Thoughts on the Biology Bit

Well – it’s a love of nature we’re told the government want for our children and I’m all for that. Will the new curriculum deliver?

There is a big emphasis on biology. If you count the statements on the front page of each programme of study you will find that it goes like this:

KS1                         3 Biology, 1 Chemistry, 3 Physics

Lower KS 2          7 Biology, 3 Chemistry, 5 Physics

Upper KS 2          5 Biology, 3 Chemistry, 4 Physics

Totals                    15 Biology, 7 Chemistry, 12Physics

So biological themes will take up a large amount of teaching time but will it be time spent productively, challenging children to think about key science principles?

In Year 1they identify and name a lot of things – common garden and wild plants, and deciduous and coniferous trees; common animals including birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, invertebrates (and pets); carnivores herbivores and omnivores and basic parts of the human body. That is a lot of naming and identifying for 5 and 6 yr olds. Now in order to identify those things e.g. plants, in a scientific way you will need to do a lot of comparing and contrasting.  You will need to see that some plants share certain features so that you know how to group them. You will need to look at leaves, flowers, stems in some detail on all those different plants. It is the comparing, contrasting and grouping that asks children to do science – not just assigning names to things. 

This curriculum will also encourage teachers to tell children how to group things. It is a very different learning experience if  a teacher tells to you to put the waxy leaves in one place and the non-waxy leaves in another. It is simply a matter of following instructions. But if she says ‘look at your leaves and see if you can work out a good way to sort them into two groups’ we have a much more demanding and engaging task. It is a matter of thinking for yourself not just thinking about what the teacher wants you to do.

Good teachers are also always trying to find out children’s initial starting points – the ideas they hold about the world around them. An example in a biological context for young children would be to ask children for their ideas about the creatures they might find in different environments such as under the log, behind the drainpipe, in the grass, on the tree trunk. Having elicited their ideas you then go to check out these places and note what you find and come back to class to look at what you’ve learnt. This is good basic teaching. You cannot ask children for their ideas on the names of things because there is no concept involved. Naming is a low-level skill. Why then does it feature so heavily in a supposedly challenging curriculum?

We also know that young children learn much the best from first hand-experience. They need to touch, to smell, to walk round things and look at them from all angles, to compare the size of objects to themselves. A picture in a book or on a screen just does not do the trick. And it would only be a ridiculously small number of state primary schools who could enable their children to experience all the things here at first hand. Even an up-market prep-school with extensive grounds of its own would struggle to get their children to meet everything on the list at first hand.  Inevitably, then, a lot of this could only be achieved by children hearing about them indirectly. This is not a good way further their knowledge of these living things or to engage them.

The government says it has based its decisions on evidence. I know of no evidence that says that getting young children at 5 & 6 yrs to identify and name a huge variety of plants and animals and to classify into groups such as carnivorous, omnivorous and herbivorous aids their conceptual understanding of biology.  If the government has the evidence, they should tell us where it comes from. If they do not then this is just a curriculum based on someone’s preference or a minister’s whim. And that is no way to design a curriculum

I was going to write about the Biology bit in all the years in this blog, but just doing Year 1 has taken up somewhat more time than expected.  Stopping now – but watch this space for more comments.

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About annegoldsworthy

Primary Science specialist. Going for more independent thinking and less being told what to think. And that goes for teachers as well as children. We need to change that draft curriculum for science. Follow me on twitter @afgoldsworthy
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