Understanding the Effective Primary Science Learning

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In my experience the enthusiasm and appetite for learning of children in their primary years is unrivalled which makes primary teaching a truly fulfilling and rewarding experience. However, high-quality teaching and well thought-out curriculum development in these early years is crucial to children's success. With references to my own experiences and through a critical analysis of the available literature, this paper will discuss how potential curriculum development will enhance effective primary teaching with a specific focus on the subject of science. It will also discuss some of the difficulties in translating these concepts into practice and consider ways to overcome these obstacles.

Improving a young persons' understanding of science is central to the government's commitment to encourage more children to study science. A good science education is not only important for scientific literacy later in life but by continuing to study science throughout school, pupils open themselves up to a world of possibilities (Teachernet, 2009:1). This commitment was initially exemplified through the introduction of a National Curriculum in 1989 which asserted that compulsory science education be brought into the primary sectors in England and Wales for the first time. Science was placed alongside English and Mathematics in what became known as 'the core' (Sharp, J et al. 2009:247).

However, from the outset, it became clear that many schools had difficulties in delivering the National Curriculum effectively. The curriculum was viewed as too prescriptive and overloaded and hindered teachers' ability to be creative and give adequate attention to the needs of children with learning difficulties. Assessment procedures were also problematic with a number of teachers objecting to the National Curriculum tests (DCSF, 2009:28).

To rectify the problems associated with the National Curriculum there have been several revisions and reviews of it since its initial implementation. For example, Sir Jim Rose (Alexander and Flutter, 2009:3) was invited to undertake an 'Independent review of the primary curriculum' with a view to making some recommendations which will inform the new primary curriculum to be introduced from September 2011. Indeed, a number of authors have proffered suggestions for curriculum development, the relative merits of which will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

According to the Rose Review (DCSF, 2009:9) the curriculum that primary children are taught must allow them to enjoy childhood and develop the essential skills and knowledge which are the foundations for secondary education and later life. To achieve this, the new curriculum must be informed by an understanding of the interlocking ways in which children learn - physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially, and spiritually between the ages of 5 and 11. In addition, a well-planned, dynamic curriculum acknowledges that primary children "love to be challenged and engaged in practical activities; and they readily empathise with others through working together and through experiences in arts, literature, religious education and much else. Primary children must not only learn what to study, they must also learn how to study, and thus become confident, self-disciplined individuals".

Although the subject of science (and most other subjects) has previously been content-driven, in view of the above paragraph it is perhaps not surprising that recent curriculum developments seem to be encompassing a more holistic approach balancing 'content' with 'process' and focusing on skills development as well as the acquisition of knowledge. This recent development is likely to have been influenced by teachers concern that because the existing curriculum has so much prescribed content they do not have time to teach it in depth, or for children to consolidate their learning. Consequently, a central requirement of this review is to reduce overload by "reviewing the current programmes of study so that schools have greater flexibility to meet pupils' individual needs and build on their prior learning" (DCSF, 2009:10).

A greater focus on 'process' enables children to become more involved in hands-on activity and practical work and encourages children to explore their own and others' ideas. Concept mapping, group work, using computer programs, role play, field work and writing are also important vehicles for helping children develop their own ideas (Wynne, 1999:14).

Indeed, encouraging genuine collaborative group activity is important to achieving the kind of interchange that encourages ideas (Barnes, 1976, cited in Wynne, 1999:58). According to Barnes (1976:31) "Talk and writing provide means by which children are able to reflect upon the bases upon which they are interpreting reality and thereby change them". Henderson (1994, cited in Wynne, 1999:58) has suggested several strategies for promoting group collaboration and class discussion, including: groups researching a topic and presenting their findings; groups planning an investigation and sharing their ideas.

