How you can be sure your children are learning science at school

Science comes in many forms, and not all of it is taught while wearing lab coats

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 June, 2016, 1:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 June, 2016, 1:28pm

A reader writes: I am concerned about the science curriculum at my son’s school. He says he misses the classes where students would conduct experiments and mix chemicals to see the reaction. Should I ask the administrators to check the teacher’s reason for this?

Every teacher should have a lab coat handy. They could slip it on to give the kids a clear message: “now we are doing science.” Science is not just about pouring, mixing and watching the colour change or bubbles overflowing. It is about how the dinosaurs lived and what fossils are; how the layers of dirt tell us what was happening 1,000 years ago. It is about how we classify animals and plants; how things grow and develop.

Small children are not familiar with the different schools of science. Sometimes they are not even sure where reading ends and history begins. It is all lumped together for them. Cooking is science; physical education is science; history is science – but it is in how you tell the story.

Children will learn about Isaac Newton and his famous falling apples, eventually. After they have dropped thousands of balls in physical education class, or tested two basketballs to see which one bounced better.

Biology will become clear long after they squat by the garden path watching a beetle waddle up a tree, or the wings of a butterfly unfurl. They will dig in the dirt and find small shells trapped, and look at fossils that are the same and make connections.

The magic of crystals and chemical interactions are part of cooking, but you don’t put a lab coat on to prepare dinner. If teachers had a lab coat, children would see science taught nearly every day. But because they don’t change their clothes, students think the lesson about the ocean is not really science. They may not know what subject the food chain was part of but they won’t think it was science.

The effects of pollution on wildlife in the oceans are upsetting, but to students, they are not science. A book about a boy digging through the layers of dirt in his garden, discovering a fossil, is English to them, not science. Measuring the distance toy cars travel down a ramp when you lift it up are maths, they believe.

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Life is such a mixture it is hard to teach anything in isolation. But many students love the magic of science, the tricks you can play. The way a vacuum holds the water in the glass when you remove the paper: magic. The way crystals grow up the string when you leave the salt and the water in the glass is magic. The way light bends in water and makes objects appear warped through the glass is magic. So when science doesn’t look like magic, they forget it is still science.

Science in the early years is about understanding that some things are living and growing and others are not. It’s thinking about and sorting through items and events that happen naturally, and others that are man-made; developing the vocabulary related to predictions and outcomes; discovering that there is a structure to how things are named and classified; realising that some things were created by accident, and learning to analyse, and maximise, the new product.

If your child has been studying the water cycle, they have been learning about science. If they have been learning about things that fly and swim, then they have been learning about science. If they have been reading about old-fashioned toys made from metal, cloth, glass, rubber or wood, they have quite possibly been learning about science. If they have been comparing how children live in Mexico and Hong Kong, there will have been aspects of science.

If your child has been playing with items that roll, squish, twist or break, then they have been learning not only the vocabulary of science but some of the means by which scientists begin to explain and classify inventions and discoveries.

The curriculum often integrates science with history, geography, literacy and maths. Volume and measure and the displacement method are needed before quantifying science can begin. Reading leads children into books on many aspects of science. Writing a story about a new invention takes research, predictions and analysing of outcomes.

If you are really concerned, tactfully ask the teacher what the science focus is and find ways to show your child why and how the activities are science. When he becomes more aware of what science is, he can become more aware of the magic around us.

Kris Gienger teaches at a Hong Kong primary school