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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Testing 'harming school science'
By Gary Eason
BBC News Online education staff

Boy with worm and magnifying glass
Report advocates more observation and experimentation
Teaching primary school children to pass tests is damaging their enthusiasm for science, researchers say.

And they say some science lessons are too hard even for the non-specialist teachers, let alone the young children.

The comments are made in a study for the Futurelab at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

Its report argues for a whole new approach to science teaching, with more experimentation and observation and less rote learning.

Non-specialists

It says complex explanations should be left until later, in secondary schooling.

The author, Colette Murphy, "strongly recommends that primary children should not be taught aspects of science that are too difficult for their teachers".

Dr Murphy says that, if not taught properly, children can enter secondary school more confused than if they had never been introduced to subjects in the first place.

In an interview, she said the crucial issue was that primary school science was rarely taught by specialists.

This problem was exacerbated if children were put off the subject, because they in turn did not go on to study it at university.

"Even some of the primary curriculum contains conceptual elements which are much better taught by people who have science degrees - and we are trying to get people who are non-science specialists to teach the stuff," she said.

Testing

"Little children ask very difficult questions, such as why is the sun hot? and why doesn't the heat run out? and what time does my shadow come out in the morning?

"So the teachers teach from text books and they teach them facts so they don't have to answer difficult questions - and unfortunately the tests are factually based."

Dr Murphy said that making science one of the subjects in the national curriculum tests - alongside English and maths - had raised its profile in schools. But this was a double-edged sword.

"The way they have taken it on board is teaching to the test and I think that's what has gone wrong."

The children are little parrots answering questions
Dr Colette Murphy
She is based in the graduate school of education at Queen's University in Northern Ireland, where secondary education is still selective - and many parents employ coaches to get their children through the 11-plus.

"So they are doing practice tests night after night and all day in school and quite frankly it's boring."

But a survey the researchers had done in England suggested that children's attitudes were even less positive - with tests at seven and 11 as well as at 14.

"The children are little parrots answering questions which are nearly the same every year."

One could train any class of 11 year olds to do all the questions - but they wouldn't know any science.

In her report, Dr Murphy says the problem of declining interest in school science between the ages of nine and 14 is international, with many reasons put forward to explain it.

Hopefully the development of information and communication technology would add to pupils' interest and motivation.

In a short report, just published, the Commons science and technology committee said the inspectorate in England, Ofsted, was concerned that some teachers were narrowing the curriculum during the last year of primary school to focus on revision for the "Sats" tests.

"Schools report that they feel pressured to focus on Sats to help pupils get good results; to ensure a good Ofsted report; and to get a good position in the school league tables," it said.

Confusion

Dr Murphy told BBC News Online she was heartened by the parliamentary interest.

"One of the things that really needs to be addressed is what is taught and how," she said.

Children needed to be enthused and taught to observe.

When more than 1,000 children were asked what they found hardest about science, many said the parts of a flower - it had too many parts and they had long names.

"Even biology graduates find it difficult to tell the difference between ovule and ovary," she said.

Learning the meanings of big words such as evaporation and condensation also caused problems.

"Instead, they could observe evaporation by doing little experiments to show you can speed it up using a hair dryer and time how long a puddle takes to dry up."

"Children say the best thing is doing experiments. If you awaken that interest they are receptive to learning."

The Department for Education said testing was vital in assessing children's progress, but not at the expense of enjoyment.

The most successful schools combined both enjoyment and excellence.




SEE ALSO:
Scientists to head for the classroom
23 Jul 02  |  Education
Science lessons 'tedious and dull'
11 Jul 02  |  Education
Action to boost science in schools
13 Jun 02  |  Education
Science lessons hit by staff shortage
03 Jan 02  |  Education


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