Primary school science – highlights and pitfalls - Education Matters Magazine
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Primary school science – highlights and pitfalls

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Science is rarely given top priority on a primary school agenda, but as a nation, if we are to compete on an international level, we must engage more people with science, writes Danielle Spencer.

 Teaching our next generation is a privileged position and it could be argued that teachers generally enjoy their job, try their best and love working with children. Primary school teachers afford a special position as they work with such young learners. As generalists, primary school teachers must teach the breadth of the curriculum; from English to Art, from Science to Geography. Every primary school teacher I know often laments of just how to fit it all in a 25 hour week. Then take out the time for sports days, special event days, excursions or additional non-curricular activities. It is a difficult juggle. It is also difficult to be able to maintain the same level of enthusiasm for each subject area, let alone possess a depth of content knowledge for each curriculum area. Effective science teaching though can encompass many aspects of literacy and numeracy and this is where we should place an emphasis, on making these links between science and the real world. The decline of student’s interest in science as they progress through their schooling is well documented and this is worrying for Australia. If we don’t capture a child in their primary years and hook them on to science, it becomes increasingly difficult to develop an appreciation and interest in science and what science can offer – primary school science and primary school teachers hold the key.

The introduction of the Australian Curriculum (ACARA) has proven to be a double-edged sword to some. Although ensuring a national consistency in curriculum content and explicitly defining learning intent that students must achieve at given year levels, the national curriculum is content laden. Individual state education departments have developed curriculum documents in response to ACARA, however many of these too are overloaded. For beginning teachers and teachers not as comfortable with the teaching of science, to be able discriminately unpack these documents and make relevant curriculum decisions that address the needs of their specific learners can be tortuous. Additionally, many primary school teachers admit to having limited content knowledge themselves, especially in the fields of physics and chemistry, which makes curriculum decisions even more difficult. Consequently, their enthusiasm for the subject area wanes, their ease at which they communicate science with their class suffers and teachers develop a poor self-efficacy around teaching science. Given Hattie’s research1, that greatest influence on student performance and educational outcomes is the teacher, it is vital that we support our primary teachers in the teaching of science.

There are many barriers to effective science teaching in primary school but resourcing and the time to prepare resources would be amongst the top barriers for many primary teachers. The long list of consumables, such as baking soda, batteries or vinegar, must be replenished and primary teachers usually pay for these consumables out of their own pockets. Many schools have limited stocks of science equipment so teachers constantly make-do. Re-used cups become beakers, and plastic plates become petri dishes. Whilst primary teachers are typically highly resourceful and extraordinary recyclers, these practices de-value the importance of science and best practice is threatened. Unless science has been given priority on a school agenda, purchasing science equipment from a limited curriculum budget becomes problematic. Some primary schools, having developed positive relationships with their nearby high schools, are able to borrow scientific equipment but for many schools this is not possible. Then, once resourcing has been established, the primary school teacher does not have the luxury of a lab tech. Primary teachers must themselves prepare and organise equipment for group or individual work. Afterwards, they must find more time to pack up and clean everything. Science delivery in primary schools is financially burdensome and time consuming for teachers.

Inquiry-based science learning that gets dirty and untidy, where children direct their own learning, can also be tricky with young learners. Group negotiation and collaboration become necessary skills that teachers must explicitly teach. When you couple a difficult cohort of children, with a primary teacher who is not comfortable teaching science, inquiry learning in science suffers.

Science is rarely given top priority on a primary school agenda. Principals, themselves being pressured from above, are concerned with raising their performance in high-stakes National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing. The data gleaned from NAPLAN plays a huge driving force in school agenda. Literacy and numeracy become the school focus. Primary teachers, regularly involved in training and in-servicing around literacy and numeracy, often feel pressured to focus on these areas at the sake of other learning areas.

Consequently, science is often delivered with a strict time constraint or relegated to the afternoon sessions. Scientific literacy is often not given equal importance despite Australia’s need to raise scientifically literate students as well. The evidence from the 2012 National Assessment Program – Science Literacy (NAP-SL)2 highlights that just 51% of Australian students perform at or above the proficient standard of scientific literacy. For our indigenous students, the percentage of those performing at or above the proficient standard was just 20%. Students in rural or remote areas and those whose home language is not English also perform worse. Government and primary school administrators must address this concerning lack of scientific literacy in our young learners.

If, as a nation, we are to compete on an international level, we must engage more people with science. It is worrying that our primary students do not perform better on an international scale. Results from the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS)3 highlight that 29% of our Year 4 students achieved at or below the low international benchmark. Almost 1:3 children were unable to think scientifically. Carried out every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) surveys 15 year old students from 65 countries around the world in mathematical, scientific and reading literacy skills. Our international ranking in PISA in scientific literacy has not changed since 2006. Whilst we do perform well, there is a large variance in student performance.

Despite all the barriers to teaching science in primary school, and the apparent poor results in national and international testing, there are countless cases of wonderful practices, some incredible teachers of primary science and individual schools that do their utmost to prioritise science. You only need to review some of the winners of the Australian Prime Minister Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching to see exceptional and inspirational teachers of primary science. Winners such as Brian Schiller (2014) who creatively incorporates science across the curriculum (even to Japanese) and Cheryl Capra (2007) who developed an astronomy program at her local school and became a NASA partner school. There would be countless other, unrecognised teachers out there in our primary schools doing similar things just because they love science. These teachers encourage their young learners to participate in regional, state and national science competitions, like NATA’s Young Scientist of the Year Competition which has hundreds of entries each year. Schools hold events such as science fairs or science competitions to celebrate National Science Week. In the highly recommended CSIRO Visiting Scientist and Mathematician Program, schools are making partnerships with real-life scientists, engaging their students with science professionals and exposing their students to the possibilities of science careers. These cases need to be celebrated and shared so that more teachers and schools will attempt them.

