Combining play, science and language: 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2014

Brian Schiller (Photo credit: WildBear)Brian Schiller

At Seacliff Primary School in Adelaide’s south, Brian Schiller’s students are describing states of matter, mixing of materials, and products of chemical reactions—in Japanese.

It’s just one way that Brian is creatively using science to enhance student learning in a range of curriculum areas.

“Science can be a basis for teaching many different subjects, such as language, music, numeracy, reading and writing,” he says. “Students can play and create, and relate their learning to the world around them.

“When my students are given practical experiences and a chance to learn through being active, they are then motivated to plan their paths of enquiry, present their ideas and then write about their discoveries. A good primary science class develops maths skills, language, and problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The children and their learning are the focus of the classroom, and they inspire each other to such a great extent.”

Brian nurtures this creativity through student-initiated investigations, where the students bring the questions and Brian guides them in setting up investigations to get the answers.

But it’s not just the answers that Brian wants his students to get. It’s the ability to use their imaginations to ask “what if…?” or “why does…?” and to be able to find their own way to an answer using ‘fair testing’ and experimental controls.

For his contributions to science teaching and for taking it in new creative directions, Mr Brian Schiller has been awarded the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.

Brian Schiller’s citation in full

Growing up in the country, on a farm near Pinnaroo on the South Australian–Victorian border, Brian was surrounded by nature. From a young age, Brian’s love of his local environment got him wondering about how it all worked. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with biology.

As a child, Brian wasn’t taught much science at his small primary school, but that only fuelled his desire to learn more about the environment around him.

For Brian’s students, Seacliff Primary School is a great place to do just that. On the school grounds there’s a frog pond, a butterfly garden and a koala walk that invite the students to ask questions, investigate and develop an understanding of the natural world.

The school is also within walking distance of the local beach, where Brian takes his classes for excursions to investigate marine creatures and ecosystem health. And he enlists the help of experts in marine biology or Indigenous culture to guide the excursions—some of these experts also happen to be the parents of his students.

“I had one parent, who was a marine biologist, come on an excursion to the beach to talk about how storm water run-off and pollutants affect marine ecosystems,” says Brian. “And another parent, who is an Indigenous woman from Queensland, has run a series of activities with the children to familiarise them with ways that Indigenous people interact with plants and animals in their environment.”

Brian invites parents to get involved with his classes as much as possible, and has hosted parent specialists working with students across year levels in science.

This year, he began working with Maiko Ikeuchi, whose son is in Brian’s class. Maiko speaks fluent Japanese and is helping Brian to continue an innovative project that he first developed in 2013 with the help of visiting Japanese exchange teacher Ryosuke Sugiyama and the support of languages teacher, Kate Chandler. It’s a program that integrates science with learning the Japanese language—two subjects in which Brian has a long-held interest.

“Over time, while doing various science activities, the children and I took photos and then, together, wrote texts describing the science involved,” Brian explains. “Ryosuke would then translate the science texts into rōmaji (Japanese words written with the Latin alphabet).

“We ended up with Japanese language–learning books that the children were really engaged with because the texts were about the science activities they’d done, and the books pictured the children themselves at work.”

Ryosuke would then work through the books with the students, focusing on learning how verbs that describe processes of science, such as sift, melt and stir, were used in Japanese sentences.

The combination has been a great success. Last year, Brian’s students performed significantly better in Japanese than other classes at the school, who were learning Japanese without the science element.

For Brian, the key to his teaching approach is creativity. He’s found creative ways to combine teaching languages and a range of other curriculum areas with science teaching—through getting the children to read, write and talk about science—while also encouraging his students to think creatively about scientific ideas.

Brian emphasises the importance of making learning personally relevant for each individual. For example, a student came to school wanting to know more about medications for coeliacs, because his father was gluten intolerant. So Brian helped the student set up an investigation to find out what effect the medications had on specific cereal grain types.

“The results were inconclusive, but the important thing was that the student was engaged and he learned about fair testing,” says Brian.

Earlier this year, a seven-year-old girl told Brian that she wanted to find out whether you truly disappear when you go through a black hole in space. Brian and the student are yet to set up an investigation about that enquiry.

One way that Brian gets his students talking and thinking about science is through his ‘community of enquiry ethics in science’ sessions. In these sessions the students pose science-based questions or scenarios to each other in teacher-free discussion.

“I sit back and listen to my Year Ones and Twos during our ‘community of enquiry’ sessions, and I realise that these seven- and eight-year-olds have all sorts of knowledge and ideas that I don’t have. Children today have such easy access to information from a variety of sources,” he says.

Brian sees this Prime Minister’s Prize award as recognition at the highest level, not only for him but for others, including his principal, colleagues and school parents, who have helped in his achievements at the school. He credits a large part of his success to the school’s principal, Mr Greg Miller, and deputy principal, Mr Scott Francis, for allowing him the “freedom to stretch the boundaries, to think outside the box, and to make a mess in the classroom”.

“Receiving this award is a huge honour, but my greatest reward has always been in working with the children themselves, witnessing them interacting in wonder with the world around them and fuelling their high level of creativity and imagination,” says Brian.


1985 Diploma in Teaching (Upper Primary), South Australian College of Advanced Education

Career highlights

2013 – 2014 Initiated and ran Multilingual Science Program with colleagues, incorporating Japanese and English, (Seacliff Primary)
2011, 2013, 2014 Facilitated Indigenous Perspectives, including classroom science activities presented by Indigenous personnel
2013 National finalist, National BHP Billiton Science Teacher Awards
2012, 2013 Nominated, South Australian Public Education Awards Excellence in Teaching
2011 Awarded Advanced Skills Teacher 2 Accreditation, South Australian Department of Education and Child Development (DECD)
2011 Member of Community of Inquiry steering committee, Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century, Flinders University
2011 Leader in implementing CSIRO’s CREST (CREativity in Science and Technology) program in classrooms
2010 – 2011 Science Facilitator, The Seaside Cluster (Seaview Downs, Darlington, Seacliff Primary)
2010 – 2011 Science Coordinator, Seacliff Primary School
2010 Invited participant in the ‘5 Cities in 5 Days’ CSIRO science tour, with DECD and RiAus
2008 – 2012 Staff representative on Seacliff Primary School’s Governing Council
2008 – ongoing Organised Seacliff Primary’s whole-school science week activities
2007 – ongoing Involved Reception to Year 7 students in Oliphant Science Awards run by the South Australian Science Teachers Association
2004 Appeared on ABC TV’s ‘Being Me’ series, discussing Grange School’s ‘Safe & Supportive Environment’ (S&SE) Student Voice Committee’s strategies in countering harassment
2003 – 2004 Facilitated Grange School’s Reception to year 7 S&SE Student Voice Committee
2003 – 2004 Member of staff committee that modified Grange School’s behaviour management policy to incorporate restorative justice strategies
1995 South Australian State Winner in The National Excellence in Teaching Awards
1992 – 2014 Junior Primary and Primary teacher at various suburban schools, Adelaide, (Seacliff, Brighton and Grange Primary Schools and Glenelg Junior Primary)
1986 – 1992 Junior Primary and Primary teacher at various Far North schools, South Australia, (Leigh Creek Area School, Oodnadatta School, Port Augusta West Primary and Willsden Primary, Port Augusta)

Further Reading

Brian Schiller (Photo credit: WildBear)

Brian Schiller (Photo credit: WildBear)