The new Key Stage 2 curriculum has brought in various new topics, including teaching evolution in Year 6 science. Previous to this primary school biology had included variation and adaptation, the cornerstones of evolution, but not explicitly required teachers to teach Darwin’s theory. The non-statutory guidance also mentions learning about famous figures in the history of evolutionary biology including Mary Anning and Alfred Russell Wallace alongside Darwin himself.
A colleague, Ewa Prokop who is Mad About Charles Darwin (literally), wrote a children’s book about Darwin and his work (Darwin’s Wild Pursuits), exploring some of the aspects of evolution through imagined conversations he has with creatures he meets on his perambulations in the countryside around his home in Kent, Down House, where he spent the last 40 years of his life. I particularly like the last story about the orb-weaving spider who tells Darwin that one of her sisters on suffering an accident that meant she could no longer make a web learned how to hunt on the ground instead. I’m quite fond of spidery tales.
Ewa put together a plan to run some teacher training on evolution in Yeovil Country Park, a wonderful setting, with their rangers. I went and co-delivered that recently. Along with Ewa’s book, a precis of Darwin’s life and work (which is often misunderstood) and the steps in his theory of evolution I demonstrated a number of possible activities teachers could do with children that Darwin himself did. I was pleased to note that several of the teachers had come across the blocks I wrote on Darwin and Anning for the Hamilton Trust.
The Charles Darwin Trust, one of the organisations whose umbrella I work under, identified certain ways of working that were typical to Darwin, though not confined to him, including using everyday materials to conduct simple experiments; talking to many other people, not just scientists, about their particular expertise; and close, frequent and sustained observation of certain habitats. His method is quite accessible to primary aged children.
Experiments included wrapping unopened flower buds with kitchen muslin (with quite an open weave) to see what effect preventing insects visiting will have on the flower; taking pond mud and seeing what grows from it; and feeding carnivorous plants toenails and hair. Another simple experiment involved eating several ‘purple ones’ from a certain chocolate box (I suffer for my work, I really do!) and using the cellophane wrapper to simulate the ultraviolet eyesight of bees. If you hold them up against certain flowers (we tried celandine and wood anemone) you can see the darker markings that are not otherwise visible to our eyes that guide bees towards the nectar. Work by a team at the University of Arizona have found that this reduces the amount of nectar robbing that bumblebees undertake and so is a very successful strategy for flowering plants. This demonstrated, in a very Darwinian way, that there has been work on evolution since Darwin. This is especially important because the guidance in the national curriculum suggests not mentioning genetics.
The rangers also showed how teachers can very simply sample the environment at Yeovil Country Park with sweeping nets, tree beating and pond dipping so that children can get closer to nature, observe the animals and plants around them and start to make their own observations.