Forces - Hilary Asoko, University of Leeds, UK
Forces - Primary Science Review, Virginia Whitby, May/June 1998
Forces - Liverpool University Press Book Reviews, Anna Traianou, May/June 1998

Rocks, Soil and Weather - Primary Science Review, Max de Bóo, 29 October 1993

Hilary Asoko
University of Leeds, UK

This is the tenth book in this series of research reports, the previous nine having been published between 1990 and 1994. This report, like the earlier ones, documents the outcomes of a piece of collaborative classroom-based research, involving teachers and university researchers, in which children's ideas about aspects of the topic under consideration were explored before and after teaching interventions. Evidence of changes in thinking is reviewed and areas which appear to be promising targets for intervention are identified.

As explained in the introductory chapter, preliminary work on the topic of forces was carried out by the project team in 1989, prior to the introduction of a National Curriculum in England and Wales. This work, though unpublished, has informed both the curriculum materials which were developed from the projects (Nuffield Primary Science, 1993) and the research which forms the focus of this latest report. In the intervening years, the requirements of the National Curriculum for science have both influenced and raised questions about, classroom practice in primary schools, both in terms of content and pedagogy. This is, perhaps, particularly so with regard to the teaching of topics within the physical sciences, about which many teachers express concern about their own understanding. The revisiting of the topic of forces in 1996/97 was, therefore, timely and potentially very informative.

Of course it is not only within schools where there have been changes. Within the research community ideas about science as a discipline and about the teaching and learning of science concepts have been developing, with an increasing focus on the influence of social and contextual factors. Previous SPACE reports, though situated within a broadly 'constructivist' approach have included little reference to theoretic perspectives on teaching and learning beyond statements in the introductory sections such as that the project is 'based on the view that children develop their ideas through the experiences they have'. In presenting the latest report, however, the authors identify a 'significant change in orientation, compared to the original SPACE project approach' which recognises the interaction between individual cognitive development and the ideas to which a person is exposed. A suggestion is made that conceptual progression may be usefully be considered as being influenced by the interaction of three factors: curriculum sequencing, aspects of cognition and the strategies adopted by teachers. Increased focus on the latter has led, in this study to 'a refinement of the mode of empirical enquiry .... to attempt to represent more fully the teacher's role in passing references within the report to 'enculturation', 'scaffolding', 'the socio-cultural dimension' etc. raises expectation that aspects of this role which extend beyond the provision of hands-on activities, from which children are expected to develop scientific concepts, will be explored.

Following the introduction and a brief chapter on methodology, chapter three reviews previous work into the development of ideas about forces and motion and highlights the difficulties which many learners face. This chapter also provides a brief overview of work on the elicitation of children's ideas and on teaching strategies and approaches designed to advance children's understanding of forces and thus provides useful background to the study.

The outcomes of the research work are detailed in the next three chapters of the report. In the pre-intervention phase pencil and paper 'concept problems', supported by practical activities, were administered by teachers working in their own classes. Selected children were then interviewed about their responses by researchers. The findings from this phase were discussed and possible intervention activities were identified. Teachers then used this information in planning their teaching, which varied from class to class. The basis for decisions as to what was appropriate in individual circumstances is not described. What is reported are examples of what children were asked to do and the resulting product, in the form or writing or drawing. In the post-intervention phase, changes in children's thinking were explored by repeating the process of using written probes and interviews. Within the general area of 'forces' five themes were explored both pre- and post-intervention. These were: the effects of forces, gravity, friction and air resistance, reaction forces and multiple forces. Unlike previous studies which were limited to the primary age range, this work extends to Key Stage 3 (lower secondary), allowing a broader perspective to be taken on the development of ideas. The final chapter draw conclusions from the work and makes recommendations.