The major advantage of teaching science to young learners in primary school is that it can be so much fun. Teaching science can be easy, as you can feed off a child’s innate sense of wonder and curiosity with their world. Most children want to make sense of their world and science activities that are relevant and linked with real-world activities are well accepted. There are endless possibilities to highlight science in action. Young children are typically not afraid to display their wonder at discovering new phenomena. The noise of discovery from a child is infectious for the teacher and provides an instant feedback of learning.

At Mitchelton State School in Queensland, science is slowly becoming embedded into our schooling fabric. Three years ago, SC@M or Science Club at Mitchie was established. From the first intake of just 22 students, current enrolment in SC@M is 62 students. SC@M is an extra-curricular weekly science club, where the emphasis is on learning science through play. The major aim of SC@M is to instil a love of scientific curiosity. The focus of each term differs, from Earth Sciences, Chemistry, and Physics to Biology. Student learning is facilitated through a range of experiences that involve students experimenting with various phenomena. It is loud, messy and an incredible amount of fun. Additional extra-curricular science clubs have been launched as well. SC@M in Space, Astronomy Club and a Robotics Club are both in their second year. SC@M in Space Astronomy Club was fortunate to have a long–standing relationship with a Visiting CSIRO Scientist. Students from Mitchelton State School have been awarded with prizes in the national 60 Second Science Contest and NATA’s Young Scientist of the Year competitions. Principal Maria Berriman has recognised the value of science and the value of up-skilling all teachers. With some twisting and intricate juggling of the budget bucket, she has restructured staffing to include a Science Coach position one day each week. The Science Coach’s role includes working collaboratively with teachers and assisting teachers to develop capacity in their teaching of science. Mitchelton State School aims to encourage all students to engage in scientific pursuits and established the “Young Scientist of the Year Award” in 2014. This perpetual trophy is awarded to a child who may not necessarily be a top academic performer in science, but rather a child who embodies a love of science and science learning. The inaugural Young Scientist of the Year had been a member of SC@M since its inception, as well as both the Astronomy and Robotics Club, entered any science competition she could and was an avid and involved learner in class. It is children just like this that we need to foster through primary science.

In commenting on hopes for the future for science education in primary schools, we must hope that science is given priority, not just on an individual school agenda but also on a national agenda. The budget bucket is not endless and unless science is viewed as equal priority in primary schools it can be overlooked. Financial assistance to resource science effectively is necessary. These resources include both physical and human aspects. To deliver quality and effective science, primary teachers need the equipment and the knowledge to do so. I was fortunate enough to be part of the Australian Science Teachers Association (ASTA) Science Teachers Exchange to Japan in 2014, an experience that was a career highlight and one that I could not recommend highly enough. Japan, one of the highest performing nations in PISA, places a great importance upon learning science in primary schools. Primary schools we visited had an enviable well-stocked science room. Students from Grade 3 and above are taught three hours of science each week. Teachers are well supported to develop an understanding of science process and science content. Graduate teachers are supported in their beginning year through a senior mentor teacher. Principals are highly involved in science training with their teachers and provide significant support through workshops and feedback. There are lessons there for us here in Australia. We need to support our teachers. Primary school teachers do amazing things every day yet there is a limit of what we can achieve in isolation and when unsupported. Primary school science is so rewarding. Unfortunately this view is not held by every primary teacher due to weighty constraints. Imagine the endless possibilities, if only science and primary teachers were given endless support.

References

  1. J Hattie 2003, ‘Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence?’ paper presented to Australian Council for Educational Research Annual Conference, Melbourne, 19–21 October.
  1. Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2013, ‘National Assessment Program – Science Literacy Year 6 Report 2012.’
  1. S Thomson, K Hillman, N Wernett, M Schmid, S Buckley & A Munene. 2011. ‘Highlights from TIMSS & PIRLS 2011 from Australia’s perspective.’
  1. S Thomson, L De Bortoli, S Buckley. 2012. ‘PISA in Brief, Highlights from the full Australian report: PISA 2012: How Australia Measure up. The PISA 2012 assessment of students’ mathematical, scientific and reading literacy.’

Danielle Spencer is a passionate primary school teacher, currently in her eleventh year of teaching. With a long and extensive background in paediatric nursing, Danielle particularly enjoys teaching science and discovering the world again through a child’s eyes. Danielle upholds inquiry-based learning as best practice and she aims to promote the discipline of science within her school community. After completing a Graduate Certificate in Primary Science in 2011, Danielle established an extra-curricular science club at Mitchelton State School. She currently coordinates the three extra-curricular science clubs at Mitchelton, SC@M (Science Club at Mitchie), SC@M in Space Astronomy Club and Robotics Club. Danielle also currently acts as Science Coach at Mitchelton State School.

Danielle has been an author for online science journal Australian Science where she has written on various aspects of science pedagogy in primary schools. She has delivered regional conference sessions and been involved in facilitating state-wide training on science literacy and pedagogy. In recognition of her dedication to primary school science and her innovative work practices, Danielle was awarded a Peter Doherty Outstanding Teacher of Science Award in 2013.

Australian Science Teachers Association

Founded in 1951, the Australian Science Teachers Association is the federation of Science Teachers Associations from all Australian states and territories. It is the national professional association for teachers of science and a powerful voice influencing policy and practice in science education. Please visit www.asta.edu.au for more information.