Bringing the Science Curriculum To Life

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Is it possible to be creative with the science curriculum whilst maintaining standards and preparing children for SATs? Are we, as educators, guilty of teaching to the facts for too long in primary classes? Sandra Clement, headteacher of West Down School, describes how they meet the challenge.

A creative curriculum

Successful schools, where pupils thrive in their learning, have a creative curriculum not bound by prescriptive provision. We have been encouraged to adapt learning within the context of our schools. However, there is always the pressure of maintaining standards and reaching targets.

As a newly qualiied teacher in a small rural school with mixed-year classes, I enjoyed investigative science. I was employed as a science specialist because of my background. I was a radiographer before embarking on a teaching career and so it was assumed that I knew a great deal about the subject. However, my previous training did not equip me for the primary science curriculum. I was enthusiastic and most pupils enjoyed my lessons in which I gave the children ownership of their investigations. I would pose a question and ask the pupils for a ‘shopping list’ of what they required for carrying out an investigation.

Standing back, watching and listening, and learning when not to intervene, was a huge learning curve for the children and me. I saw their frustration when things did not work out as they expected, and they blamed it on the equipment. ‘I don’t think this is working, Mrs Clement’ they would say when trying to make a simple circuit with a wire, a battery and a bulb. It was a special type of learning – hearing them asking questions, engaging in discussion, reviewing and looking forward.

When and why did it stop?

When I became a marker of Key Stage 2 SATs papers I was alerted to the way the questions were geared to learning facts. I prided myself on my fact sheets as a way of boosting Year 6. I taught my children how to answer questions with such advice as ‘If you see a George Clooney question worth two marks (an ER question), such as “The hotter the room the quicker the water will evaporate”, remember the two “ers”.’

Then the tests changed, the children needed to be able to interpret investigations. So was I guilty of not preparing them for this? Yes, I was. This was a wake-up call for me. It was then that I realised that the way I used to teach was the best way to develop enquiring minds. How many of us have not had this feeling? There is no doubt that the pressure of SATs results has stopped us being inventive.

How can we put this right?

Children are naturally inquisitive about how things work, and why things happen and enjoy asking ‘what if?’ questions. Teachers in Foundation and Key Stage 1 are to be applauded for the way they teach science. It should be through play, personal experience, previous learning and simple investigation, even though this is sometimes teacher led. Why then shouldn’t we, at Key Stage 2, build on the skills the children have learned? Surely this is what learning is all about.
I decided that my teaching of science should revert to what worked well in the past. We are lucky, being a rural school near the coast, that we can use our ideal local environment for learning. Using the outdoor environment for learning is paramount for our children: the less academic children thrive in this situation. I believe that this can be achieved in any school if we look for opportunities. For example, there are several new initiatives such as Eco Schools and Forest Schools that can be used to enhance learning.

What we do

Here are some ideas:  

  • Foundation and Years 1, 2 and 3 visit the local beach for pond dipping.   
  • Years 4, 5 and 6 visit the same venue to look at rocks and permeability.  
  • We Investigate decay in the compost heap – free to every school in many areas.  
  • We link science with art through making sculptures with metal bottle tops, cycle wheels and cans. This demonstrates rusting and the effect of weathering.  
  • We observe the suitable use of materials around the school building and their properties – an easy investigation in class.  
  • We combine science with technology – cooking demonstrates ‘reversible’ and ‘irreversible’.  
  • We make kites or paper planes. This can lead to the investigation of air resistance.  
  • We look at mechanisms by making vehicles and using them to investigate friction or, even better, we test the grip of the ever-changing fashion of trainers.

Why not take advantage of our great British weather? Use puddles to investigate evaporation; draw shadows in the playground and watch how their size changes during the day. If you have timetable constraints, children can investigate for themselves at playtime or at lunch break. These are just a few examples that we use to include personal experiences, build on learning and make science meaningful to pupils.

Our curriculum is topic based and therefore there is not always the need for a literacy hour. Writing in science
and maths provides the opportunity for descriptive writing, report, recount, instructions and, if you are really creative, poetry! However, we all recognise that asking boys, in particular, to record investigations on paper is a big ‘turn off’, so be creative with recording. The use of dictaphones or videoing during sessions proves very successful.

Constraints on learning

Health and safety issues are ever changing and have impaired the creativity of learning, as have schemes of work that are too prescriptive. Educators have felt restricted in their teaching: instead of taking risks alongside their pupils, which valuable learning is all about, we have played safe. Derek Bell, the chief executive of the Association for Science Education said: ‘Science is not just about fact. It’s about questions and gathering ideas. To get that understanding, investigative work is critical.’

Transition to secondary school

We have very close links with our feeder secondary school and take advantage of this. We invite a science teacher to work with our children and arrange a session before induction day with our Year 6 children to visit the secondary school. They are often better equipped with resources to put on a show for the children, which can lead to follow-up investigations.

The positive message

Children thrive on creativity, adapted learning and asking questions. We as educators should follow their example, learn and research with them. Creativity is the key to successful learning for both pupils and teachers. Cutting the ties that bind us, and not teaching to tests, will bring science alive again for our children. That is their right and our duty.

Sandra Clement was born in Coventry. After leaving school she qualified as a radiographer. Following her marriage she moved to North Devon and had her family of three boys. She re-trained and started teaching in 1992. In 2004 she was given the post of headteacher at West Down School. West Down is a small rural school in North Devon, near to the coast. There are currently 80 pupils on roll organised into three mixed-age classes. Sandra teaches Years 4, 5 and 6 for two days per week.

Taken from Primary Leadership Today Issue 8