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Primary science and ICT

Colette Murphy, Graduate School of Education, Queens University, Belfast

The full version of this review is available to download in pdf format - see box below. On this page you'll find the executive summary.

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Primary science and ICT (pdf, 459KB)

Executive summary

This review focuses on the development of primary science since it was first introduced in 1989 as a compulsory, core subject in the primary curriculum in England and Wales.

In a review of the first ten years of compulsory primary science, Harlen (1998) identified current concerns as: the teacher’s role in constructivist learning, teachers’ subject knowledge, the balance between process skills and science content, and the need for greater understanding and application of formative assessment. Harlen also anticipated that the foremost foreseeable change in the learning and teaching of primary science over the next ten years would be the impact of information and communications technology (ICT).

This review will consider the impact of ICT in primary science in relation to the areas identified by Harlen (1998) and provide a critical evaluation of ways in which ICT is currently being used to promote good science teaching. It will reflect on the science and ICT 5 year-old children of today need to learn in order to enable them to become scientifically and computer-literate by the time they are 20. It will argue, after Yapp (2003), that primary education should provide children with more languages, scientific and technological awareness and confidence, cultural sensitivity and media awareness. The skills these children develop should include team working, creativity, innovation and learning how to learn. Informal learning should be valued as much as formal learning (Yapp 2003).

Science in the primary school

Primary science is concerned with three broad areas: energy and forces; materials; and living things, which lay the foundations for physics, chemistry and biology respectively. Whilst these are the broad areas of study, primary science is not just concerned with knowledge, but more particularly with the scientific method and the effect of the use of this method on the individual child[1]. It is child active, developing both manipulative and mental activity. It is child focused, concentrating on an aspect of the world the child experiences and in which the child can display an interest.

Primary science has three aims:

  • to develop scientific process skills,
  • to foster the acquisition of concepts and
  • to develop particular attitudes.

Science is currently one of the three core subjects in the primary curriculum and, together with English and mathematics, is formally assessed at the end of primary schooling in England and Wales, and it is part of the Transfer Procedure Test, which is taken in the final year of primary school by those pupils who wish to attend grammar schools in Northern Ireland.

Research into children's learning in science

Research on children’s learning in science over the past 30 years has been influential in primary science teaching in the UK, particularly since the introduction of compulsory science for all children between the ages of 5 and 16.

The National Curriculum for England and Wales, 5-14 National Guidelines in Scotland and the Northern Ireland Curriculum were all introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These defined for the first time what aspects of science should be taught at primary level. Decisions regarding the content and pedagogy of primary science were made using evidence from major research projects. The Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) surveyed children’s science knowledge at the ages of 11, 13 and 15 during the 1970s and 1980s, and outlined what these children should be expected to do in science.

Two other projects were influential. The SPACE (Science Processes and Concepts Exploration) project (1990-98) investigated children’s scientific ideas and the STAR (Science Teaching Action Research) project studied classroom practice in relation to process skills. Harlen (p25 in Sherrington, 1998) has discussed the impact of these projects. In summary, they - together with other international projects - generated major interest in children’s own scientific ideas, which has given weight to constructivist approaches towards learning in science.

Constructivism has its roots in psychology, philosophy, sociology and education. Its central idea is that human learning is ‘constructed’ – learners build on the foundations of previous knowledge. Learning is therefore an active, rather than a passive process. Constructivism has major implications for science teaching; it calls into question the traditional, ‘utilitarian’ practices and places the child at the centre of the learning process. The popularity of constructivist approaches to science teaching has been steadily increasing over the past 30 years.

Many criticisms have been levelled against the constructivist approach to science teaching in the primary school. The most frequently quoted of these is that, whilst the research advises that teachers identify children’s alternative frameworks and already existing knowledge, there is little advice for teachers regarding specific strategies to develop these ideas so that they become more ‘scientific’, particularly in a class in which there might be up to 30 alternative frameworks for each concept!