Another recommendation made by the Rose Review (DCSF, 2009:46) can enable greater flexibility for teachers, increase enjoyment and improve learning development for pupils. According to Ofsted and the QCA report (DCSF, 2009:12) some of the most effective learning occurs when connections are made between subjects. This is supported by Millar and Osborne (1998, cited in Sharp and Grace, 2004:313) who assert that astronomy for example, can provide the 'explanatory stories' that incorporate whole sets of science-related as well as contemporary and historical case studies, and these stories provide a cross-curricular tool for making those concepts more memorable.

A small rural Shropshire primary school is a specific example of successful cross-curricular activity in schools. In this school the environment was frequently used for a wide range of outdoor pursuits, such as field studies of habitats, forestry management, and the landscape which brought together elements of geography, science and history (DCSF, 2009:42). My school too uses the outdoors creatively for growing and studying plants and this has proved to be a very enjoyable and successful learning experience for pupils. Cassop Primary School (DCSF, 2009:48) is also an excellent example of a school which has been able to combine subjects to the enjoyment and progress of pupils and contribute significantly to the environment. The school is the first wind-powered school in the UK and its environmental programme has helped to enhance learning in science and technology and environmental understanding so that "pupils are able to explain clearly the science underpinning the technology, while as a focus for learning they develop skills in enquiry, reasoning and creativity". This enables children to establish good attitudes to learning (DCSF, 2009:49) and facilitates the ability to learn not only what to study, but also how to study as part of a rewarding process.

Another recommendation is to use play in a productive and meaningful way to enhance children's knowledge of science. The Rose review received many requests from parents to provide more opportunities for exploratory, well-structured play. Based on strong evidence, the interim report highlighted the importance of learning through play for young children and proffered that the purposes of play in promoting learning should be made explicit and opportunities made to fulfil them in the primary curriculum (DCSF, 2009:93).

It is important to note that these strategies are unlikely to be implemented effectively without the full involvement of parents themselves. The Rose Review (DCSF, 2009:17) asserts that children thrive best when parenting, the curriculum and pedagogy are all of high quality and has observed a number of examples of teachers and parents partaking in informal discussion about children.

The Cambridge Review (Alexander and Flutter, 2009:20) also recommends that children themselves should have a say in curriculum design and planning. Lambeth Children and Young People's Services suggested that the curriculum needs to encourage a more meaningful and relevant curriculum, including our understanding of how children learn, and asking for their perspective and input in design. Gilbert et al. (1982, cited in Sharp and Grace, 2004:313) support this view and assert that serious consideration should be devoted to understanding children's interest and motivation in the different content areas of science.

So far, this assignment has explored some of the strategies recommended by government and their contribution to the learning and development of children through science. However, there are a number of obstacles within the education system which can stifle the transition from policy to practice and these will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

According to Roden (2000:31) ten years on from the implementation of the National Curriculum there does appear to have been some significant improvements. Children are achieving expected standards of science, as measured by performances on SAT's tests and teacher assessment at the end of Key Stage 2.

However, in 2009, England has a statutory National Curriculum for the primary phase with non-statutory elements, which combines three core subjects, two of which (mathematics and English) are subject to separate arrangements in pursuit of the 'standards' agenda and take up half of the available teaching time in structured lessons. The other seven statutory foundation subjects and three non-statutory foundation subjects are expected to be accommodated for during the other half of available teaching time (Alexander and Flutter, 2009:5, 6). In contrast to daily literacy and numeracy lessons talking half of the available teaching time, NAIGS estimated that time devoted to scientific study now equated to just 1.5 hours a week at Key Stages 1 and just 2 hours at KS2. This teaching tended to be limited to afternoon slots with little teaching support (Alexander and Flutter, 2009:30). Thus, although the increased focus on cross-curricular activities may allow teachers to spend more time on scientific pursuits within a tight timeframe, it can be very difficult to ensure that children are provided with a good balance of both 'process' and 'content' orientated work especially given the increased focus on SATs..

