Vertebrate database

Philip O'Loughlin
This article first appeared in MAPE Focus on Science Autumn 2000

The Class

This work was carried out with a Year 4 class of 27 children. They were a very enthusiastic group with a fair spread of abilities, but no more than any average mainstream class. There was one child with a statement of educational needs and one who was beginning to use and understand English.

There was a sex imbalance: 11 girls and 16 boys.

The children were very used to computers and there were two in use on a continuous basis: a BBC B for modelling and control work using Logo, and an Acorn RiscPC600 that was used for all other National Curriculum strands of Information and Communication Technology and other subjects.

Children had discs for saving work on the BBC B and each had a folder on the hard disk on the Acorn; they were all competent at saving and retrieving their files.

Aim and rationale

The aim of the activity was to provide an opportunity for the children to extend their knowledge and use of Junior PinPoint, a data handling application that they had become familiar with during the first two terms of Year 4 and previously in Year 3. Up to this point they had only been entering information into and interrogating databases. The idea was now for them to create their own database and for it to be of use to themselves and/or as an aid for others.

They would need to be aware of communication to an audience for the latter to be fulfilled. The task had to be relatively simple and yet of value. Teacher involvement was intended to be as little as possible, simply to facilitate where need might arise.

The task

The task, or problem to be solved, was arrived at through whole class discussion. Finding a suitable subject for data handling, the starting point of the 'process loop' (Fig. 1) is difficult if the means of solution (i.e. a data handling application) is waiting for a problem. In real life this process happens the other way around. Luckily for us the whole class discussion was about the classification of vertebrate animals which had been causing a certain amount of confusion. Some members of the class came up with the idea of using the computer to help solve the problem. The discussion that ensued was over which application would be best suited to their needs. It was decided with some help, mainly in the form of confirmation, that Junior PinPoint was the best choice of those available. The main reason that the class came up with Junior PinPoint was their knowledge of the value of the search facility and so the task became to:

Set up a database of the five distinct groups of vertebrates using Junior PinPoint.

Although this would be a small database, it would be, as far as possible, of their own design and would serve to help answer questions that they were posing themselves. The questions would not be of the more usual 'does shoe size relate to height' type, but they might just help them with their science problem.

The audience

In the beginning the class had little or no awareness of an audience mainly because the task had been arrived at from wanting to solve a problem of their own creation. As the work progressed, however, some suggested that it might be a good idea if the database were kept for the benefit of following classes. This was taken up by others in the class and became an added incentive; the esteem of some members of the class seemed lifted by this.

The method

As mentioned above, the task arose from whole class discussion and it was agreed that the following strategy would be the best way forward (the second part of the 'process loop'). The class was split into five arbitrary groups and they were asked to discuss amongst themselves the best way of going about the task. This involved both the ICT and the science aspects of the problem. All groups came to the same conclusion that they would have to have a separate page (or record) for each of the vertebrate groups and that they would need to find out as much as possible about the distinguishing features of each one.

The classroom groups felt each should be given one of the vertebrate groups to investigate and study using the school's resources library, Hutchinson Encyclopaedia CD-ROM, Micropaedia CD-ROM and the appropriate books already in the classroom. This preliminary research was all about looking for similarities and differences or connections in the data (the third part of the 'process loop'). The children agreed to make lists of the main distinguishing characteristics and report back to see how their findings matched or opposed the findings of the others.

The next stage was to sort the findings and make some sense of them: feathers, scales, eggs, fur, skin, spawn, milk fed, hair, warm blood, live birth, etc. At first this seemed a daunting task, but when memories were jogged about previous work with databases and the use of fields it was soon realised that the lists of characteristics could be placed under the following headings (fields):

Each of the class groups then selected one of its number to form a sixth group who would work at the computer to create the necessary fields in Junior PinPoint. The elected group was made up of three girls and two boys. When faced with a blank page it is often difficult to work out exactly where to begin and what to put where, especially when working with a database. However, armed with their written out lists, the five elected members took it in turns to place the field headings where they wanted them. Although they had never set up a database before, they had used Draw, Poster and Spex+ among other programs and were used to typing in words and phrases which could be moved around later. This all formed part of the fourth and fifth elements of the 'process loop', asking questions and looking for answers.

