Friday, June 5, 2015

So what's the problem with Primary Science Education?

I've been following the discussions about Primary Science questions with great interest. I guess that's due to two reasons:
1. I am a parent of children who would have to sit for the PSLE Science paper (even though we homeschool, our kids have to sit for PSLE). 
2. I used to teach Science in a Secondary school, and I recognize the challenges in teaching the subject. 

The topic has generated much debate. Usually someone uploads a photo of some Science question on Facebook, and before long everyone is sharing and lamenting about how our education system doesn't allow us to "think out of the box", and how we kill creativity with expecting model answers. Then there are those who would agree with the marking scheme, and some technical discussion on the use of terms ensues. Basically, everyone's complaining, everyone's arguing, but I've yet to see a constructive, helpful article written to help parents to understand the scientific method, or guide parents into helping their child to think scientifically (and not just figure out the answer that will get the child full marks). 

So with that in mind, I'm collaborating with some other teachers to come up with some tips and guidelines for parents to help their kids learn Science (you can read our post in exploring Science with young children and good Science books over here). 

Meanwhile, here are just some reflections on the issue of Primary Science Education:

1. When answering science questions, you are expected to speak the language. 
I've heard complaints about the need for key words when it comes to answering science questions, which many associate as being required to make marking easier, but in the process, make answer schemes too rigid. The thing is, Science is based on facts, and it is important that facts, inferences and conclusions must be expressed in a concise, coherent manner:

"When people are engaged in science, the language of communication they use tries to be more precise and consistent. Science often introduces technical words with specific meanings and also gives scientific meaning to words which may have a different usage in everyday language."
(Source: State Government of Victoria, Department of Education and Training. The article also contains useful things to think about with regards to the use of scientific language.)

So when talking science, we deal with specific terms that help to describe things clearly. For example, it is far easier and more exact to name a part of the body or a process, rather than describe it: eg. the stomach, vs. the bag in the body that holds food, OR diffusion vs. movement of particles. This is not the place for creative writing, which your child should save for their compositions. Teach your child to speak the language by identifying what are the important terms which are used in each topic. Also, don't confuse innovation with the systematic presentation of facts and conclusions. There is innovation in science, but such innovation is also based on scientific facts. The creativity in Science lies in the application of scientific concepts in a new way, and shouldn't be confused with vague answers by children, explained away as an attempt of being creative in their writing. 

2. Answering science questions should be based on the skills of the scientific method, and not just the regurgitation of key words, or the memorization of answers. 
The scientific method is based on the process of formulating a question, coming up with a hypothesis, making predictions, running tests, and then analyzing the results. Science also involves the skills of making relevant observations, recording those observations (such as in drawings, tables or graphs), and applying knowledge into new situations.

Children can learn such scientific skills, but these take time to teach. Children need to be trained to attain these skills. With the acquiring of these skills comes the ability to understand and answer science questions. However, because there is usually not enough time to teach such skills, kids don't understand the intent or expectations of certain questions, leading to inaccurate or incomplete answers, and the tendency to take the easy way of memorizing model answers.

Let's take for example these questions:

Source: MalMal Our Inspiration

Science requires observations and conclusions to be explained in a systematic way. Usually it involves an observation (the sun is behind her), a fact (that the light rays are blocked by Betty), and a conclusion (her shadow appears in front of her). Because the child left out the fact, the teacher gave the child only half the marks, as the answer was incomplete. This systematic way of explaining natural phenomena, of A leading to B leading to C should be taught to kids, so that they are able to answer various questions coherently. Memorizing the answers might not work, since sometimes the questions may involve new situations.

Source: Everything Also Complain

Then there's the debate about questions requiring observations. In Science, children would be taught that observations are things that they can SEE. This is the basis of these questions (which have been so hotly debated!), that once they are given a picture, they should be using their powers of observation, rather than presuming anything in their answers. Another example would be this question that recently surfaced in FB:

Source: A Facebook Post

The instructions to "study the animals" or "observe the two objects" are not meant to be a trick, and the intent of the questions would be to test the skill of observation in children, not their ability to remember the characteristics of lions, birds and planes! In the first question, the students were asked to state a similarity, which could be anything from both having four legs, to both having a tail. In the second, it cannot be seen in the pictures that the bird and plane can fly, or that one is a living thing and the other is not.

All in all, I would advise parents to teach your kids the scientific skills needed, instead of getting them to memorize answers. If they have the necessary skills, the good grades will follow. And the great thing about that is that they can bring those skills away with them and use them in the future, unlike memorized answers, which are swiftly forgotten after the exam is over!

3. To teach the scientific method requires time. Which schools usually do not have.
According to my friends who teach in Primary Schools, the Primary 3 students get on average one and half hours of Science per week, while the Primary 5 students get about 3 hours per week. If you've ever taught in a school before, you'd know that this includes time spent managing behavior ("teacher, he pinched me!", "teacher, I need to go to the toilet"), time spent collecting and distributing homework, and time moving from the classroom to the lab. Which translates to very little instructional time. How to teach like that?

But even with the limited time, I do know many teachers do take the effort to teach inquiry and the scientific method, and they try to make Science interesting for their kids. However, their hands are tied, since it is really difficult to teach skills in such a short period of time. 