Indeed, Hollins and Whitby (1998, cited in Roden, 2000:34) point out that although 'process' and 'content' are supposed to be given equal weighting, recent statutory educational obligations have encouraged the use of didactic methods of teaching to the detriment of enquiry learning which reduces opportunities for children to extend their understanding. Assessment at Key Stage 1 and KS2 relies heavily on teacher assessment which holds equal status with marked Standards Attainment Tests (SATs). The focus within SATs requires recall of factual information which has led to 'teaching to the tests' (Roden, 2000:34) and I know I have been guilty of having done the same thing myself because children simply would not do well in tests otherwise.

Another concern is the lack of confidence that primary teachers often have in teaching scientific topics. In a national survey of 514 primary teachers in Scotland primary teachers were less confident about teaching science than about all other curriculum areas and felt that their own understanding was not sufficient enough to encourage conceptual development in pupils (Holroyd, 1996:323). Newton and Newton (2009:45), in their study of 16 final year students on a degree course leading to qualified teacher status in the UK also found that conceptions of school science lessons were narrow, focused on mainly practical investigations of matter of fact, and included misconceptions.

The analysis so far, has shown that although there are a number of potential curriculum developments which could contribute to the academic development of the child and enhance their enjoyment of learning, the limited amount of time allowed for teaching science, the pressure to achieve high standards in assessment tests, and the lack of confidence and knowledge of scientific subjects characterised by some teachers, can hinder the transition from policy to practice. Nevertheless, there are some strategies that can be implemented in order to begin to overcome the challenges encountered by primary science teachers and these will be explored in the following paragraphs.

According to Wilson et al. (2004:20) the notion that a more creative and challenging approach will result in greater achievement in SATs was the basis of an Oxford Brookes University project. It was felt that giving children opportunities to construct their own understanding would increase their enthusiasm for science and help them engage in the scientific process. This has clear resonance with 'Excellence and Enjoyment' (DfES, 2003:1) a strategy for primary schools which opens with the words: "Children learn better when they are excited and engaged….when there is joy in what they are doing, they learn to love learning".

The project involved 16 schools and two key teachers within each school. The key areas that the project focused on were: More focused recording by the children; increased time spent in discussion and debate of scientific ideas; more opportunities for practical investigation; and an increased emphasis on developing children's higher order thinking (Wilson et al. 2004:21). The more focused recording has released time in lessons for doing science and discussion of the big ideas which leads to further development of scientific knowledge and skills. In 'Challenges in primary science' (Coates and Wilson, 2003, cited in Wilson et al. 2004:21) a short 'bright ideas' slot into primary science lessons is suggested. Encouraging the children to 'think, pair and then share' for this slot encourages them to take time to think and improves depth to their answers.

As a result of the projects recommendations, 13 of the 16 schools showed a significant increase in the percentage of children achieving level 5. Nationally, the percentage of children attaining level 5 in 2003 increased by 3 per cent, but 11 of the participating schools showed an increase much greater than this (Wilson et al. 2004:21).

In conclusion, this assignment has critically assessed the available literature on potential curriculum development for the enhancement of children's learning in primary science. Recent reviews have recommended that primary science teaching be less content-led and more process-driven, promote the advantages of cross-curricular teaching and encourage greater flexibility in 'what' and 'how' science is taught. There are a number of examples to illustrate the effectiveness of these approaches in primary schools. However, there are also a number of difficulties associated with trying to practically implement these strategies in an educational environment whereby many teachers lack the confidence and skills to teach science effectively, which still allocates limited time for the teaching of science and puts pressure on teachers to ensure that pupils' perform well in content-driven assessment tests. The Oxford Brookes Project does suggest some ways for science teachers to think creatively in this relatively constricted environment and these have proved successful at developing the 'whole' child and improving academic attainment. However, such attempts are likely to remain piecemeal unless the status of science is raised to equal that of English and Mathematics; time is ring-fenced to provide enough opportunity for practical work; assessment tests place greater emphasis on assessment skills; and more training is made available for teachers to improve their scientific knowledge and confidence.