Primary science as an enquiry

I’ve been science leader at our school for the past five years, as well as DT leader and Eco leader too. Thankfully now, it’s just science.

 Science is a special subject. It has to be active. The minute it starts to become passive and the worksheets come out, it’s dead.  As a teacher, I feel I should also know quite a bit about what I want the children to learn; I need to know my subject! The trouble is that in the whirl wind of generalist teaching, where the teacher teaches everything, it’s almost impossible to have complete subject knowledge in all the areas you are expected to teach.  What you tend to have across primary schools is pockets of expertise in different areas. And what we had a little too much of in the 1970s was some teachers simply avoiding teaching those subject they were deficient in. While I have much to criticise the 1988 curriculum for (don’t get me started) at least it put an end to some of that arbitrariness.

 My answer then to the subject knowledge question in science is simply this: read up on it before hand! It’s just not good enough to think the children will mess about for a while with the things I put on the table and science will happen. We need to have a clear understanding of what the children should know at the end, but also where that will lead them in science later. For example, if I’m doing sorting and comparing different materials with Year 2, I have in the back of my mind the latent interest in chemistry this lesson might be the spark for in my children. I tell them it’s chemistry too and roughly what chemistry is and how we use it. 

Together with this, I make sure that most science lessons begin with a problem or a big question. We have to think of the children as investigators and not buckets that we’ll fill up with science. If you think about all the famous scientific discoveries, most of those scientists were fiddling around trying to find an answer for something. It’s likely they weren’t reading a text book or listening to some dusty old teacher like me imparting facts to them.

Let’s say we’re doing a Rocks and Soils topic (Geology) where the children need to learn about different types of soil. So I start with a problem and I usually present that as a scenario.For example, Mr Jones wakes up after a rainy night. He looks out the back window and his garden is flooded with puddles everywhere, it’s the same with the front garden too. However, after breakfast he notices that the puddles in the front garden have gone, but the puddles in the back garden are still there. ‘Why is that?’ wonders Mr Jones. Then I let the children come up with all their ideas about what it could be. You also get to understand what kind of misconceptions they have. I’ll then show them a range of bags full of different types of soil, some filter paper and any other equipment they might need. Then I’ll ask them what question we’re trying to ask. Having an enquiry question forms the basis of a good investigation. Then I’ll ask them what we could do to answer Mr Jones’ question. I’m always amazed at how ingenious and clever children are. They are natural scientists. I’ll model doing a little test myself and get it all wrong by using more water for one soil and they’ll all shriek at me for not being fair, and I’ll feel relief that at last they’re getting the idea of being methodical and applying that fair test principle. 

Then I’ll set them off. They’ll be water and soil swishing all over the place. They’ll be some disasters here and there, sometimes a complete restart will be needed (welcome to the real world of science) but off they go, finding an answer to Mr Jones’ question. 

When we finish we’ll go over what we found out, compare different results and then I’ll teach them about the different soils, absorption and permeability. For a bit of fun at the end we could even have Mr Jones coming in and the children explaining to him what was happening in his garden. 

So I hope this idea of pulling the children towards answering questions about the world has made sense here. A harder thing to do is to get them to spot things around them and ask questions themselves, without all this staging, but that’s about practice and good modelling from the adults around them. Most of the time, we adults go about the world never looking up. I am that parent who once asked my son to stop asking questions so I could think straight. He’s OK now, I promise. Nevertheless, that kind of wonder from a questioning mind is the easiest to knock out of children and the hardest to put back in! As teachers we must hone this and be in wonder of the world too. Keep the wonder alive!

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One thought on “Primary science as an enquiry

  1. Amanda

    Great blog – thanks for sharing. I totally agree with your comments about the need to place higher importance on developing children’s investigative skills. Children’s natural curiosity should make Science one of the highlights of their week but too often anxiety about formal recording and calm classrooms stifles this. I love your example of beginning with a question. I have used puppets and stories with problems to solve in the past and its clearly time to get these out again! I look forward to you next post!

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