 Links to ICT in the new National Curriculum

Attainment Target 4 for ICT Level 4 (The National Curriculum Handbook)

'Pupils understand the need for care in the framing of questions when collecting, finding and interrogating information. They interpret their findings, question plausibility and recognise that poor quality information leads to unreliable results. They add to amend and combine different forms of information from a variety of sources. They use ICT to present information in different forms and show they are aware of the intended audience.... They compare their use of ICT with other methods.'

Almost immediately after they had entered the four fields it was obvious that the most important one was missing the name of the vertebrate group.

As soon as this was corrected the five records (one for each vertebrate group) could be created and information entered by the other members of the original teams. This work was usually carried out in pairs and often, voluntarily, in the children's spare time. All members of the class were then also given the opportunity to create the same database for saving into their own folders rather than just copying that created by the elected group.

Many problems were encountered some of a fundamental nature and some cosmetic. The teacher tried to take the place of an interactive manual rather than say 'what you need to do is this.' A problem might be: 'For skin covering do we write fur or hair?'; an answer could be, 'Have a look at the multiple choice answer, and see what you think.'

Gradually the database of the five vertebrate groups became more refined. The children began to test it using the search facility. They would think of a specific vertebrate animal, and choose from the list of options whether it had feathers, laid eggs or whatever. Provided that they gave the correct information they would be told whether the animal they were thinking of was fish, amphibian, reptile, bird or mammal.

Or would they? It was here that we entered the sceptical interpretation stage six of the 'process loop'. All of a sudden it seemed that there was no difference between fish and reptiles. In all the pre-database work they had not realised that, given the fields chosen, fish and reptile could not be separated.

The groups reconvened and racked their brains for some characteristic that might solve the problem. The main difference was obvious: fish swim in water and reptiles live on land, but, as was quickly pointed out, some reptiles also swim in the water. Then a boy said, 'But fish can breathe underwater,' and that led to a new field 'breathing apparatus' (i.e. lungs or gills) being added to the database.

 This particular solution seemed a bit of a turning point because they had challenged a series of linked hypotheses, albeit by accident. After making the addition they asked, 'Well, is it all right now then?' Various creatures were used to test the file and gradually exceptions began to emerge for example, someone asked, 'What is a duck-billed platypus?' After that, everyone seemed to be scouring books and National Geographic Magazines for anything that would not fit the pattern. A field called 'exceptions' was created and they became much more interesting than the norm. It became important that the great white shark of 'Jaws' fame is in fact live born, but as yet the children have not found out if it is warm blooded or not. And so the final product of the 'process loop' had been reached as the class began to seek new knowledge and further enquiry.

Links to ICT in the new National Curriculum

Attainment Target for Science Level 4 (The National Curriculum Handbook)

AT2: life processes and living things

...use keys based on observable external features to help identify and group living things systematically.

It may not have been the classic use of a database for searching numerous records, but it was a start and it helped the class to a better understanding of the process of classification.

Gender issues

In the present task a lot of the work was done in pairs as is most work done on the computer. In this task the pairs were usually, though not always, self selected. On average, a third of the voluntary pairs were boys, a third girls and a third were boy/girl partnerships. This is probably a high fraction of voluntary boy/girl partnerships by KS2 standards but, as mentioned above, the class has a high gender imbalance.

Most of the pairs in all groupings worked productively and, in general, as well as each other.

The pairings that worked the least well, in general, were boy/girl partnerships chosen by the teacher (or rather forced by circumstance of vagaries of the rota caused by both absence and gender imbalance).

This is perhaps, unsurprising.


Assessment of the class was largely carried out from direct observation of the individual class members as they were involved with the project in their groups and particularly of their contribution within them. Separate questioning brought out more from some of the less assertive. Without exception they all individually felt that they had achieved something and felt a personal ownership of the final work (although it is not, nor presumably ever will be, finished). The National Curriculum Attainment Target Levels represent a very broad span and the project could be seen to raise about three-quarters of the class from a high Level 3 position well into Level 4 in aspects of both ICT and Science. The child with the statement was the one who pointed out that fish breathe underwater and although his command of the database itself might not have been as fluent as others, he was certainly close to attaining Level 3.


DfEE/QCA (1999), The National Curriculum Handbook for Primary Teachers in England.

National Council for Educational Technology (1995),

Making Sense of Information.

Govier, Heather (1995) 'Making sense of information', Microscope Information Handling Special.

Phil O'Loughlin who died in 1999, was the Subject Co-ordinator for ICT and for Out of School Activities at De Bohun Primary School, Green Road, Southgate, London N14. He originally wrote up his work as an assignment for the North London University Professional Development in Education Programme.

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