or the animals, or the first humans, or the seasons, or the shaking earth: by the close of the book he has mildly placed the Aboriginal, Nordic, Hopi, Greek, Maori, Hebrew and Christian traditions as equally primitive, equally interesting and equally unsatisfactory explanations of reality.

This fabulous context drives the direction of the text, towards all those old questions that children must always have asked. I cannot think of a better, or simpler, introduction to science as a good idea: simpler, because the starting point is the world's palpable, experienced reality rather than say formal subjects such as genetics, wave mechanics or astrophysics; better, because it could hardly be more up-to-date. At the time of the book's writing (January 2011) ‘484 planets have been detected … orbiting 408 stars. There will surely be more by the time you read this.’

Dave McKean's illustrations play wittily on already half-familiar images from Hollywood biblical epics, Pink Panther movies, film noir, science-fiction covers, cartoons, paintings, icons, hieroglyphs and formal scientific graphics. There is an extended homily for the young would-be rationalist, on probability and how to evaluate reports of miracles such as the apparition of the virgin at Fatima. This sustained emphasis on myth and fable is intended to provoke, and does…

The intended lesson of Dawkins's book is that science tells a marvellous set of experimentally testable stories. The less direct lesson may be that we cannot stop telling ourselves fables, but at least we should learn to tell the difference.”

I believe there is no better way to cover ALL of the science curriculum than ensuring your kids access this book. Read it to them, and then relax knowing you have done your bit to help your students know about their world.

Oh, and then do some experimentation with them - just to get them actively exploring the world for themselves.

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Tags: curriculum

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