4. Teaching the scientific method also requires understanding, which some teachers may struggle with.
From what I understand, teachers are trained to teach scientific enquiry and the scientific method.  However many do not have a Science background, and may not feel fully equipped to teach the subject. Also, the teaching of science should ideally contain experiences: doing experiments to train kids on the skills of observation, making deductions and forming conclusions, planning experiments to test hypotheses, visits to the zoo to observe animals for real. But given the time, and the huge class sizes, these can be really really difficult to do. Can you imagine running experiments with a class of 40 young kids involving boiling water in glass beakers? Even I sometimes quake at the thought of experiments with my Sec 2 students since class management can be a nightmare in the lab!

That aside, I do admit some teachers can be overly strict with their marking, and sometimes questions can be poorly phrased and lead to many possible answers. However, it seems like most of the questions that are being debated are due to the issue of not understanding the skills being tested, rather than strict or anal marking schemes. 

5. Parents can help guide the child to learn scientific inquiry. Your mindset matters.
Instead of focusing on getting the right answers, try asking why your child got it wrong. Ask yourself what he missed out, and why that was important. While some schools can be too rigid about mark schemes, I find most teachers are most willing to guide and help if the parent's approach is to guide the child into thinking scientifically, and not to nit-pick about the marking scheme. 

Avoid worrying that your child's self-esteem would be affected by getting his questions marked wrongly, but empower him with the necessary skills to reason scientifically, because these skills go far. Like I've mentioned, not only will they help to guide him through exams, they are useful skills in real life.

6. So some teachers can be overly strict or rigid. But PSLE marking won't be. 
This is what many Primary school teachers tell me. Schools can be really strict, but PSLE markers seek to award the child the marks as much as possible. So relax lah!

Ok, so if you've read thus far, you'd probably be thinking that it'll be easy for me to ask parents to guide their kids to picking up scientific skills, since I have a science background and used to teach science. What about the parent without a scientific background? How like that? For tips, you'd have to stay tuned for future posts!


  1. Hmm... I am looking at the bird and the plane. In order to say both of them have wings, I must first understand what each of them are.

    If I understand that one is a plane, I should know that one of the structures is the wing. Otherwise I should not be able to use the term "wing" with confidence. Now, since I must know what that object is, I can draw conclusion that it must be able to fly. So I must be able to state that it has the capacity to do so, should I not?

    To make the point clearer, let's look at the bird. Now, I have to know that this is a bird. If I don't, then the only conclusion I should be able to make purely by looking at the picture is that it appears to have structures similar to a bird such as the eye, beak and tail. Since I can't see an outstretched wing, I must NOT be able to conclude that it is a structure similar to a wing. Neither should I be able to use the word "wing".

    My point is, if they are going to be very sticky about this, then they have to make sure that they take every care to ensure that the diagrams do indeed show exactly what they want the children to state as observations. Clearly, the setter has failed to do this.

    At the same time, they have to teach children not to state that those are wings but "structures similar to wings". Again this sounds unwieldy for a child of such an age. So they have opted to go with "both have wings". If they are going to accept the latter as the answer, they have to also allow children to state that both objects shown may be able to fly. That's science. Why? Science is not just observation, but also deduction and involves forming hypotheses.

    IMO, MOE really needs to re-look the way they are teaching, not just science but also the other subjects. Do we still need to wonder why our children have limited thinking capacity?

  2. Well said! I totally agree to comment above! I was just thinking the same thing : that the bird didn't have the "out stretched" structure that the plane did. It's not correct to expect students to deduce some and yet not others.... It's more like a puzzle game than testing knowledge of science theories! - A Ng.

  3. Having a wing doesn't mean u can infer that it can fly. Flying is an action and the picture is not animated to show that. This is to test kids abilities to infer from the picture, not their ability to assume.

    You can infer from the pic that the aeroplane has wings and a tail. But you cannot infer that it can fly because if it wasn't built to specifications, the aeroplane could crash. It could be a toy plane for rolling along on the floor or one made of clay for display purposes. You can only assume it is a real plane or a toy one that can fly but u can't confirm it from just looking at the picture alone.

    It's like, for example saying, a pic of a toadstool is that of something edible because it looks like a mushroom to u. You can say infer that they both have a stem but u can't assume both are edible.

    In Science, there is a method to how u answer the questions (factually and never by assumptions) & understanding and applying this method is what gets you the grade. It isn't English. It isn't English Compo. It isn't English Lit. U can argue until the cows come home about how you feel your answer is right but factually if it isn't, it isn't.

    Having said that I agree with the blogger that the markers are less strict and more keen on awarding scores where possible so don't worry. My son just went through his PSLE last year and it wasn't too bad an experience. On hindsight, I think sometimes we are more stressed about it than we need to as parents.

  4. Urgh, I'm become even more nervous in preparing my child for primary school. So, what skill does parent need to teach them scientific skills?

  5. Thanks Just for sharing and readers for interesting comments. So looks like as a parent, I've to let my kids do more assessements books to "get used" to that kind of answering techniques :P
    Looking forward to futurn posts on other tips :)



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