Harlen (1996) commented that it might appear too difficult to find out about the ideas of all the children in a class in such a way as to plan activities to accommodate them. In addition, traditional ideas of teachers, school boards, principals and parents are also deep-rooted and difficult to change. Implementation of constructivist approaches in the classroom may therefore be subject to some resistance. Indeed Cohen et al (1996) claimed that the constructivist view of learning totally ‘turned its back’ on the view of progression embedded in the National Curriculum, which assumes that all children learn in the same sequence. Solomon (1994) claimed that constructivism is not congruent with the kind of learning that takes place in most classrooms, whilst Harlen (1996) reported that quite often everyday events do, in fact, conform to non-scientific ideas. Keogh and Naylor (1996) revealed that analysis of the ‘hands-on’ approach indicated that pupils spent little or no time planning and interpreting their findings, and suggested that a ‘minds-on’ approach is also required to enable the children to make sense of a concept by relating it to their own experience. Osborne (1997) asked provocatively: “Is doing science the best way to learn science?”

In spite of these criticisms the constructivist approach to science teaching in primary and post-primary schools is widely advocated and promoted worldwide. Indeed, the South Australian Curriculum Standards and Accountability Framework, from birth to year 12, uses “a conception of learning which is drawn from constructivist learning theories” to guide the formulation of its new curriculum framework (SACSA 2000).

Children’s interest in science is also vital for effective science learning, particularly in developing their confidence in dealing with science in terms of curiosity and methodical inquiry. When children reach the post-primary school, they will have experienced seven years of schooling and by this stage will have developed their own attitudes to science. Murphy and Beggs (2003a) carried out an extensive survey of primary children’s attitudes to science and found that most of the older pupils (10-11 years) had significantly less positive attitudes than younger ones (8-9 years) towards science enjoyment, even though the older pupils were more confident about their ability to do science.

The effect of age on pupils’ attitudes was far more significant than that of gender. Girls were, however, more positive about their enjoyment of science and were a lot more enthusiastic about how their science lessons impacted upon their environmental awareness and how they kept healthy. There were also a few significant differences in the topics liked by girls and boys – generally girls favoured topics in the life sciences and boys preferred some of the physical science topics. In an attempt to improve children’s experience of science in primary school, Murphy, Beggs and Carlisle (2003, in press) report that increasing the amount of practical, investigative work in science, particularly when children are using ICT, had a marked, positive effect on their enjoyment of science. They demonstrated a highly significant reduction in the effects of age and gender on children’s science attitudes.

Other research into children’s learning in science being carried out in the last decade has focused on the role of the primary teacher. Many findings, for example Harlen et al (1995), have pointed towards problems linked to primary teachers’ insufficient scientific knowledge background and their lack of confidence in teaching science. Some studies have criticised the level of the content of some areas of primary science. Murphy, Beggs et al (2001) showed that even third level students, including those who experienced compulsory school science from the ages of 11-16 and some with post-16 science qualifications, could not correctly answer questions in some primary science topics in tests, which had been written for 11 year-olds.

These problems, when taken together with the emphasis of national tests on content knowledge, may have contributed to science frequently being taught as facts or as a ‘body of knowledge’ in the final two years of primary school. Teachers feel the need to prepare children for the tests by ensuring that they can recall the required content knowledge. Attention to constructivist theories of learning science and to scientific enquiry has diminished by this stage. Ponchaud (2001) indicated that further pressures on UK primary teachers that militate against their delivery of good science teaching may include the recent government initiatives in literacy and numeracy, which have resulted in the timetabling of science as short afternoon sessions in many schools.

When considering the role of ICT in enhancing children’s science learning, recent studies of the brain, such as reported by Greenfield (2000), have led to ‘network’ models of learning. Such models consider ways in which computers appear to ‘think’ and ‘learn’ in relation to problem solving. They describe the brain behaving like a computer, forging links between neurons to increase the number of pathways along which electric signals can travel. When we think, patterns of electrical activity move in complex routes around the cerebral cortex, using connections we have made previously via our learning. The ability to make connections between apparently unrelated ideas (for instance the motion of the planets and the falling of an apple) lies at the heart of early scientific learning in terms of both creativity and understanding. As children explore materials and physical and biological phenomena, physical changes are taking place in their brains (McCullough, personal communication). These physical changes taking place in the brain help to explain Ausubel’s assertion over 35 years ago that “the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows” (Ausubel 1968).

This model of learning predicts that active learning, such as that promoted by constructivist teaching approaches, in which children are engaged in knowledge construction, enables more pervasive neural connectivity and hence enhanced science learning. The use of ICT can facilitate more constructivist teaching in the primary school. One of the principal problems a teacher faces when using constructivist approaches to science teaching is the consideration of the unique ideas and experiences 30 individuals bring to each new science topic. How can the teacher elicit and challenge all of these to ensure that children develop the desired scientific concepts? How can s/he ensure that each child is involved in science investigation? How can s/he promote group work with limited science resources and/or space so that children can co-operate in science projects?

