National testing obstructs science teaching
Press release issued: 23 September 2008
National testing at Key Stage 2 (7-11 years) interferes with teachers’ ability to teach science in English schools, but science must remain a core subject in primary schools, say two independent reports published today by the Wellcome Trust.
Professor Wynne Harlen of the University of Bristol and author of one of the reports, believes that while science must be a core subject in primary schools, 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.”
She added: “There is a considerable body of research evidence that shows children’s own ideas are often in conflict with scientific ones. If these are taken into the secondary school they can inhibit effective learning, so science learning definitely needs to begin in primary school. The conflict leads many to find science too hard, too confusing and too remote from their real experience.”
Each report looked at primary science teaching over the past 60 years to identify trends and draw conclusions about the future. Published together, these reports are the first in a series of paired ‘Perspectives’ commissioned by the Wellcome Trust to stimulate debate about the best way to teach science in schools.
The second 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.
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.”
Professor 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.”