Science - September 25, 2014

Good science starts in the primary school

Roelof Kleis

Pupils at Dutch primary schools get three quarters of an hour of science per week, often known as nature study or nature & technology. That is very little.

In neighbouring countries, says PhD student Ester Alake-Tuenter, primary school classes do three to four hours of science a week. Moreover, the 45 minutes could be used much better than is currently the case. Many teachers lack the knowledge, the skills and the right attitude to make what is called investigative learning a reality. Alake-Tuenter teaches at the Iselinge Higher Education college in Doetinchem. For the past seven years she has also been doing research on science education in primary schools and the competencies teachers need to establish investigative learning. Above all, she says, it is important that teachers are aware of children’s misconceptions. Alake-Tuenter: ‘A example. At Duiven there is a plant where garbage is burnt. Many children think clouds are made there.’

It starts to go wrong in the third year of primary school. Then we start to explain to them how things work, before they ask any questions
Ester Alake-Tuenter

As a teacher you can tell these children that this is wrong, and explain what is really happening. But that is the most superficial way of transferring knowledge, in Alake-Tuenter’s view. ‘It is not wrong, but superficial. By asking the right questions, a teacher can help the children to discover for themselves that their ideas do not make sense.’ Asking the right questions is at the heart of investigative learning and the scientific method. You do not have to teach it to infants, she says. ‘They still ask uninhibited questions. It starts to go wrong in the third year of primary school. Then we start to explain to them how things work, before they ask any questions. And that, actually, is fatal.’ Besides skills and attitudes, knowledge of the subject is important too. From Alake-Tuenter’s research it is clear that fewer than one third of the first-years on primary teacher training courses in the Netherlands have sufficient substantial knowledge about nature to teach science. There is a chance to catch up in these areas during the teacher training course. But Alake-Tuenter argues for a rigorous approach: stricter selection of the intake. ‘That will lead to fewer recruits initially. But in the long run there will be more respect for the teaching profession and you will get the right students coming in.’

By only admitting students with an adequate grasp of the material to be taught, you would have more time to spend on getting their methodological and pedagogical skills up to scratch, says Alake-Tuenter. She denies that this would exclude large groups from teacher training. ‘The intake takes place in May. In the summer you can catch up on the knowledge you lack and then still join the course in September.’

Ester Alake-Tuenter graduates with a PhD on Wednesday 1 october at 11.00. Her supervisor is Martin Mulder, professor of Education and Competency Studies.