Thoughts on the Physics Bit (part 4) Y 5 & 6

I’m feeling like the end is in sight – this is the last bit of the blog looking at the new curriculum in detail. After this, I’ll try to pull it all together into one précis of all the whoopsies/concerns/daft bits and then I am going off to enjoy the summer sunshine. WOMAD festival, Olympics, Grandsons and Gower beaches here we come … nearly.

But first let’s have a look at Y5. Two sections here – one on Forces and one on Static Electricity and Magnetism. Let’s look at Forces first. The statements in the PoS are all OK. I’m not sure why they added the words ‘to a greater extent’ to the line that goes ‘Pupils should be taught to explain that drag forces tend to slow things down, including air resistance and, to a greater extent, resistance in liquids’. True if it is the same object moving at the same speed in both air and water.  But what about the drag force from air resistance acting on a massive lorry batting along the motorway compared to the water resistance acting on a smooth pencil moving slowly over a dish of water?  Better just to leave the words ‘to a greater extent’ out.

I would also like to see a line that says that forces are measured in Newtons. As it is the notes and guidance say ‘Teachers should be aware of the relationship between the force of gravity, mass and weight. For the purposes of primary level work, pupils should measure mass in grams and kilograms, and the difference between mass and weight should not be addressed.’ On the whole it is sensible advice  i.e. that teachers need to be familiar with the tricky bit that mass is the amount of stuff is whereas the pull/push on the stuff from the Earth is called gravity (or weight) and that pupils do not need to deal with this bit. But somewhere it would have been good to see the units identified – i.e. grams for mass and Newtons for force including gravity (weight).

Once again in the parts of the notes and guidance that talks about investigations we have suggestions for variables that will be represented in numbers – Newtons, cm², grams, centimetres etc, but no mention of line graphs in ways in which data is represented. This has probably been done so that there is a close tie in with Maths as line graphs are not introduced there until Y6. Whilst it is good to see a link-up between the two subject areas it should not come at the expense of bad science. As it is, according to the guidance, children can only record using diagrams, tables, bar and pie charts or models. All that is needed is a line saying ‘… and line graphs with support.’ Then we will all be happy.

The next section is on static electricity and magnetism. This seems an odd addition to the primary curriculum. It is obviously done in preparation for some work on electro magnetism later on but at this stage there will be no obvious link for the pupils between magnets and static electricity. Also the section on static electricity only asks for pupils to describe the effects of static electricity and show that they occur when some materials are rubbed together.  Cue lots of classrooms doing the classic static electricity bit of balloons stuck on walls or hair standing up or deflecting a stream of water or picking up tissue bits with a comb. But we are not going to do anything to get children thinking about what causes these things – electrical charge and electrons would be just a bit too much at this stage so it’s back to what I call ‘Coo–er’ science again. Children look, say ‘coo-er’ and move on. No thinking required.

And finally to Y6. Three sections here on Light, Forces and Electricity. The Light section has the important point that we see when light enters our eyes. There is no separate point about light being reflected from surfaces which is a shame. I sometimes ask children to order a range of surfaces from shiniest (most reflective) to dullest (least reflective) and then ask them to decide at which surface the light stops being reflected. The ensuing arguments usually result in recognition that everything is reflecting some light. Once they have appreciated this then it makes sense to consider that we see only when light from a light source or light reflected from an object enters our eyes. I often try to get pupils to think about the light’s journey – where it started, where it went to where it ended up. It seems to help and gets across the idea of eyes being the receivers of light in the same way that ears are receivers of sound. The work on reflection would also help when children start to look at children to look at mirrors and other shiny surfaces and to use them to make periscopes and the like and to think about the light’s journey through the periscope.

There is though an odd suggestion in the Notes and Guidance – that pupils study the story of how Isaac Newton built the first reflecting telescope. Now if they are going to make sense of the story and the telescope Newton built they will need to know the following:- “A reflector, or reflecting telescope uses an arrangement of one or more curved mirrors to gather light and return it along an optical path to a point of focus. The most critical element of this type of telescope is the major light gathering source – the primary mirror. Light strikes the parabolic, reflective surface of the primary and returns to a point of focus called the focal plane. Because each spherical or parabolic shaped primary mirror is slightly different, the distance the light needs to travel to achieve focus is called the focal length. At its focus point, the image (in a simple reflector telescope) is collected on another mirror surface called the secondary. The secondary mirror is then aimed towards the viewer who uses a series of lenses called an eyepiece to magnify the image and send it to the eye.” Perhaps I just don’t like a challenge but I suspect that may all be a bit beyond our primary pupils.

