Thoughts on the Biology Bit (part 4)


Finally, as far as the biology bit goes at any rate, we move onto Y 5 and Y6

The Y5 programme of study starts off nicely by suggesting that children look at the life cycles of a variety of animals and plants. As one who has been suggesting for some time that we need to extend the range of life cycles we look at in primary schools, this part is welcome. We have a habit of sticking to certain animals – the frog, the butterfly and sometimes a duck or chicken. But how many of us know the life cycle of the woodlouse, the earthworm or the water beetle? This gives us a chance then to extend the range of animals’’ life cycles that we study.  The fact that we get asked to do much the same in Y6 is, perhaps, a bit of overkill.

But then we come to the killer blow. Pupils in Y5 – that is 9 and 10 year old children – have to ‘describe respiration as the activity that releases energy from food as a fuel to maintain the body’s activity and identify that plants also respire.’ Shall we just unpack that a bit? To get any understanding you have to start off with what we mean by energy. The section on energy was removed from the previous primary science curriculum because the evidence showed that almost all children had problems understanding this abstract idea. You can’t pick up a dollop of energy. It does not exist in any tangible form. It is just an abstract idea scientists use to help them make calculations about the way the world works.

Next you have to look at food as a fuel. You cannot introduce the word fuel without some kind of definition. So how do you describe a fuel to Y5? One way is to mention that all fuels e.g. petrol, coal, wood, your banana and cereal that you ate this morning, are hydro-carbons  – no that’s not going to work. Or you could explain that they all react with oxygen – not done gases or oxygen or chemical reactions yet so that’s not really suitable. So will you just end up telling them again.  ‘What’s that? You don’t get it? Don’t worry, you’ll do it again in secondary school. No, no – science isn’t something logical that you can work out for yourself, Science is something you learn by rote and hope that at some point in years to come it makes some kind of sense. What do you mean – you don’t ever want to be a scientist and you’re going to give it up as soon as you can?’  

And now we come  to the really crunch bit –  that respiring does not equal breathing but a much more complicated process that takes place in cells. In this process food – (which as we know is a fuel though we aren’t really clear what a fuel is just yet ) combines with oxygen (which as we know is a gas that we haven’t really studied yet) from our blood in the cells (yes –  a bit like the way oxygen works in burning because  carbon dioxide and water vapour are given out except that there aren’t actually lots of little fires going on in our cells – it’s a bit more complicated than that). Respiration isn’t just breathing oxygen in and carbon dioxide out because plants respire too. Plants  also take in oxygen, use it to release energy from the food ( sugars in the plant) and give out carbon dioxide & water vapour like animals but plants also photosynthesise during sunlight hours which is a reversal of the above process i.e. water and carbon dioxide going in and making sugars and oxygen. Are you keeping up at the back there? Come on – this is all quite obvious! And remember, all this is going on in cells so we can’t test it out in the classroom – you just have to take our word for it once again.

In a really unscientific survey I asked 10 of my pretty well-educated friends what they understood by respiration. I can report that 9 out of 10 thought it was to do with the exchange of gases i.e. oxygen in and carbon dioxide out .Only one thought it had anything to do with the release of energy in the cells. And we are expecting Y 5s to understand this with all the abstract and complicated underlying ideas. Come on!

Y5 pupils are also looking at the circulatory system (including blood pressure and blood clotting) and the gaseous exchange systems (including the diaphragm, bronchi and bronchial tubes). I suggest that in Y5 you give up teaching literacy and numeracy and spend all your time on science. You will need it if you are going to get that lot done in any meaningful way.

In Y 6 you get to have another look at life processes including reproduction, classification and development of humans. All of that is fine but you are going to find it really hard to give pupils direct experience of sexual and asexual reproduction in plants as well as sexual reproduction in a variety of animal groups. Once again the only route will be to do it through books and CDs and the internet. Once again science becomes something that is told to you, which you receive passively. It is not something you can find out for yourself. Bad bad messages for primary children.

You also have to get the children to give reasons why living things produce offspring of the same kind but in many cases offspring are not identical with each other or their parents. I tried to do this without mentioning genes or chromosomes but failed. If I was a Y6 teacher I would be at a loss to find reasons that the children could understand let alone reasons that they could give back to me.

I have finally finished the biology bit. It has taken nearly 4000 words to set down just some of my feelings of unease/deep concern/downright panic about Biology. I think the other sections on Chemistry and Physics will have somewhat fewer words. Keep reading to find out whether my optimism is well-founded.


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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2 Responses to Thoughts on the Biology Bit (part 4)

  1. brendanaylor says:

    Thank you Anne for saying so clearly and passionately what so many of us are thinking. So pleased to see Richard Feynman has got a mention. Such an inspirational scientist and great thinker. Makes you wonder what kind of impoverished experience of learning science the writers must have had that they cannot see what an aspirational primary science curriculum might look like? So sad that they do not have the vision of people like Richard Feynman and of the many exciting primary science teachers who are showing what an aspirational primary science curriculum might achieve. When there is so much evidence from research and the experience of many science educators, why are they creating a curriculum without any evidence to justify the changes they suggest. Have the writers ever taught science in primary classrooms and seen what primary teachers and children can achieve? Have they ever been curious about what is happening in the world around them and experienced the thrill of exploring their own question and learning new ideas? Have they ever read the research into the development of children’s ideas. If not, then why are they writing the primary science curriculum? If they have, then how are they getting it so badly wrong?

    Keep up the good work Anne. People are following your blog and being inspired by you as ever.

  2. Thanks Brenda. Got to try to change the worst excesses.

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