“It’s not science, it’s life”

Posted on: 16 Aug 2017

Hilary Phillips, headmistress at Monmouth School Girls' Prep, discusses her decision to employ a scientist at the school - an unqualified teacher - to spark pupils' interest in learning science.

In response to an article in The Times that science lessons have become 'boring and irrelevant'.

“It’s not science, it’s life”

That was a comment from a pupil in Year 6 at Monmouth School Girls’ Prep after she was asked why she liked the subject. In fact, she was so interested that she decided to start her own lunchtime science club to continue exploring the ideas generated in her science lessons. She ran it herself with a group of about eight friends with a discreet eye being kept on them from long range. It was fascinating to watch; they just did things. The whole time, they were looking ideas up on laptops, comparing what they found out and trying out the processes then deciding what had been the most successful. They also discovered that science is messy-that’s just life too! They improved their cleaning up skills as part of the process and also became better at deciding how far to go before they launched themselves into a project because they were more able to predict how long it would take, whether it might be successful or not and if the balance of achievement versus fun was worth it.

They probably picked up on this idea due to their curriculum science lessons. We needed a new science teacher a year ago and coincidentally, a scientist walked through the door interested in a place for his daughter. Dr Toby Murcott had never taught children so young before-he’d lectured university students and written widely on science but he had the sort of expression that seemed to suggest he’d be a lot of fun and if he could survive the age group, we thought we would be on to something very interesting. We asked him not to blow anything up that wasn’t expendable - buildings, children etc and we sat down together to think about what we wanted the children to get out of science lessons: curiosity, interest, a refusal to be put off, a sense of daring and wonder, the ability to ask questions and resistance to being fobbed off. We decided that a curriculum was a good idea in terms of skills we wanted the children to develop and a progression in the scientific ideas but that really, they could study anything. Dr Murcott asked all his pupils what they liked and where their interests lay. They came up with questions - quite big ones as well as small ones and then worked together to see how they might go about answering them. Year 6 have studied electricity, as primary children usually do but they haven’t written up an experiment in a mini-me GCSE way. To find out how electricity worked they took things apart; phones, vacuum cleaners, a television, a lap top were some of the victims and through this they learnt valuable lessons. They discovered how switches worked and they looked at the history of appliances noticing how things had changed. They also learnt how hard it is to put something back together and developed strategies to make the process easier such as labelling, laying parts out in order, taking the time to make notes, all valuable skills for life.

The pupils were so enthused by their studies that they decided to mount a science fair. Small groups chose a question and then worked to find an answer. “What parts of a packed lunch will last best?” This group buried lunches to find out. A hands-on test to see which colour hair generates the most static electricity and a trial to decide if dogs can understand different languages were also explored. The girls worked with their peers from the parallel Monmouth School Boys’ Prep sharing ideas and having fun with science.

So science here isn’t boring because it is treated not as a discreet classroom subject but rather how life works. It is relevant to the children’s lives and there is no set way for them to respond or to record their findings. Of course, they do record and retain information but in a way that they will be able to use for the next step. To do this, you need a really good scientist - someone who can answer the tricky questions and who has a genuine understanding of how the world works. You need someone who is prepared to admit they don’t know the answers. You need a certain amount of courage to deviate from the standard curriculum and you need to be able to convince parents that what you are doing is the right way forward.

As pupil Ottilie said, as she continued her conversation with her friends in science club; “All life is science”

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About Hilary Phillips

Hilary Phillips is headmistress at Monmouth School Girls' Prep.