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Science in the Primary School2008Inspectorate Evaluation StudiesPROMOTING THE QUALITY OF LEARNINGiINSPECTORATE

The Inspectorate wishes to thankWhitechurch National School, Rathfarnham Dublin 16for permission to use the cover photograph. 2012 Department of Education and SkillsPublished byEvaluation Support and Research UnitInspectorateDepartment of Education and SkillsMarlborough StreetDublin 1This report and others in the series may be accessed atwww.education.ieii

ContentsForewordiiiChapter 1Introduction1Chapter 2Evaluation methodology9Chapter 3Quality of planning for Science14Chapter 4Quality of teaching in Science23Chapter 5Quality of learning in Science32Chapter 6Main findings and recommendations41References46i

List of TablesPageTable 1.1The content strands of the science curriculumTable 2.1Sample task for senior infants11Table 2.2Sample task for sixth class12Table 2.3Quantitative terms used in this report13Table 2.4Levels of the quality continuum and corresponding qualitative terms13Table 3.1Summary of findings regarding whole-school planning17Table 3.2Inspectors’ evaluation of classroom planning18Table 3.3Summary of findings regarding classroom planning and preparation20Table 4.1Summary of findings regarding classroom atmosphere and management25Table 4.2Inspectors’ evaluation of aspects of teaching26Table 4.3Summary of findings regarding the quality of teaching in Science28Table 5.1Performance of pupils in tasks from each strand32Table 5.2Sample task from Human life33Table 5.3Sample task from Plant and animal life34Table 5.4Sample task from Magnetism and electricity36Table 5.5Sample task from Properties and characteristics of materials36Table 5.6Pupil performance on tasks to assess procedural understanding383List of FiguresPageFigure 4.1Inspectors’ evaluation of aspects of classroom management24Figure 4.2Inspectors’ evaluation of the overall quality of teaching25Figure 4.3Inspectors’ evaluation of aspects of assessment29Figure 5.1Pupils’ performance on tasks from Living things33Figure 5.2Pupils’ performance on tasks from Forces35Figure 5.3Pupils’ performance on tasks from Materials36Figure 5.4Pupils’ performance on tasks from Environmental awareness and care37ii

ForewordThe inclusion of Science in the Primary School Curriculum (1999) brought a major changeto the curriculum of primary schools and reflected the importance that science andtechnology have in many aspects of our daily lives, at work, at school and at home. Ourdependence on science and technology requires that all pupils develop a high level ofscientific literacy. The primary Science curriculum offers schools a comprehensiveprogramme from infants to sixth class. It provides a very good foundation for the study ofscience subjects in the post-primary setting. Most importantly, it cultivates a positiveattitude to science and provides pupils with opportunities to experience the excitement ofworking as a scientist.Science in the Primary School reports on the implementation of the 1999 sciencecurriculum as this was in evidence during inspections carried out in forty primary schoolsduring 2007. The evidence indicates that a significant number of primary schools wereexperiencing success in many aspects of the science curriculum and that teachers andpupils were benefiting from the broad and balanced range of learning experiences outlinedin the curriculum. Inspectors found evidence that national in-service supports werebeneficial and that many teachers had engaged in further professional development in thearea of science. They also reported that schools had made good use of the fundingavailable for the purchase of science materials and equipment.The report also outlines areas for improvement. In particular, inspectors found that schoolsneeded to provide more regular opportunities for pupils to engage in problem solving andopen-ended investigations and to develop the skills listed in the Working scientifically andDesigning and making sections of the curriculum. Inspectors were also of the view thatschools needed to engage in whole-school planning for the purpose of improving teachingand learning rather than for the purpose of satisfying the requirements of educationallegislation. The report also contains recommendations regarding the incorporation ofassessment into the teaching and learning process and regarding the integration intoschools’ science programmes of the many science-related initiatives that have beenintroduced into schools in recent yearsThe Inspectorate has a specific contribution to make in evaluating the quality of provisionin schools, in advising schools and teachers and in providing policy advice and directionfor the system in general. This report makes a significant contribution in each of theseareas and presents findings and recommendations that will be of interest to teachers,parents, support services, teacher educators and policy makers.iii

Chapter 1Introduction1.1Evaluation of curriculum implementation in ScienceThe introduction of a broad science programme for all classes was one of the key changes inthe revised Primary School Curriculum of 1999 (Department of Education and Science,1999a). This report presents the findings of an evaluation carried out in forty primary schoolsduring 2007 that focused on how effectively the science curriculum was being implemented inclassrooms and in schools.1.2Science in the Primary School CurriculumScience was included in the Primary School Curriculum in 1999 as one of three subjects inthe area of Social, Environmental and Scientific Education (SESE). Although some focus onElementary Science had been included in the 1971 curriculum for senior pupils, the 1999curriculum is significantly more comprehensive than the previous one in a number of respects.The curriculum requires teachers to implement the science programme from junior infants tosixth class. It sets out a minimum weekly time allocation for each subject. Science is allocatedforty-five minutes per week in infant classes and one hour per week in all other classes. Thiscontrasts with the 1971 curriculum, in which Elementary Science was included as a subject infifth and sixth classes only. In practice, this element of the 1971 programme was not widelyimplemented.The science curriculum is structured so that pupils can learn about the biological and physicalaspects of the world in four content strands: Living things, Energy and forces, Materials, andEnvironmental awareness and care. The 1971 curriculum, in contrast, offered a limited rangeof topics for senior classes only.A key element of the 1971 Environmental Studies programme was ‘nature study’, whichfocused on animal and plant life in all classes. This programme was absorbed into the sciencecurriculum under the strands, Living things and Environmental awareness and care. However,the curriculum now requires pupils to adopt a scientific approach to the study of living things.While the 1971 curriculum emphasised the importance of learning through activity anddiscovery, this emphasis is more central to the 1999 curriculum. The curriculum now aims todevelop scientific skills as well as understanding. Practical investigation is central to scientificactivity and the curriculum emphasises the importance of providing pupils with opportunities totest and develop their ideas.1

