Developing Scientific Thinking
The essay title was chosen since developing scientific thinking is a key area of teaching in the primary classroom. The skills which are to be developed through scientific thinking are transferrable to many other areas of the curriculum, and many of the skills are central to real life experiences. The essay will discuss why the skills taught in SC1 are of importance. The aspects of SC1 which were taught were forming of hypothesis and relating conclusions to the hypothesis, selection of appropriate equipment, methods and measurements, fair testing and also analysing ways in which the investigation could be improved. The outcomes of these lessons were positive, with the children showing their ability to interact and produce their own questions which could be investigated. They selected appropriate equipment and methods with teacher guidance, and were able to formulate a hypothesis to test. The children were able to contribute ideas as to how to make the test fair, and were able to communicate their results in a scientific way, through graphs. The children were also able to recognise factors which affected the outcome of their experiment and suggest further improvements which could be made. In conclusion, the lesson showed that the methods used were a viable way of teaching SC1. It did however highlight several issues which would need to be accounted for in the future, such as group size; a larger group would require greater organisation, and would possibly require a different emphasis during the lessons to account for different knowledge levels and learning styles.
The main justification for the inclusion of investigations within the national curriculum is to develop the set of skills and processes within the children, with conceptual understanding of science being the secondary outcome to be achieved (Watson et al., 2000). The overall aim is for pupils to be developed into critical thinkers, through the development of various investigative skills. All pupils begin school with some limited skills already developed, but these are built upon throughout Key Stage 1 and 2 so that by the beginning of Key Stage 3 (DfES, 2007) all pupils ideally possess a diverse set of skills which will prepare them for the various subjects to be studied at this level, and will also assist them in many real life experiences, particularly as they reach a stage in their life at which they must be able to use skills to form their own opinions and decisions for the first time in their lives. The science curriculum is broken down into four components, and while the last three sections, SC2, 3 and 4, are heavily based on knowledge, SC1 is the component which deals with the development of scientific skills, and is central to each of the other components also.
Scientific Enquiry in the National Curriculum
Organisation of SC1: Enquiry
The SC1 portion of the science curriculum is mostly concerned with teaching pupils the mental processes and practical skills which are needed to think and work in a scientific way (Newton and Newton, 1998):
- Ideas and evidence
- Carrying out
- Interpreting and evaluating
- Recording and presenting data
Some of these skills are already possessed at a basic level when a child begins Key Stage 1, and will be developed throughout Key Stage 1 and 2 (DfES, 2007).
Other areas of science curriculum
There are three other areas of the science curriculum which are taught in parallel to SC1. SC2 is concerned with life processes and living things. This area of the curriculum teaches the pupil to be able to recognise, observe and describe a range of features of the human body, animals and plants. This area is also concerned with life processes, which pupils learn to recognise, describe and explain.
SC3 is the area of the curriculum in which materials and their properties are studied. In this component children are taught to be able to classify materials through various properties.
SC4 is the area of the curriculum which is concerned with physical processes, such as electricity and forces, in which children should be able to form comparisons, and learn to offer explanations as to why certain phenomena occur (National Curriculum in Action, n.d.).
It can be seen from the content of SC2-4 that the ideas and knowledge which is developed in SC1 is fundamental to the remaining three components of the curriculum. The ideas which SC1 teaches are required in order for the development of the other areas to occur. For example, in SC1 the ability to interpret and evaluate is developed, and this is a transferable skill which can be used in each of the other three strands. The ability to evaluate and interpret data is essential for pupils to be able to spot patterns between the life processes of living things and to use these to make evidence based predictions about the way that life processes work in other creatures which have not been specifically studied. This is only an example of one of the many ways in which there is an interdependent relationship between the four strands of primary science education; there are many other ways in which the development of skills in SC1 impacts on the ability of the pupil to develop in other areas of the curriculum.
Importance of SC1
SC1 is concerned with three main areas, which are experimentation, exploration and investigation (Newton and Newton, 1998, p. 77). These ideas are all closely related, and when used together form an effective method for introducing new ideas or concepts, or developing the level of understanding in current knowledge.