It is made clear that this is not a study of the effect of precisely targeted interventions on learning. Nevertheless the interventions employed by teachers were intended to have an effect on children's thinking about forces and motion. Everyday life provides children, from an early age, with a wealth of experience of the behaviour of moving objects and the factors which affect it. Primary pedagogy, which tends to place great importance on the provision of direct physical experience in learning, can provide opportunities for that experience to be systematically explored and investigated. The interventions which are documented here tend to suggest that teachers chose to work largely at this level. Intervention is described as 'a phase in which teachers help children transform and develop their understanding' (p.35). Teachers ,offered children experiences which gave them an opportunity to reflect on their ideas, test them out, discuss them and amend, reject or retain them' (p. 10). The problem, in learning about forces, is that the scientific explanatory ideas used to account for observations made are abstract and frequently appear counter to common sense. Providing children with experiences of phenomena and events, focusing their attention on salient features, and asking questions in the hope that they will develop a scientific understanding is, therefore, not sufficient. However much they explore and develop their own ideas, argue the evidence for them and write and draw about them, and however valuable this may be in terms of developing associated skills, without the introduction of new ideas children's thinking is confined by the ideas they already have, either individually or as a group. A view of science teaching as a process of enculturation into a different way of thinking about the world necessitates the use of classroom strategies which allow new ideas to be introduced, explained, explored and used. Although it is stated that teachers ensured that different sources of knowledge were made accessible' (p.39) little mention is made of teachers themselves 'offering' children ideas as well as experiences. Some interventions did include the use of, for example, secondary sources such as video, or bridging analogies and there is one reference to the direct introduction, during a class discussion, of the idea of mass as distinct from weight. However, the effectiveness of such strategies cannot be assessed from the data provided. Interestingly, despite the fact that this work extended into Key Stage 3, few interventions at years 7-9 are reported. It might be expected that more teacher explanation and exposition would be encountered here and contrasts in the styles of teaching of similar concepts at different Key Stages could be highlighted and analysed. Surprisingly, in view of the apparent recognition that verbal interactions play a significant role in the construction of new ideas, very little teacher-pupil dialogue is reported and no pupil-pupil discussion.

In the final chapter some useful general ideas about the development of children's understanding and the implications for long-term curriculum sequencing are outlined. The work of Karmiloff-Srnith (1992) and Lee and Karmiloff-Smith (1996) is drawn on in the report both to Justify the use of teaching strategies which allow children to represent their ideas in different ways, and to discuss the use of symbols to represent and communicate ideas. Primary teachers are often concerned about whether and when to introduce formal symbols such as arrow notation, and vocabulary such as 'force' or ,gravity'. The fact that children are exposed to both the words and the symbols in everyday life adds to the problem. A common source of confusion for children, which is not mentioned, is that arrows are often used to indicate the direction of movement of an object, rather than the direction of a force. Some of the problems and benefits of using arrow symbols to represent forces are explored. Issues of language, which are arguably more significant in terms of shaping thinking, are briefly discussed. The chapter ends with some suggestions for sequencing aspects of the curriculum. SPACE reports have proved a useful source of information about children's ideas for student teachers, teachers - especially those on advanced courses, and researchers. This report is no exception and will be a useful addition to the library. However it is not clear to which audience the book is addressed and some readers may find it falls short of their expectations. Teachers will again recognise similarities to their own children and their own practice, though inevitably questions arise about the interpretation of children's responses, particularly from drawings. Readers who themselves feel insecure about their understanding of forces may find it difficult to decide whether responses are acceptable or not, especially when they may be partially scientifically correct. The report provides a useful account of the type of activities which may be seen in the classes of informed primary teachers and gives an indication of what it might be reasonable to expect of children. However, as guide to how best to maximise children's learning, either in terms of the selection, sequencing or use of activities, it is limited, as children's progress cannot be attributed to specific teaching actions. Further work needs to be done in this area. The project itself must have generated vast amounts of data, for example on classroom interactions, teacher thinking and development, and specific targeted interventions, to which Justice cannot have been done in this book. Publications on. for example, classroom approaches, are promised and will be welcomed by teachers. A more detailed exploration of the data from the theoretical perspectives outlined would be both interesting and of value to researchers. Four more SPACE project reports are listed under 'forthcoming titles'. Perhaps some of the issues raised by this publication will be explored and developed in them.


KARMILOFF-SMITH A. (1992) Beyond Modularity: a developmental perspective on cognitive science . MIT Press.

LEE, K and KARMILOFF-SMITH A. (1996) The development of external symbol systems: the child as notator. In Gelman R. and Kit-Fong Au T. Perceptual and cognitive development. Academic Press.

NUFFIELD PRIMARY SCIENCE (1993) Collins Educational.

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Primary Science Review
Virginia Whitby
May/June 1998

This report will be of interest to both primary school class teachers and students in initial teacher education. As with previous SPACE reports, the aim is to find out what effective ways there are for helping children to gain an understanding of some fundamental scientific ideas - in this instance relating to forces. The work has been firmly based in the classroom involving teachers as fully as possible and providing training and support as needed.

