Few primary schools have effective programmes for the teaching of science.
Many classes have science reference books. Few use them to support first hand observation and experiment.
(Observation from the HMI’s 1978 Survey of Primary Education in England.)
What part can books play in educating young scientists? What are the right books? Sheila Parker considers the issues.
Books are clearly important for young children learning science, but books of what kind? A primary classroom needs science information books and science activity books. Information books help children build up a general knowledge of science and its applications: activity books help them develop real scientific understanding. Books that present science solely as information cannot form the basis of ‘an effective programme for science’ because they do not provide young children with the first-hand experience that is essential for developing scientific skills and concepts. These skills and concepts are best fostered through active enquiry which, ideally, is most productively stimulated by discussion between teacher and children. Understandably, many teachers find it difficult to develop science along these lines without the support of books and herein lies the value of science activity books.
What sort of books to choose must be determined by the science experience within the classroom. For children, and teachers, for whom science ‘as a way of working’ is a new venture good ‘recipe’ books have an important function. They help children carry out purposeful investigations that are sufficiently ‘closed’ to prevent organisational problems but at the same time they provide useful experience of handling, observing and thinking about the behaviour of the materials used. In many ways ‘recipe’ activities are a transition from information-based science to open-ended enquiry and should be regarded as such. In this sense ‘recipe’ books are management tools for teachers but they are limited in the way in which they help children develop scientific understanding. In particular they do not permit a creative approach to scientific problem solving which involves trial and error working and the devising and redesigning of equipment. These skills are embodied only in good enquiry activity books. That said, the problem remains of how to select from the many science books (net and non-net) being produced.
Are there ways of appraising science books in order to judge their value for children that are additional to ways of making judgements about such things as appeal, design, layout and reading levels? I think there are. Try this as a framework for action.
Ask yourself a series of questions.
What kind of science is being presented in the book?
- Science as information (Children told things)
- Science as a way of working (Children invited to do things)
What sort of information?
- Information about scientific and technological things
- Information about scientific ideas
What kind of working?
- Recipe activities
- Enquiry activities
I am not suggesting that in any one book the treatment of science will be necessarily restricted to any one of the boxed categories but I do suggest that the categories are helpful ones for identifying what kind of science is being presented in a particular book. Such an identification is helpful for two reasons. It enables us to pinpoint more clearly what is good/poor science presentation within each category and this, in turn, provides a means by which we can assess how much the book can contribute to ‘an effective programme of science for young children’.
What should we look out for in each box’?
Information about scientific and technological things
Good presentation, in general, will
1. Emphasise how things work rather than why they work as they do.
2. Attempt to relate specific factual information to wider knowledge.
3. Include clear three-dimensional diagrams which indicate the relationships between one thing and another and indicate also the scale used.
Information about scientific ideas
Good presentation, in general will
1. Emphasise the uncertainty of science and the activities of scientists rather than building up a picture of science as ‘right answers’ and stereotyped procedures.
2. Explain technical terms in simple language and use appropriate analogies within children’s experience.
3. Include everyday examples of ways in which the ideas are applied or have significance for non-scientists.
Good presentation, in general, will
1. Emphasise a sequence of activities that enable children to handle materials and ideas unaided. It follows that the presentation will:
2. Make use of everyday materials and not require those that are too difficult to obtain or too specialised for use without the acquisition of particular techniques.
3. Focus on activities that acknowledge the limited interest span of young children. As such they should normally be of short duration and involve a clearly observable ‘happening’.
4. Provide a clear structure in which children have to think about what they observe and, where appropriate, apply their findings to everyday experience.
Good presentation, in general, will
1. Present the activity as a problem to be solved.
2. Offer guidance. but not a recipe, for tackling the problem including the devising of equipment rather than the use of ‘set-piece equipment.
3. Make suggestions that help children appreciate the variables involved and ways of interpreting their findings.
How do some recent science titles stand up to this sort of appraisal?