It has been found in previous studies that while numerous activities are offered in the classroom in which children are able to develop skills involving observations, planning and measurement, there are less opportunities available in which children get the chance to put forward ideas, hypothesise and interpret an investigation (Newton and Newton, 1998, p. 77). Goldsworthy (n.d.) also showed that there is a distinct unbalance in the skills which teachers at Key Stage 2 concentrate on in the classroom; it was shown that half of the teaching sampled concentrated on the ‘fair test’. While this is important, there are other skills which are more easily transferred to other areas that appear to be neglected in the classroom at the present time. For example pattern seeking and exploring were found to be dealt with rarely, and using and applying models not at all. This research assumes that the reason for this is due to previous teacher training, as some years ago the emphasis was very much on the fair test; however there have been many teachers come through training in recent years that would have had more up to date training, which should see this in remission, which has not happened. This suggests that there must be other factors which are affecting the areas which are taught in the classroom. For example it could be that the concepts which are most explored in the primary classroom are more abundant in other areas of the curriculum, or it could simply be that the teachers are more comfortable with certain aspects of the curriculum, so these are the areas which are concentrated on in lessons. It could also be that a lack of knowledge on behalf of some teachers leads to confusion between the fundamental concepts involved, such as thinking that experimentation and investigation is the same thing, which could lead to there being vital areas of development which are ignored. It could also be due to time pressures, since processes leading to investigations are often lengthy (Garson, 1988, p. 62).
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During science activities, discussion plays a critical role, since it is through discussion between pupil and teacher that questions are raised which can be investigated and explored; discussion also leads to effective development of communication techniques. Experience is also needed for the pupils to draw upon in order to identify questions (Newton and Newton, 1998, p. 79), therefore providing varied practical activities for pupils is also essential to development in science (Newton and Newton, 1998, p. 78).
Independent investigations are centred on the pupil being in control of the investigation, by setting their own questions in response to given information, and deciding the best approach to tackle the questions raised (Newton and Newton, 1998, p. 79). This skill is useful in may areas of the curriculum, since it instils the skills necessary for the pupil to conduct their own research into any area which they study, for example if the child were set a literacy task in which they had to find examples of a specific type of poem, they would use the same set of investigative skills as in science; they would assess the knowledge that they already have, identify the question to be answered, and then choose the most appropriate option to tackle the task at hand. These skills are invaluable in life, particularly in adulthood, since it is by these same investigation methods which we make many decisions, such as the decision as to which electricity supplier is the cheapest, or where you would be able to buy a new tyre for your car.
The skills which SC1 aims to develop are fundamental skills, exploration skills, direct experiment skills, and independent investigation skills. Fundamental skills which may be developed through science are the manipulation of materials, measuring skills and recording skills. These skills are fundamental not only to creating a sound scientific method of investigation and reporting for the pupils, but also to other areas of the curriculum. For instance the manipulation and measurement of materials is a skill which is particularly useful in technology lessons, such as cooking and craft; recording skills are important in any area in which information needs to be communicated effectively from the pupil to another person. It can also be seen that these skills are fundamental in life itself; measurement is a transferable skill which enables you to effectively plan and measure the time which you spend doing various tasks in life; recording skills allow a person to communicate information to anyone, not only their teacher; manipulation of materials can be an everyday occurrence, such as knowing how to make a cake.
When children begin school they can already use their five senses, and can therefore observe and communicate the things which occur around them. However this is usually on a very shallow level, and exploration skills need to be developed in order to enhance these observations, and enable the child to form explanations. These skills can be put to use in many areas of the school curriculum, for example in history, where rather than simply observe events that have happened in the past, exploration skills enable the pupil to delve further into the reasons behind the occurrences. This skill is particularly useful as a life skill, since without the ability to relate reason to an occurrence, it is not possible to alter events which might occur. For example it may be observed that it is slippery when out walking in the snow, which any child would be able to recognise. However with the ability to explore why this may be, and form an explanation as to the reason, it is then possible to explore ways in which the problem may be overcome.
How SC1 was used in teaching
Central to my approach on teaching of science enquiry is Vygotsky’s idea of ‘zone of proximal development’ that learning should be child-centred and based on activities that encourage the development of reflection through which they gain abstract understanding. Active learning rather than passive learning, collaborative learning rather than individualised learning and the integration of contextual process skills. I have observed lessons where it seemed that the learning objectives that the teacher had for the lesson were concerned with its factual content rather than with a concern to support children’s learning by involving them in the course of learning. As discussed in the beginning of this essay, while this may lead to the acquisition of knowledge through passive learning, it is unlikely that the children are able to develop the key skills outlined in SC1 through these methods.
