Looking back on my science education, I have realized that during primary and secondary school, I received quite a good backing in the sciences. However, this was most evident at secondary school. During primary school, being as long ago as it is, I don’t recall any specific lessons, especially from the infant years. However, I recall having separate science books during my junior years, and as far as I can remember, the school did put quite a lot of emphasis on science. I remember that we did carry out some practical work with circuits and rockets relating to physics and work with plants and pond life in biology, as well as some work on food webs.
We also looked at changing states of matter, using water as an example. Here we looked at different forms, i.e. ice as a solid, water as a liquid and steam as a gas. At primary school, however, I also recall that the amount of time given to science was never equal to that allocated to literacy, arithmetic or even religious education (the school was Roman Catholic). Studying science twice a week for 40 minutes was around the same time allocated to P.E. and not nearly enough as I think should be studied in primary schools!
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Moving onto secondary school, I remember we were first taught science in our mixed ability form groups. This was the norm until the end of Year 9 when, based on the results of the SATS, we would be streamed into four sets for GCSE. The science department scheme of work aimed to gain the AQA Double Award GCSE and did not offer the separate sciences, i.e. biology, chemistry and physics. Set 1, the set I was placed in, only studied for the Higher paper and were expected to achieve A*- B. Those who were seen to be struggling would be ‘dropped’ a set by the end of the first term.
Set 2 would be expected to gain A-C, but I believe the content was delivered slower, with more hands-on time. Set 2 pupils would study for the Higher paper but would have to sit the foundation paper if necessary. Sets 3 and 4 were foundation only and would generally consist of low achievers, although some pupils in set 3 would not necessarily underachieve across the board. It may have been that they were not competent in biology but were at ease with physics and chemistry as they excelled at maths. In hindsight, I think that this was a poor policy for the school to adopt, and I think that it stemmed from the fact that in science, everyone, regardless of their ability, studied for the AQA Double Award (all three sciences were studied, leading to two GCSEs awarded at the same grade).
If singular GSCEs had been studied, then I think that some of those in the lower sets may have been able to achieve higher grades at GCSE, perhaps coming out with one B and one C grade rather than two grades of C. With regards to the teaching strategies adopted, I would say that we were taught in line with Lev Vygotsky’s theories that an experienced teacher is needed to be able to impart the correct knowledge correctly. He believed that a child would develop better if assisted by adults, peers or mentors. Vygotsky claimed, “what a child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.87).
I also think that Bruner’s spiral curriculum came into play during my learning. My teachers introduced topics and then revisited them in cycles to build and expand on them, increasing the complexity of the topic with each visit. “A spiral arrangement of the subject matter allows an extension of each topic and a periodic revision of what has already been taught” (Bruner, 1977, p.52). Regarding my learning, I believe that setting was advantageous to my final results of AA. However, I do not believe that the way the science department operated then (1998/1999) would fit into the ‘every child matters’ strategy of today. Firstly, as a top set, we were given the ablest teachers in all subjects.
Our classes were smaller (split into two Set 1 classes across the year) with only 20 or so pupils in each set, and so the time our teachers had for us one to one was more significant. As far as I recall, we also did more practical work than my friends in lower sets, even in Set 2. We did not just sit and listen to our teachers during lessons, copying out from the board or our textbooks. Instead, we were encouraged to pick apart, digest and discuss what we were learning. From studying how children learn, this is very much what Mortimer and Scott argue in Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms, that teacher-pupil dialogue is central to communicating science in the classroom.
Mortimer and Scott suggest two types of talk in the classroom, ‘authoritative’ or the ‘telling’ and ‘dialogic’ or the ‘discussing’ (Mortimer and Scott, 2003, p.10). ‘Authoritative’ talk involves the teacher focussing on the school’s science materials and ‘telling’ the pupils the scientific point of view. In the ‘dialogic’ talk, the pupils are encouraged to put forward their viewpoints and discuss their ideas, regardless of whether they align with the school’s scientific view. We were also encouraged to engage in group work and share our ideas with each other. Pupil-pupil dialogue, as a class or in small groups brings about the opportunity for the pupils to ‘talk into existence’ (Ogborn et al., 1996) their own understanding of new scientific concepts and removing their everyday misconceptions.
It seems that the teachers or the school, in general, had these sorts of views in mind, wanting us to engage and perhaps believing, as do the authors that both kinds of talks are necessary for learning. Moving onto A-Level study at Sixth Form College, this was structured very similarly to that of GSCE learning, although the classes were bigger and the emphasis was that we were very much responsible for our own learning. Here, there was no streaming or setting. Everybody was taught at the same level. We were encouraged by our tutors to complete our work and nudged in the right direction from time to time, although there wasn’t constant following up on the work. If we didn’t do the work then that was our responsibility.
One thing that did change was that the A-Levels were modular rather than two pieces of coursework and an end-of-year exam. Each module could be repeated if necessary and we were given individual results for each module which allowed us to track our progress to a degree, rather than being unaware of our attainment levels until the final exam. Moving from A-Level to university and studying for my degree, the format of teaching and learning completely changed. Although we were able to ask for advice and guidance from our lecturers and tutors, learning at university was totally our own responsibility. Here, the lectures were just lectures. We were provided with the information we needed and it was up to us to further our understanding of it. I understand why universities teach like this, but it is not my preferred style of learning.
From all my experiences, secondary learning has been my favoured learning. I was well supported in my learning, it was structured so that I was able to make my own decisions and come up with my own ideas and explanations while being given the support and encouragement needed to achieve the highest grades I could. I would hope in my time as teaching I would be able to offer this same support and structure to my pupils, although to all, not just a few higher achievers.
- Bruner, J. (1977). The Process of Education. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
- Mortimer, E,F. and Scott, P,H. (2003) Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms. Maidenhead: Open University Press
- Ogborn, J., Kress, G., Martins, I. and McGillicuddy, K. (1996) Explaining Science in the Classroom. Buckingham: Open University Press
- Vygotsky, L, S. (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press