Current use of ICT in primary science

The term ICT embraces a range of technologies broadly concerned with information and communication. The popular idea of ICT hardware in the classroom or computer suite includes one or more multimedia desktop computers or laptops and a combination of the following: digital camera, printer, scanner, CDwriter, data projector, interactive whiteboard, robot and, in science classes, data loggers and perhaps a digital microscope. There will be a range of software available on the hard drive of the computers and as add-ons (usually as floppy discs or CD-Roms). The machines may or may not be networked or have access to the Internet. How these facilities might improve the learning and teaching of primary science in terms of the development of the scientific skills, concepts and attitudes outlined in Section 2.1 is summarised below in Table 1.

ICT can support both the investigative (skills and attitudes) and more knowledge-based aspects (concepts) of primary science. The more recent approaches to science learning, particularly the social constructivist methodologies (see section 1.2 on children’s learning in science), highlight the importance of verbal as well as written communication as being vital for children to construct meaning. ICT use can greatly enhance the opportunities for children to engage in effective communication at several levels.

Communication, however, is only one use for ICT in the primary science classroom. Ball (2003) categorises four ways in which ICT is used in primary science: as a tool, as a reference source, as a means of communication and as a means for exploration. There is, however, little systematic research on the use of ICT in primary science teaching other than reports of how it has been used to support specific projects, for example, those included in the ICT-themed issue of the Primary Science Review in Jan/Feb 2003.

Perhaps it is early days. Primary science has only been part of the National Curriculum in the UK for little more than a decade, so most teachers who qualified before its introduction will have received no science training in their initial teacher education and perhaps only minimal INSET science training. Many teachers, therefore, have yet to come to grips with how to teach science effectively before they can conceptualise how using ICT can enhance the teaching of ‘good’ science in the primary school. Researchers also have little access to classrooms where they can carry out systematic investigation
of practice.

Identification of research areas of explore how ICT use can enhance primary science learning

Some of the questions raised in this review point towards gaps in the research into primary science and ICT. For example in section 3.3 on primary teachers’ knowledge of science, the question is raised as to whether aspects of primary science are too difficult for the teachers, let alone the children. More research is needed to determine which aspects of science are appropriate for primary children to learn. Clearly, if not taught properly, children can enter post-primary education more confused than informed about some science topics. This leads to greater learning and teaching problems at secondary level than if children had never been introduced to such topics previously.

In relation to the role of ICT enhancing children’s science learning (section 3.5) the question is raised about how ICT use can aid the constructivist approach to science teaching. Most particularly, there is a huge dearth of research into which types of application might enhance different aspects of science learning. Is content-free software most useful in helping children to ‘construct’ and communicate ideas? If so, which applications are best suited (and how?) for the construction of ideas and which for communication, or is it the case that presentation software, for example, can enhance both processes?

In section 4.1, in which ICT as a tool is considered, are the use of spreadsheets and databases creating conceptual gaps in children’s development of graphing and key construction skills respectively? Indeed, do we need to acquire such skills in order to interpret, interrogate and manipulate data successfully? This is a huge question and a vital one in relation to the use of ICT in primary science. If, for example, graph drawing skills are found not to be required for successful graphical interpretation, then ICT use can substitute for less exciting aspects of scientific investigation, such as the manual plotting of data. If not, then the two must be used in tandem, so that children can conceptualise how the data record (graph, for example) was produced.

When exploring the use of ICT as a reference source, section 4.2 presents reactions of student teacher users to a variety of CD-Roms. A more systematic survey of attitudes of teacher and child users towards CD-Roms might lead to the incorporation of particular generic features, which should be included in all such packages to facilitate the ‘uptake’ of information from a computer screen.

Conclusion

This report summarises research in primary science and in the classroom use of ICT. It highlights the separation of these areas and the lack of research into how, when, how much and how often ICT can be used to enhance the development of children’s science skills, concepts and attitudes. It calls for specific and systematic research into various applications and their potential for enhancing children’s learning in primary science.

  1. See the partner Futurelab publication ‘Science Education and the Role of ICT: Promise, Problems and Future Directions’ Osborne and Hennessey (2003) for a full discussion of the debates surrounding the role of science education in UK schools, in particular the relative emphasis on scientific ‘content’ versus scientific ‘thinking’.