When planning my science work with the children I considered the scientific enquiry skills to be explored in terms of those that I felt were important to develop and relevant to the topic. My learning outcomes included the following:
- Finding questions that could be investigated scientifically and
- Choosing how to achieve answers
- Able to explain a fair test based on predictions
I felt that these learning outcomes would lead to the development of analytical skills, since they centred on the pupils exploring their own ideas, and while they were based somewhat on the fair test, this was not the sole purpose of the lesson, simply a method by which children could be shown analytical skills.
I began the lesson by talking to the group about the aspect of scientific enquires and on what scientific skills they will be focusing during the lesson (see appendix 1). We talked about the steps they can make when carrying out a scientific investigation. I asked two children to stand together and the rest of the group in pairs to brainstorm any differences in the children that they observed, a process that required a dialogic discussion. After a couple of minutes I bought the group together, listened to their observations and recorded them on the interactive white board. A short extract below illustrate some of the discussion:
Andrew: Simon is taller than Leo.
Lianne: I bet Simon can run faster than Leo.
CT: Why do you think that? What are you basing your statement on? (Pause, no response) Can you explain why you think that?
Lianne: Because he has longer legs means he can cover more ground
CT: Does anyone else agree with Lianne’s ideas?
Andrew: No, I think it depends on how much energy you have.
CT: How could we find out whose idea (hypotheses) is true?
Andreas: Simon also has longer arms than Leo.
Andreas: I think he can throw a ball higher, because he has got a stronger arm.
CT: Why do you think someone with longer arms should have stronger arms than someone with shorter arms?
Andreas: Well, because he has more muscles.
CT: What could we do to find this out?
Through further questioning they were able to turn their ideas into questions that could be investigated (Carré and Ovens, 1994, p. 6). Here are a few of their suggestions.
- “Whether people with longer arms can throw balls higher?”
- “Whether people with longer legs can jump higher?”
- “Whether people with longer legs can run faster?”
On the interactive white board I wrote two questions, “What will I need to test my question?” and “Can we investigate with the resources available?” The pupils had a discussion as to what equipment they would use first. One question was modified to whether people with longer arms threw the furthest, since health and safety issues had to be accounted for. Prior to this lesson, the children had taken part in a PE lesson where they were introduced to foam javelin, and they decided they wanted to use these javelins instead of tennis balls to test their predictions. I wrapped up the discussion by reviewing the question with the group to check that it was well defined and focused, telling them they should think mainly about their predictions and where it fits into the cycle of their investigation and what other skills were connected to the process. The group worked collaboratively and divided the responsibilities among themselves.
“Science is thus a sociable activity by nature of the inherent need to communicate between scientist…From all background, cultures, countries and language to communicate” (Feasy, 1999)
In a subsequent lesson, the children followed their plan and recorded their results on a chart showing person in one column and length of throw in the second column. The group used their results chart to draw a graph to look for a pattern and discovered that their original hypothesis had not been correct. They drew their conclusion that the people with the longer arm did not necessarily throw the furthest.
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During the plenary I talked to the group about their investigation and asked them whether they were pleased with their results and the way they had collaborated. The children decided that the hardest part of the investigation was the controlling the variable; they recognized that in this instance there were environmental factors such s the wind which affected their experiment; they thought they should have tested the wind direction and speed to ensure it was accurate. They also thought that it was largely due to the technique employed to throw the javelin and how they were feeling on the day to how far you threw the javelin. From their data they agreed that although there was a pattern of those with the longest arms throwing the furthest this was not a concrete fact: “Miss, Simon threw further than you and you have longer arms than him”. The children were asked to suggest improvements which could have been made to the investigation to make it better, and they suggested one improvement could be to perform their investigation indoors.
I felt the interaction that went on whilst carrying out scientific investigations was beneficial to the children’s learning and enabled them to find out what they do and do not know. (See appendix 2) “Within…discussion students can be encouraged towards critical reflection, examining practice by articulating it…” (Loveless and Dore, 2002, p. 148). The children reported orally rather than writing a formal report about their investigation which gave them ownership of their work and it also gave me a chance to carry out some post assessment on their scientific knowledge. Socio-cultural theorist Vygotsky (1978) emphasised the importance of language use and social interaction within communities for the development of educated ways, of making sense of the world, such as those associated with science.
