Teachers 'confused' about solar system: Study shows shaky grasp of curriculum concepts

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PRIMARY school teachers who are expected to explain the workings of the universe are confused about basic concepts such as whether there is any difference between stars and planets.

Two researchers at Westminster College, Oxford, asked 20 primary teachers to describe movements of the sun, moon, stars and planets. A total of 13 different models of the universe emerged, of which only one was scientifically accurate.

Seven of the teachers were unsure of the difference between stars and planets, while two did not know whether the Sun rose in the east or west and a further nine could not describe its daily path through the sky.

More than half thought that the stars were in the same solar system as the Earth, and only seven knew that our Sun is itself a star.

Jenny Mant and Mike Summers remark, in the current issue of Research Papers in Education: 'If these findings are at all typical of primary teachers in general, then clearly there is a need to find ways of helping the development of knowledge and understanding in this area of the national curriculum.'

Others might wonder, amid all the hullabaloo about testing, whether teachers themselves would pass muster. One commented: 'In my head at the moment is the image of the Sun and the how ever many planets - I can't remember how many there are - going round in each circle, and the stars are somewhere in amongst all that in my mind, and I hadn't really thought in terms of whether they moved or not, but they, I suppose they must do.'

Only two teachers knew that the stars appear to rotate about the pole star - half the sample did not think they moved at all. Although most could explain that the daily spin of the Earth causes day and night, two thought that the Earth orbited the sun every 24 hours, and one thought the moon played a role.

To teach the national curriculum in science to primary children, teachers need a grasp of the Earth and Sun, the solar system, and the universe as a whole. Only four had a complete picture of those three levels of understanding.

One teacher lamented: 'I feel appallingly ignorant. It's bad. You see the moon up there every night and the stars and haven't a clue where they come from.'

The researchers conclude: 'This paper may have presented a rather depressing account of primary teachers' understanding of basic astronomical concepts. But it should be remembered that the general public at large and even physics graduates . . . have difficulties in this area.' As they might have added, it is not so hard to see why.