It is vital that we do better in Science
While the overall performance of Irish fourth class primary pupils in science is above the international average as reported in the latest Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS 2011), the level of performance is very similar to when we last participated in 1995. This is despite the introduction of a substantially revised Primary School Science Curriculum (PSSC) in the intervening period.
So what are the reasons for this? Two critical factors are the amount of time allocated to science within the curriculum at one hour per week and the lack of professional development programmes provided for teachers.
While the Irish PSSC more than adequately addresses the subject content and skills that were assessed in TIMSS 2011, the amount of instructional time allocated to science is not sufficient. The National Schools, International Contexts report (Eivers & Clerkin, 2013) indicated that no other country that took part in TIMSS 2011 allocated less time to science than Ireland. Teachers in Ireland spend 63 hours per year teaching science, well below the TIMSS average of 85 hours.
Additional supports in terms of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programmes in developing teachers' competency and confidence in teaching science are also required.
Data collected from TIMSS 2011 indicates that 81pc of the Irish fourth class pupils were taught by teachers who had a major in primary education but no specialism in science. Similarly, the percentage of Irish pupils who had been taught by teachers who had taken professional development courses in science related areas was considerably lower than the international average.
Many of these teachers may not have been afforded access to the requisite knowledge and skills to facilitate the successful implementation of the PSSC.
Research constantly shows that notable improvements in education almost never take place in the absence of professional development. Prior to formal implementation of the PSSC in 2003 Irish primary teachers only received two days' in-service to support them in implementing the PSSC. Since then, no compulsory national professional development programme in science has been provided by the Department of Education and Skills.
It is vital therefore that as a national priority primary teachers in Ireland are provided with additional sustained CPD to support and enhance their teaching of science. In conjunction with this, colleges of education in Ireland need to develop programmes that will enable student teachers to specialise in science education as part of their BEd degrees.
If Irish primary school pupils' performance in science is to be improved we need to support our student and practising teachers with appropriate CPD and increase the amount of 'science time' in the classroom.
Dr Clíona Murphy, Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Teaching and Learning (CASTeL), St Patrick's College, Drumcondra