Mouldy cheese and minibeasts: tips for teaching science in primary schools
Research from the Wellcome Trust shows that science is losing out to other subjects at primary level. So what can teachers do to bring it into the classroom?
Scientific investigation develops flexible thinking and problem-solving abilities, alongside more obvious science-specific skills and knowledge. Yet science is taught relatively little in UK primary schools (typically for one hour and 24 minutes a week compared with an international average of two hours a week for OECD countries).
It also receives much less attention than English and maths. According to new research from the Wellcome Trust, part of the reason is that its perceived importance is comparatively low: more than eight in 10 teachers say that maths (84%) and English (83%) are “very important” to the senior leadership team of their school, compared to just three in ten (30%) when it comes to science. In addition, it may have something to do with the fact that schools are not held to account for science provision in the same way as they are for English and maths.
Classroom teachers have a lot of freedom to teach investigative science frequently and creatively, and some do so beautifully. However, in general, there is not enough help for teachers in this area, with just under a third of primary school teachers saying they had no support for science in the past year, and a quarter saying they were concerned they might not be able to answer pupils’ science questions. So what can teachers do to increase the focus on science at primary level?
Don’t get hung up on what you don’t know
Science is often seen as content-heavy, and reliant on the understanding of complex ideas. It’s not surprising, then, that some teachers lack confidence in teaching some aspects of science, including enquiry.
But you don’t need a science degree to be a brilliant primary science teacher– it’s about finding ways to engage pupils with the heart of the subject: curiosity, observation and discovery. At the Wellcome Trust, one of the ways we want to help teachers to do this is through our Explorify platform, which offers activities to spark pupils’ curiosity and develop their thinking skills.
In general, teachers should look for activities that are inclusive and discursive, using conversation starters to spark curiosity. Crucially, it’s not about anyone (including the teacher) knowing the “right answers”.
Ask your class questions
Simple “What if?” activities are a brilliant way to inject creative thinking into lessons with minimal preparation. We spoke to a teacher who asked her class what would happen if plants could talk and was amazed that one child wondered whether plants would have their own language or pick it up from their surroundings – meaning forest trees might talk like a bird and playground trees might talk like children. The exercise brought out some fantastic imaginative ideas.
Not being frightened to ask big questions – such as “Does colour affect how we taste food?” – is important and helps to prompt interesting discussions. This type of approach is also a great way to develop literacy; think of all the fantastic vocabulary around taste and colour.
Ask yourself what your pupils already know, and how the class could approach the question. Could you work together to create a plan of action, and then decide how to share it with the rest of the school?
Get stuck in
Hands-on science might be viewed as messy, expensive and time-consuming, and teachers may be worried about things going wrong. But we must make sure that pupils learn about science by doing it themselves rather than by watching demonstrations. Without this element, pupils are likely to be less engaged and think that science is something for learning rather than doing. Our answer is to get out and make your own science.
Use the world around you to inspire scientific discovery. Simple observations could be spotting the odd one out in a group of objects in a playground – perhaps learning about different materials – or peering into a pond to see the mini beasts congregating there, and taking a closer look at organisms and ecosystems.
And if you are being more experimentally ambitious, don’t get frustrated if things don’t go as planned. Science is famous for significant events linked to mistakes or the unexpected, from mouldy cheese producing penicillin to how an attempt at inventing super-strong glue actually ended up creating the first sticky post-it notes, now used in offices.