Letter to the Department for Education

Following the release of the draft National Curriculum for science Key Stages 1 and 2 (PDF) on Monday, Stuart Lynn sparked some discussion on Twitter over problems with the wording in the notes and guidance for teachers in Year 4 (ages 8-9). The biggest issue is that they refer to constellations as clusters of stars. After a bit of discussion I suggested we be proactive and send our feedback to the Department for Education. Between us we drafted this email and I'll be sending it later today (2pm BST) if anyone wants to add their name to it.

Dear Sir/Madam,

We are astronomers with a strong interest in education and public outreach. On Monday 11th June we had the opportunity to read your draft National Curriculum for science Key Stages 1 and 2. We welcome the expanded notes for teachers connected to the Year 4 Programme of Study for "Earth and space" but note that they contain some inaccuracies and misleading statements.

We suggest the following changes:

  1. The most significant problem is in paragraph 181:

    "Identifiable clusters of stars are called constellations."

    We feel there is potential for confusion over the use of "cluster of stars". A cluster implies a close group. Star clusters - close groups of stars that formed from the same original gas cloud - do exist but are very different objects to constellations. Constellations are simply patterns of bright stars in the sky as seen from our point of view here on Earth. There is no physical relationship between the stars in a constellation, which can be at widely different distances from the Earth. A suggested change would be:

    "Identifiable patterns of bright stars are called constellations."

  2. In paragraph 184:

    "making an approximately scale model of the Sun, Moon and Earth in the playground, using a beach ball for the Sun, a football for the Earth and a table tennis ball for the Moon; setting up the distances to demonstrate that the Moon and Sun look the same size from Earth, despite being vastly different in size."

    This might be overloading the analogy. It does show that the Moon and Sun are at different distances but using incorrectly scaled objects may lead to misconceptions about the relative sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon. It may be clearer if the demonstration of eclipses was done as a separate demo to the size/distance scale of the Earth-Moon-Sun, as the suggested scale is not quite accurate. On a standard school playing field approximate sizes would be: Sun 1m, Earth 1cm (at 100m from the Sun), Moon 3mm (at 30cm from the Earth). Suggested objects for such an exercise would be: a Hula Hoop for the Sun, a marble for Earth, and a peppercorn for the Moon.

  3. In paragraph 181:

    "Constellations that pupils might be expected to recognise and name include: Orion (The Hunter); Ursa Major (Great Bear, whose seven brightest stars form the Plough); and Ursa Minor (Lesser Bear)."

    Although the constellation of Ursa Minor (The Little Bear) contains the North Star (Polaris), it is actually a fairly faint constellation that may be difficult for many to see. A better suggestion would be the constellation of Cassiopeia as it is easier to see and is always above the horizon as seen from the UK.

  4. A suggested change would be:

    "Constellations that pupils might be expected to recognise and name include: Orion (The Hunter); Ursa Major (The Great Bear, whose seven brightest stars form The Plough); and Cassiopeia."

  5. In paragraph 181:

    "The position of stars is fixed relative to each other, although they appear to move across the sky (in a similar way to the Sun during the day)."

    Over a human lifetime there is very little change in their apparent positions relative to each other however over much longer periods the stars do change their positions.
    Perhaps "The stars appear to move across the sky as the Earth rotates, just as the Sun does during the day." would be a better phrasing.
    Update 11:24 BST (change suggested by Niall in comments below Perhaps "From day to day, year to year, stars do not appear to change position relative to each other. They rise and set due to the rotation of the Earth, much like the Sun."

  6. In paragraph 181:

    "The star at the centre of our solar system is one of millions of stars in the galaxy called the Milky Way."

    There are roughly 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way so "millions" should be replaced with "thousands of millions" or "billions".

  7. In paragraph 176:

    "the Moon moves around the Earth, taking 28 days to do so."

    There are two periods for the Moon and neither are 28 days. However, the reasons are far beyond the scope of primary education. We suggest a note for teachers be added with regards this point:

    "For teacher information, the Moon takes 27.3 days to orbit the Earth once as compared to the stars. The interval between the Moon being at the same phase is longer - 29.5 days - because the Earth and Moon are also orbiting the Sun."

We would be happy to discuss this further should that be useful.

With regards,

Stuart Lowe, Stuart Lynn, Eli Bressert, Olivia Johnson & Chris North

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 15th Jun 2012 (10:47 BST) | Permalink
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