We then come to the statement that ‘Pupils should be taught to explain that light can be broken into colours and that different colours of light can be combined to appear as a new colour’.  I always have huge difficulty doing this bit with children. Not with the nice effects that you can get when breaking up light or combining colours – that bit is easy. But how you set about getting them to think about why it happened. We could just tell them that white light breaks up into colours but that will only reinforce the idea in their minds that light is some sort of stuff rather than a form of energy which travels as a wave and that different colours are different wavelengths and that certain materials like glass will break up light into these different wavelengths as long as the white light hits it a certain angle.  I don’t think I am alone in having trouble with making sense of light and the way it behaves and I have spent many hours pestering obliging physicists to take me through it just one more time. This bit is hard. So once again we will be asking pupils to accept an explanation without real understanding and in doing so almost inevitably planting misconceptions for the future. And by the way you will be pleased to know that you don’t have to explain the difference between mixing light and mixing pigments but I bet you will get loads of children who when asked what they think will happen when you mix red and green light will reply, using their knowledge of paint mixing, that it will be a kind of browny colour. When it then turns out to be yellow how are you going to deal with that? Oh it’s another one to leave until later is it? Think I might be getting a bit fed up of this response if I was 10 years old and wanted to believe that science could help me make sense of the world.

The final line here says that pupils should be taught to use simple optical instruments. The guidance suggests mirror, magnifying glass, telescope and microscope as the instruments they should use. I can’t quite see the point of this. They are not thinking about what happens to the light or how they get the effects that they do – they are just using the instruments. So the conversation might go something like this. ‘What did you learn in science today?’ ‘I learnt how to look in a mirror/telescope’ ‘Did you know how to do that before?’ ‘Yeah, I did’.

Next we come to the Forces section. It has probably the most peculiar bit of the whole curriculum – two statements introducing speed. There seems to be no reason for its inclusion in the section on Forces as nowhere do we look at the way changes in speed are caused by forces. We just simply do calculations to do with distance, time and speed. I fail to see how this is anything other than maths and at this stage is unlikely to have any application to activities done in the primary classroom. There is nothing in the notes and guidance which links it to practical work mainly because it would be impossible to find examples that would work in the primary school. Where is the science in this section? Why has it been moved down from KS 3? And why is it so badly written? This was the judgement from a physicist and curriculum expert ‘… the section on speed is appallingly written, saying the same thing about speed in several different and sometimes misleading ways.’ Oh dearie dearie me!

And finally we come to the bit on Electricity. I suspect it’s the same person writing the section for Y6 that did the part for Y4; because once again it is helpful, makes reasonable but challenging demands and is full of practical activities.  Yabba dabba doo! Please could the person who wrote the electricity sections give a lesson to some of the other writers.

And as I finish off the detailed look at the proposed science curriculum, I don’t want to come across as totally unsympathetic to those who had the task of writing it. It is hard gruelling work that takes huge amounts of time. You need to keep checking and cross-checking. You need to look at progression within your subject, matching progression in other subjects, and all the research about children’s learning and what is appropriate at what stage. And then, of course, you have to try to balance the sometimes conflicting demands of all those things. Even when you think you have done it all, you will always find wrinkles and bits that could be misinterpreted. It was a while back when I was on the team that wrote the curriculum after the Dearing Review in 1993 but I remember meeting after meeting, headache after headache and late night work for all of us. It is not something that can be put together by a disparate group of people. It is not an easy task.  And it was certainly not something we could have achieved without the leadership of the hard-working subject specialists at QCA all of whom had a background in science education.  At that time the politicians, by and large, were content to let the experts from the classroom set the agenda.  I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that may be in sharp contrast to the way this curriculum was devised. Sometimes quangos give you quality.

And for those of you who are interested I have smashed the 10,000 word total for the blog – it is now at over 12,440. That’s a lot of writing and I wish it wasn’t that way.



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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