The report follows the same format as previous ones. The introduction gives the background to the project, whilst chapter 2 provides the detail of the methodology: pre-intervention elicitation and interviews, intervention, post-intervention elicitation and interviews.

Chapter 3 is a literature review of teaching and learning about forces. This provides very helpful insight into the difficulties children have had in developing an understanding of forces. The chapter is structured in a useful way to include:

  • summary of research approaches to the elicitation of children's ideas;
  • summary of children's ideas;
  • teaching strategies.

Teachers and student teachers will find this a useful review and it will help with the planning of activities for children.

Chapters 4 to 7 describe the research and conclusion. This agrees with previous research that it is essential to introduce children to the idea of force from a young age. The data comparing the pre- and post-intervention understanding of the children are helpful, particularly for student teachers coming to terms with their own misconceptions as well as dealing with those of children.

The inclusion in the appendix of the examples of the concept probes and the extracts of children's work provide a very useful insight into children's understanding.

The report confirms that children do find the whole area of forces abstract and complex. This is in some ways reassuring to teachers, particularly those who feel their own scientific knowledge in this area weak.

I look forward to the remaining reports being published as they provide valuable information on children's understanding of science.

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Liverpool University Press Book Reviews
Anna Traianou
May/June 1998

This is the tenth book in a series by the Primary SPACE (Science Processes and Concept Exploration) Project. It aims to understand the development of young children's ides of forces, from research involving 19 teachers from 15 schools with children in Key Stages 1-3. Forces has been regarded as a difficult area of the National Curriculum for both teachers and children, and this report contributes to our understanding of the teaching and learning of this area.

The report discusses, first the methodology and the research design of the project. It then explains how activities (concept probes) were structured for the elicitation of children's ideas, followed by the description of the teaching approach (intervention) planned by the researchers and carried out by the teachers. The next chapter discusses children's ideas before and after the intervention together with extracts from what children said, wrote or drew. It provides valuable information about children's thinking about forces. Here, the authors begin to explore the issue of conceptual progression in children's learning. This issue is discussed in more detail in the last chapter of the report, which also makes claims about the effectiveness of the project's teaching approach for children's learning in science.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is the fifth chapter, which describes the intervention phase. It gives some indication of the activities used and the ways they were used by the teachers who took part in the study. It also includes a sense of the outcomes of those activities. Primary teachers may find it helpful to refer to the ideas for classroom practical activities in this section.

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Rocks, Soil and Weather
Primary Science Review
29 October 1993
Max de Bóo

The latest report from SPACE (Science Processes and Concept Exploration) gives another clear account of the collaborative research conducted by the project research team and class and advisory teachers. Children's ideas about 'rocks, soil and weather' were sought, followed by an intervention period when they were encouraged to test their, and other, ideas out and subsequently questioned again. The researchers collected a band of data that is categorized and compared, with itself, and with received scientific opinions such as geologists' definitions of soil and its origins.

The report gives a good clear description of the methods, children 9aged from 5 to 11) and themes chosed, and makes relevant references to the National Curriculum for Science and previous research in this area. It quites many of the children's responses, which will sound familiar to anyone used to hearing children express their ideas. The authors themselves refer to the 'semantic complexities' they have to unravel in the usage of the words. It is this very complexity that can make assessment of children's learning so difficult to undertake in the classroom and make such a nonsense of simplistic testing superimposed from outside.

In this case, it is made clear how children's comments are evaluated, and how drawings were utilized to assess the nature of their conceptual understanding. There are delightful reproductions of children's drawings such as vertical sections through the Earth, the weather and weathering.

The section on intervention gives detaisl on how teachers provided children with opportunities to investigate and discuss their own ideas, modify and generalize, try out activities leading to the 'right' ideas, read, research and discuss the findings. This is a rich source of practical activities (neatly summarized in the appendix) for other teachers to use with their children. The report then compares the children's post-intervention ideas with their earlier ones and notes any changes that have taken place, that is, what may have been learned through intervention.

While I feel concerned about generalizing from such small samples (10 per cent can sound substantial but we may be talking about only two children), there is such a dearth of research in this area, that this report gives us much-needed insight into children's ides which we can use to good effect in our own teaching. The report contains information which could be valuable to schools, science coordinators and advisory teachers. In-house INSET on science could be generated by staff reading the excellent summary at the end of the report and discussing the implications it has for how we approach teaching and learning earth science, discussions which would be supported by the information on conventional terminology and meanings.

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