The science curriculum includes two further new emphases. Pupils in every class areintroduced to technology through a specific technology section entitled Designing and making.Additional emphasis is also placed on the interrelationship between science, technology andthe environment. As a result, the curriculum incorporates the strand unit Science and theenvironment which aims to develop the pupils’ understanding and appreciation of the ways inwhich science and technology can help us to use the Earth’s resources for the social, culturaland economic benefits of humanity.1.3Structure of the science curriculumThe science curriculum aims to develop two types of understanding among pupils: conceptualunderstanding and procedural understanding.Conceptual understanding refers to the pupils’ knowledge of the biological and physicalaspects of the world. Procedural understanding refers to the pupils’ understanding of scientificprocedures. These two forms of understanding are not developed independently. In particular,a secure understanding of scientific procedures is necessary for the on-going development ofconceptual understanding.Conceptual understandingPupils’ conceptual understanding is developed through the study of four areas or strands:Living things; Materials; Energy and forces; and Environmental awareness and care. Eachstrand includes several topics called strand units. These are shown in Table 1.1.Teachers are required to complete work from each strand every year and work from eachstrand unit over every two-year period. The curriculum is often described as having a spiralstructure. This refers to the fact that, as pupils progress from class to class, they revisit eachtopic, developing and refining their understanding. In the strand unit Forces, for example,pupils in the infant classes are enabled to predict whether an object will float or sink on thebasis of the material from which it is made. In first and second class, these pupils learn thatthe shape of the object is also a factor in floating and sinking. In third and fourth classes, theydiscover that objects float differently in fresh and salt water. In fifth and sixth classes thepupils begin to understand floating and sinking in terms of gravity and the opposing forceexerted by water.2

Table 1.1: The content strands and strand units of the science curriculumLiving thingsEnergy andforcesMaterialsEnvironmentalawareness andcareInfantsFirst and SecondThird and FourthFifth and SixthMyselfMyselfHuman lifeHuman lifePlants and animalsPlants and animalsPlants andanimalsPlants and tHeatHeatHeatMagnetism andelectricityMagnetism andelectricityMagnetism andelectricityMagnetism andelectricityForcesForcesForcesForcesProperties andcharacteristics ofmaterialsProperties andcharacteristics ofmaterialsProperties andcharacteristics ofmaterialsProperties andcharacteristics ofmaterialsMaterials andchangeMaterials andchangeMaterials andchangeMaterials andchangeCaring for myselfand my localityCaring for myselfand my ssScience and theenvironmentScience and theEnvironmentCaring for theEnvironmentCaring for theenvironmentProcedural understandingPupils’ procedural understanding is developed through two skills sections: Workingscientifically and Designing and making.The curriculum emphasises thatwhat distinguishes a scientific activity from other forms of enquiry is not thesophistication of the ideas used but the process through which these ideas aredeveloped. (Department of Education and Science, 1999b, p.2)The section of the curriculum entitled Working scientifically presents a procedural model ofhow scientists work and outlines the various skills and knowledge that are required. The skillsto be developed by this section of the curriculum are Questioning Observing Predicting Investigating and experimenting Estimating and measuring3

Analysingo Sorting and classifyingo Recognising patternso InterpretingRecording and communicating results.The development of the pupils’ understanding of what constitutes ‘a fair test’ is particularlyimportant. Pupils learn that in order for a test to be fair, there are always certain things thatmust be kept the same. For example, when testing various brands of kitchen paper to find outwhich is most absorbent, pupils learn that the size of the sheet of paper and the volume ofwater used are among the variables that must be controlled if the results are to be accurate.The curriculum envisages that pupils in middle and senior classes will be enabled to designand conduct their own investigations, controlling relevant variables. This involves pupils informulating the question to be answered by the investigation and making key decisions aboutthe investigative procedure to be followed. The skills of Working scientifically are included alsoin the Geography curriculum under the heading Geographical investigation skills.Designing and making is the technology component of the curriculum. Designing and makingaims to provide children with an understanding of the technological process and the ability toapply their scientific skills and knowledge in solving practical problems. Exploring, planning,making and evaluating are the four key elements in Designing and making. It is important thatpupils are enabled to work independently in this process, particularly in the middle and seniorclasses. Designing and making “should provide the children with the scope to generate theirown designs and the freedom to devise their own solutions to problems” (Department ofEducation and Science, 1999b, p.134).1.4Principles of learning in the science curriculumThe science curriculum and the accompanying Teacher Guidelines highlight certain keyprinciples that form the basis for effective learning and teaching in Science. These principlesprovided a significant focus for this evaluation.a) Children’s ideas as the starting pointThe constructivist philosophy underpins the science curriculum and it emphasises that thechild’s existing knowledge and experience form the base for subsequent learning. All scienceactivities should begin with the teacher eliciting the pupils’ existing ideas on the topic.Meaningful learning occurs when the pupils construct their understanding by modifyingtheir existing ideas in the light of new insights gained from scientific investigations.Thus, Science may be seen as the active process of the personal construction ofmeaning and understanding. (Department of Education and Science, 1999a, p.7)4

The teacher’s main role, therefore, is to identify the pupils’ existin