Thoughts on the Physics Bit (part 2) Y 3

The first part in Physics Y3 is to do with Sound. This is the only time children meet Sound in their six years in Primary School which seems a little odd but let’s look at what is being put here to see whether or not it is appropriate. The first three points in the programme of study will look very familiar to teachers – Key Stage 1 teachers that is. They are about identifying sources of sound, comparing the sounds and knowing that sounds travel away from sources getting fainter as they do so. The suggestions in the notes and guidance are also quite reasonable for helping children understand these ideas. Now for Y 3 children this represents pretty straightforward stuff. Key Stage 1 children cope with all this very happily in the current curriculum. In fact I sometimes get KS 1 teachers who tell me that there doesn’t seem to be much they need to really teach children about sound – most of it seems to be self-evident to most children. They see their job as enriching children’s experience, building up comparative language and increasing the demand made of their children by making links with DT when the children design and make percussion shakers etc. Now all this has gone to Key Stage 2. It is rather difficult to see how putting this very simple part into Key Stage 2 represents a more demanding curriculum with an increased level of scientific knowledge.

However, there is quite a move on in the next part of the work on Sound where it is suggested that 7 & 8 year olds will look at ways to vary pitch and volume and that sounds are made by vibrations. There may well be problems here particularly with the section on vibrations. What we asking children to accept is that all sound is made by things vibrating and that we hear the sound when the vibrations enter our ears. At first this seems fine. There are quite a few things that we can see vibrating when they make a sound (bass guitar strings, rubber band instruments, twanging rulers etc) and there are ways to make hard to see vibrations more visible (getting movement from table tennis balls, surface of water etc) and we can often feel the vibrations with our finger tips. But the next part gets a bit trickier. In order for the sound to reach our ears it has to travel through the air. There is nothing to see or feel as the vibrations travel through the air. Children at Y 3 have to do a lot of work to believe that air is really stuff let alone that little bits of stuff in the air, which they can’t see of course, are vibrating and therefore carrying the sounds to our ears. When I was teaching in Y 5/6, I once asked a lad called Adrian with a strong voice to go the other side of a solid brick wall next to the classroom – into the boys’ toilet as it happens – and to yell out ‘Hello’. Although the sound was a bit muffled we could all hear Adrian’s yell.  I asked them how to say how they thought this sound had reached our ears.  Their responses were interesting. Not one pupil thought that the sound made the air between Adrian and the wall vibrate, which made the wall itself vibrate which in turn made the air the other side vibrate and that these vibrations then went to our ears and we heard the sound. Not surprising really because, although scientifically correct, it seems a pretty unlikely explanation. I had some nicely creative answers though such as; “The sound from Adrian’s voice goes out of the toilet, down the corridor and comes into our classroom through the keyhole.” And “the sound goes into the radiator and goes along the pipes and then comes out in our classroom” It took several weeks of work with these 10 and 11 year old children, building up more and more evidence to convince them to at least consider the possibility of the scientific explanation. And bear in mind that these children had just completed a until of work on gases so were familiar with the idea of gases as stuff.  Even then I know there were some in the class who didn’t want to believe the explanation. And this was with children 3/4 years older.

The section on Sound would be much better placed if it were divided into 2 parts – one to be done at Key Stage 1 and one somewhat later in Kay Stage 2 – pretty much like we do at the moment .

The Notes and Guidance in this section on Sound are fine, and by and large, offer simple practical help. There is one line though which suggests that children take accurate measurements when conducting the activities. Measuring sound is notoriously tricky especially when measuring pitch. Got an oscilloscope tucked away somewhere in your Y3 classroom? No? It’s going to be tad tricky to sort out the number of vibrations per second (pitch) without one.

Next onto Forces and here Y 3 children are once again being asked to consider two bits of work on Forces at very different levels. There is the simple part on magnets which is pretty straightforward. Most of the magnets part seems more to do with Materials/Chemistry than with Forces and might be better placed there, but let’s move on. There is the odd inclusion of a line in the PoS saying ‘Pupils should be taught to make a magnet.’ Now this is odd. We are not asking them to say why something becomes magnetic – it is just an activity with little understanding. It is an example of what I refer to as  the ‘Coo—er’ method of science teaching. We show them an interesting phenomena, the children say ‘coo-er’ and move swiftly on to the next thing. It does not further their grasp of Forces one iota. If this sentence were going to go anywhere, it would be much better placed in the notes and guidance as an optional activity.

And now we come to Gravity.  Yes – Gravity at Y3. Now in some ways I am pleased to see it here because the one thing we want children to get is that all changes in motion and /or shape in an object are because a force has acted and that forces are either pushes or pulls.  Unless children get the idea that there is an invisible force which acts at a distance and which attracts things with stuff (mass) towards each other, then it seems as if things that fall to the ground are just ‘doing it because they want to’ and not because a force is acting on them. However, you need to do a lot of modelling of this extremely demanding abstract idea when you do Forces work with top Key Stage 2 pupils; so heaven knows what Y3 will make of it. And it doesn’t stop there. Y3 children also have to do bit of Newton’s third law (i.e. When two bodies interact by exerting force on each other, these action and reaction forces are equal in magnitude, but opposite in direction) when they are taught how a push or a pull is exerted by something and acts on something else. Whoa! Think this one will have a few primary teachers asking to be moved from Y 3. Jolly difficult to convince a child pushing on the wall that the wall is also pushing back at them. Come to think of it, it is blooming hard to convince most adults of that one. Think somebody has lost sight of reality here.

There is also some peculiar new language added in this section – that of a ‘contact force.’ It comes in the statement,  ‘… that on Earth’s surface we are supported by a contact force with the ground.’ What an odd phrase! The idea we need to get across is that an object is being pulled towards the Earth by gravity (the object is actually also exerting a tiny force on the earth as well but let’s gloss over that bit) and that if it doesn’t reach the centre of the Earth then there must be an equal force (a push or a pull) going the other way. So if the object is sitting on the surface of the Earth, the surface is pushing back up.  If it is sitting on the table, the table must be pushing back up. If it is floating on water, the water must be pushing back up. It is much better to talk simply and clearly in terms of pushes and pulls than to bring in an obscure and somewhat unhelpful bit of new vocabulary.

At the end of the last section I wondered if I was going to make the 10,000 words in total on this blog on the new curriculum. I’m not quite there at about 9,340 but I think it’s looking odds on that I will make it as there are still three more year groups to go on the Physics bit. Now, should I celebrate or despair when I get there?


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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