National testing distorts science teaching in primary schools
23 September 2008
Each report looks over the past 60 years to pick out trends in primary science teaching and draw conclusions about the future. Published together, they are the first in a series of paired ‘Perspectives on Education’ commissioned by the Wellcome Trust to stimulate debate about the best way to teach science in schools. The publication comes in the midst of a series of reviews of primary education and testing, including the two year long review of primary education by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, due to publish its final report at the end of September, and the independent review of the primary curriculum in England being led by Sir Jim Rose.
Professor Wynne Harlen of the University of Bristol and author of one of the reports, says science learning definitely needs to begin in primary school: “There is a considerable body of research evidence that shows that, since children’s own ideas are often in conflict with scientific ones, if taken into the secondary school, they can inhibit effective learning. The conflict leads many to find science too hard, too confusing and too remote from their real experience.”
Although Prof. Harlen believes science should be a core subject, she considers the associated national testing has had a detrimental impact on learning and teaching: “Of course it is important to know what children have achieved, to report this to parents and other teachers and to keep records that enable proper evaluation. The negative impact derives not from the assessment process as such but as a consequence of the policy of using results to set targets and to judge teachers and schools solely on the basis of test results.”
The other report was authored by Professor Peter Tymms and colleagues at the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University. They took a more quantitative approach to the data but reached similar conclusions.
Prof. Tymms says new approaches to primary school science must be developed: “We suspect that the current national approach to science in primary schools is not impacting on children’s scientific thought and curiosity as much as is possible. Despite the pass rates in public examinations later in secondary school, research suggests few students acquire a proper understanding of the science curriculum.
“The purpose of science in primary school should be to foster a sense of curiosity and positive attitudes in the young child. It should also guide the child in solving problems to do with the physical, natural and human worlds. There is now a strong argument for reconsidering the approach to science in English primary schools, and for doing this in a systematic, evidence-based way.”
Clare Matterson, Director of Medicine, Society and History at the Wellcome Trust, says: “These reports both examine more than half a century of evidence on the teaching and learning of science in primary schools and both reach the same conclusion - science needs to be at the heart of primary education, but it is being let down by the current national accountability system.
“The Wellcome Trust commissioned this pair of perspectives from experienced and respected education researchers to raise debate about national testing in primary science, and to ensure that future policies can be based on facts. That is the only way we can reach a rational, successful and sustainable approach to science education.”
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The Wellcome Trust
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Notes for editors
’Perspectives on Education: Primary science’, published online by the Wellcome Trust on Tuesday 23 September, 2008.
'Science as a key component of the primary curriculum: a rationale with policy implications', Wynne Harlen, Visiting Professor of Education at the University of Bristol; 'Science in English Primary Schools: Trends in Attainment, Attitudes and Approaches', Peter Tymms, David Bolden and Christine Merrell, CEM Centre, Durham University.
The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing.
About the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), Durham University
The CEM is based in Durham University in North-east England. CEM provides indicator systems to schools and colleges. The confidentiality of these systems renders them unique. It is the largest educational research unit in a UK university.
Established in 1983, the Centre works with schools, colleges, education authorities and government agencies to provide high-quality information through scientifically grounded research. CEM is the home of a widely used family of monitoring systems including ALIS, Yellis, MidYIS and PIPS.
About the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol
The Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol measures its performance by comparing itself with the best university institutions and departments of education around the world. Our academic staff play leading roles on the editorial boards of many peer-reviewed, international journals and hold offices in a wide range of learned societies and key national/international bodies. We are committed to increasing the impact of our research on policy makers by engagement with users at every stage of the research process and by disseminating our research findings and products widely for use in initial and in-service training of practitioners.