The BBC’s education news website is leading with the view that “science is being squeezed out of primary schools” with much associated lamenting and foretelling of dire consequences.
My first reaction was to wonder why anyone is surprised. Education generally, but primary education in particular, seems to be seen as elastic-sided by the powers that be; anything that anyone considers kids probably ought to learn from somewhere or other at some point is expected to fit in the primary curriculum – alongside, of course, making sure that they are all fine upstanding citizens who espouse British values, have healthy diets and can run a marathon whilst reciting their 23 times table backwards and parsing any stray sentences… And no, Ms Morgan, that is not an invitation to make schools open for longer hours so that the poor children can be force-fed with more facts and rules, rather than wasting their time relaxing, talking to their parents or sleeping. Has no-one really worked out that if you want to teach primary school children to code, for example, that means there is reduced time for other things? Ditto if you want to introduce them to a foreign language?
My second reaction was that, as a secondary school maths and science teacher, I am actually fine with primary schools doing less. That’ll probably surprise many – as anyone who’s met me in real life (or online) can testify, I tend to be wildly enthusiastic about my subjects, and wanting everyone to enjoy them. So why would I want kids to do less of them?
Before I explain, I’m going on a slight diversion to try to avoid getting myself in too much trouble with people. I think primary school teachers absolutely deserve a medal – far more than those of us in secondary school. They have less planning and preparation time. They have to see the same class pretty well all the time (I’d go bananas if I did that!). They are often dealing with issues that are not about education – even more than we do. They have very mixed ability classes and class sizes are often large. Their marking load is often horrendous – you can’t trust little’uns to check their own work to the same extent that the kids I teach do.
And now for the real biggy – they are expected to teach every subject. How? I mean, how can you do that? For a secondary school teacher, I can do quite a decent range, and I can imagine coping with teaching little kids things as far outside my comfort zone as history, geography, English, and even French if you don’t mind a deplorable accent. But music? Art? PE?!!??
One consequence of this is that many primary teachers are often teaching things they are not that confident with themselves. For me, the nightmares would be music/art/PE – for others they might be maths/science. And unfortunately, that means it’s all too common for us to have to spend time at secondary school disabusing kids of incorrect ideas they learnt in primary school. I remember seeing a real howler when observing at a lovely (and very successful) primary during my PGCE; the kids were meant to be matching terms up with their definitions… and they were expected to match “kinetic energy” with “the force that pushes a moving ball through the air”. Now that is a contender for fitting the largest number of mistakes into one sentence… It’s very hard to get rid of a deep-rooted wrong idea, too – most kids are very fond of their primary teachers, and if Miss X said it, they’ve taken it into their heart.
I’d far rather they didn’t try to teach too many scientific “facts” but stuck to the spirit of science – promoting curiosity, open-mindedness, enquiry and experiment. By all means given them opportunities to find out various interesting titbits – I remember when I was that age, I could tell you all sorts of things about planets and stars, about dinosaurs, about the water cycle and how a sewage works functions (yes, I know, I know! I’ve always been weird, OK?). That would do them far more good than learning slightly “off” ideas such as “heat rises” (no it doesn’t – hot air does, though) or ideas about organisms “trying” to adapt (Lamarck rides again…).
It’s similar in maths. I encounter kids who’ve been taught things in primary school that may work in the short term, but don’t aid understanding – the most obvious being the “take it to the other side and swap the sign” rather than “doing the same to both sides”. I’m quite happy for primary schools not to teach algebra – or just to confine it to the “puzzle” type of thing with “blank plus 7 = 11, what is the blank” type question – much better than encouraging misconceptions that can last. It’s also quite alarming how many kids you get who can follow rules to manipulate fractions, but don’t really “get” them.
So I think that maybe the primary curriculum needs a bit of a rethink – stop stressing kids and teachers out by cramming too much in, instead take a step back, do the basic things well (by which I do NOT mean focus exclusively on what’s to be tested!), encourage them to investigate, to think, to explore, to discuss, to research. Try to make them into resilient learners who enjoy taking the odd risk and don’t expect to achieve a “right” answer immediately, but enjoy the journey. That is how we will get tomorrow’s scientists and engineers.