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How do we decide what to teach?

April 16th, 2009

Over the last couple of days I have been at the primary science conferences in Dunedin and Christchurch. I have been struck by the enthusiasm of primary teachers who have given up part of their holiday to learn more about teaching science which if we are honest has a fairly low (though perhaps increasing) profile in primary schools at the moment. I have also gleaned some new ideas about how we might get kids more enthusiastic about science and how to get them wondering and talking about their world.  However what seems to be largely missing from the sessions I have attended (including my own!) is discussion about what primary students need to know in science if they are to be able to “participate as critical, informed and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role” which is the rationale for teaching science in the curriculum document.

When teachers  (or resource developers for that matter) plan a unit of work do we pause and think why do I think students need to learn this? What is important about this? How is it fitting into the bigger picture? Or do we plan something that seems interesting and then afterwards try and fit it to the curriculum? It strikes me that if we are doing the latter, then adding “key competencies”, Nature of Science or anything else isn’t really doing anything different..or am I missing something here? How would a science curriculum that was designed to produce “confident, connected, actively involved life long learners” be different from a traditional school science curriculum? What content would be in it?

I recently asked a specialist physics teacher what she thought the basic physics ideas were that primary students needed to gain an understanding of. If my memory serves me correctly she said something about conservation of energy, something about conservation of matter and an appreciation of the concept of force. Do you agree? What other things in science do primary students need to know a little bit about? What would teachers need to know to be able to teach these ideas effectively? Looking forward to hearing some ideas.

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  1. | #2

    Hi Ally, I just read an article in Scientific American Mind magazine, which put forward a really interesting case for why we need to focus much more on teaching people to “think statistically”. The authors were talking about the need to help doctors to draw on studies of research probabilities (e.g. probabilities of cancer mortalities, probabilities of “false positives” in diagnostic tests) in order to figure out (and correctly explain) actual risk probabilities to their individual patients. They found that, before a special training programme they provided, doctors actually often interpreted risk probabilities quite incorrectly! When we think about teaching science, how often do we think beyond the science content/concepts to actally consider all the other kinds of thinking – like statistical thinking – that are absolutely critical for enabling people to actually use science knowledge effectively?

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