Evaluation of lesson
In the instance discussed here the children involved were part of a high achieving group; if the same work were to be undertaken with a whole class diverse backgrounds and learning styles would need to be accounted for, which means that there would need to have been greater organization, and possibly longer allowed for the lessons to account for a longer learning process to take place.
‘Motives for learning must be kept from going passive … they must be based as much as possible upon the arousal of interest in what there is to be learned, and they must be kept broad and diverse in expression’. (Bruner, P. 80)
I have taught quite a few hands-on activities in both my placements schools and I find the children are interested and motivated in doing these activities. I feel they enjoyed the open-endedness of their task and the idea that they can do investigations themselves. This was reflected in the reaction of the children to the lesson discussed above: “The more you work on our investigation, the more you find out. It made me realize how I have to sometimes change my opinion”. I feel the children did have an understanding of how to find questions which could be investigated, and also had knowledge of how to develop a hypotheses and present a fair test. Duggan and Gott (2002) indicate that those who can apply their learning in a novel situation are likely to be more creative. “Creativity in science needs to be fostered with more emphasis placed on developing understanding”. I also felt that in the lesson there were added benefits to the hands on approach in behaviour management, since none of the children presented problems with behaviour during the sessions. This is possibly because they were all actively involved in the process, which allowed no time for lack of interest by ant child.
Implications for future teaching of science enquiry
The results of the session were very positive overall. The way in which the children reacted showed that they already had some previous knowledge of the skills which were approached, and this must be taken account of in future lesson planning. For instance if teaching a group which has less previous knowledge more time would need to be devoted to discussing the issues such as the fair test idea in the first session. Children may also need more time to develop their own ideas if this is something they have little previous experience of doing in the science situation. Another issue which must also be accounted for in the future is the size of the group which is being taught. For instance in this example the small group size not only meant that the children were all of the same ability, but also enabled interaction between the entire group easily. If there were a whole class involved in the activity, certain aspects, such as the brainstorming may be less successful, since it would be much harder to engage every member of a large group. This suggests that activities such as this would be better performed in small groups; for instance if the class were to be broken into smaller groups, each could be given ownership of a particular area to discuss.
The way in which the science curriculum is divided into four components does not mean that each of these components should be taught in isolation. The first of these components is arguably the most important, since it is the one which is based on the idea of teaching skills rather than knowledge, and this unit is fundamental to teaching each of the other three. The fact that Science Enquiry is aimed at developing investigative and exploration skills suggests that practical sessions are fundamental to the lessons. From my own experience I have found that children react very well to practical sessions, and show capability of developing their skills through interaction. The success of these sessions also suggests that the format would be very useful in other areas of the curriculum, such as topic work, where they could be used to demonstrate to pupils that the skills which they are learning are applicable to many other areas outside of science. It also encourages greater development of skills that will be essential to pupils in many real life experiences.
Carré, C. and Ovens, C. (1994) Science 7-11: Developing Primary Teaching Skills. New York: Routledge.
DfES (2007) Science at Key Stages 1 and 2. [Online] Available from: http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk:80/schemes2/science/teaching?view=get. [Accessed 2nd May 2007].
Duggan, S. and Gott, R. (2002) What sort of science education do we really need?, International Journal of Science Education, 24 (7), pp. 661-679.
Feasy (1999) Primary Science Literature, Hatfield: ASE
Garson, Y (1988) Science in the Primary School, London: Routledge.
Goldsworthy, A. (n.d.) Acquiring Scientific Skills. THIS IS IN THE NOTES, I DO NOT KNOW WHAT BOOK.
Loveless, A. and Dore, B. (2002) ICT in the Primary School, Buckingham: Open University Press.
National Curriculum in Action (n.d.) QCA [Online]. Available from: http://www.ncaction.org.uk/subjects/science/index.htm. [Accessed 3rd May 2007].
Newton, D.P and Newton, L.D. (1998) Coordinating Science Across the Primary School. London: Falmer Press.
Watson, R., Goldsworthy, A. and Wood-Robinson, V. (2000) SC1: Beyond the Fair Test, in Issues in Science Teaching, London: Routledge Falmer, pp. 70-74.
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