Wayland’s Young Scientist series
Solar Power, Ed Catherall, 0 85340 819 X, £2.95 (net)
Wind Power, Ed Catherall, 0 85340 820 3, £2.95 (net)
The science is presented predominantly through the recipe approach. There is some information related to scientific ideas and a little invitation to enquiry. Wind Power has largely ‘old chestnut’ activities served up in a new menu. If you have lots of science activity books already in the classroom you won’t find much that is new here. Solar Power is more original but some of the activities involve long time lapses with nothing of immediate interest to involve young children. Both books encourage manipulative skills and make use of readily available materials: the application of science to everyday life is also good. There is an attempt to involve children in response to questions. Those requiring direct observation are good but there are too many of the ‘What do tyres do?, ‘Which suntan oil do you use? type. Some of the instructions are difficult to follow: ‘Holding the cotton vertical, move the wing rapidly forward so that the wind travels in the same direction as you blew,’ for instance. Equally the books assume children can ‘read’ sectional drawings and cutaways. Activities like carving polystyrene tiles and making a solar cooker are potentially hazardous but, with supervision and if the child has not met the idea before, the books could be useful.
Usborne’s Finding Out About series
Things at Home, Eliot Humberstone, 0 86020 493 6, 99p (net)
Things that Go, Eliot Humberstone, 0 86020 501 0, 99p (net)
These deal exclusively in information about scientific things. The choice of subjects is good: vacuum cleaner, light bulb, bicycle – but in Things at Home the level at which each is treated is not consistent. The technology of the telephone and television set is well explained for good junior readers: in comparison the treatment of how bread is made is superficial and ‘unscientific’, more appropriate for infants. Cutaway diagrams are very effective, but readers have to be flexible to adapt to the ever-changing conventions for presenting numbered sequences.
The Berenstain Bears’ Science Fair, Stan and Jan Berenstain, Collins, 0 00 195313 3. £3.95
Published in 1978 but included here as a book for infants/lower juniors which presents science as something interesting. It’s predominantly concerned with information about the things of science and the ideas of science but there is some suggestion for activity. The cartoony style of illustration grabs attention and doesn’t impair factual accuracy. Full marks for science presented in manageable, related chunks within an everyday context.
Oxford‘s The Young Scientist Investigates
Small Garden Animals, Terry Jennings, 0 19 917048 7, £2.50 (net)
Seeds and Seedlings, Terry Jennings, 0 19 917049 5, £2.50 (net)
Flowers, Terry Jennings, 0 19 917045 2, £2.50 (net)
This series presents information about the things of science with activities largely of a recipe kind. The format is the same for each book: two sections each containing information followed by a short Do You Remember? test and Things to Do (two pages). And at the end four pages of Experiments to Try and a Glossary. The information (about top junior level) is, in general, well explained, although technical terms are left unexplained except by the glossary. The illustrations are very patchily handled: lots are just pretty page-fillers. The level of the diagrams varies wildly in Flowers from simple drawings to complex sections of stem and leaf. In general there is little explicit linking between text and illustration in any of the books. In the experiments and things to do sections opportunities for cross-referencing between information and activities are ignored. The science activities are pretty heavily derivative, some lack immediacy and some are not sufficiently ‘closed’ to be manageable without supervision except by the very able to whom they would present no challenge. In general though they are well thought out and if you haven’t met these ideas before you could usefully pick and choose.
If you want to develop enquiry science with your children:
Books for teachers
Science 5/13, Macdonald Educational, 1973 et seq., is a series of units sponsored by the Schools Council, the Nuffield Foundation and the Scottish Education Council.
Teaching Primary Science, Macdonald Educational. 1976, covers a more structured approach to enquiry method. The material was developed at Chelsea College for students in teacher training in a curriculum project with Nuffield and the SSRC.
Books for children
Science in a Topic, Kincaid and Coles, Hulton Education, 1973-77
Sciencewise, Books 1-6, Sheila Parker and Alan Ward, Nelson, 1977-79 (Teacher’s books available)
Active Science, Books 1-4, Albert James, Schofield and Sims Ltd, 1977-78 (Teacher’s notes available)
Science Happenings, Books 1-6, Michael Holt, Ginn, 1969-70, Fifth impression 1979 (Teacher’s resource book, 1980, has a very useful bibliography of books for teachers and children.)
Sheila Parker teaches in the Faculty of Education at Bristol Polytechnic. She was a member of the Science 5/13 project and is much in demand in this country and abroad as a consultant on primary science and in-service training.