Simple science ideas

Written by: Louise Stubberfield | Published:
Free science support: Pupils taking part in the free-to-use Explorify primary science activities (Images: Wellcome Trust)

The Wellcome Trust’s free Explorify programme is helping to boost primary school science lessons. Louise Stubberfield discusses how headteachers can support excellent primary science provision

It is not an exaggeration to say that almost everything in the modern world revolves around science. It is part of many daily activities – from cooking or gardening to understanding a weather report, reading a map and using a computer. Scientific skills allow us to describe, define, investigate and ultimately try to understand the world in which we live and how it works.

But good science teaching is not about teaching pupils to be scientists. Instead, it is about developing flexible problem-solvers. Thinking skills and creativity, powered by scientific investigation, provide pupils with the tools needed for independent and investigative learning and help them to form new ideas – all crucial skills for a well-rounded student, ready to embark on a lifetime of learning.

However, we believe that the status of primary science is not as high as it should be. Recent research has demonstrated that the perceived importance of the subject is comparatively low – more than eight in 10 teachers told us that maths and English are “very important” to the senior leadership team of their school, but this number falls to just three in 10 when it comes to science.

For teachers, confidence issues and a lack of time to prepare help cement science’s position as further down the to-do list. They are not held to account for science teaching in the same way as for literacy and numeracy – and some lack confidence, believing that they don’t have the expertise to teach the subject well.

For school leaders and headteachers, significant demands diminish the impetus to do things differently. With more testing and benchmarking than ever, particularly in literacy and numeracy, and increasing pupil numbers fighting against the need to cut costs, it can of course be difficult to think beyond immediate priorities defined by the curriculum.

Redressing the balance

But at primary level, science needn’t be messy, expensive, or hard. We believe that more support is required for both leaders and teachers to improve primary science provision in school for all pupils – and to show them what science really is about at this very early stage: the simple process of observation and discovery.

That’s why we hope programmes like Explorify can help – showing teachers how simple, accessible and creative science can be, and helping them to understand the wider relevance of their science lessons in developing transferable skills.

But we also know that the status quo can only change if support comes from the top. School leaders and headteachers have a responsibility to promote good science teaching, and provide support and materials to give teachers more confidence in starting their own journey to better science teaching. So, how can headteachers help bring science to the top of a school’s “to-do” list?

Make your own science

If resources are not there, and we all know that funding in schools is continually squeezed, there is a danger that pupils will learn about science by watching demonstrations rather than by carrying out science investigations themselves – which is less engaging and fails to convey that science is something that you do, not something you know.

Our answer is to encourage your teachers to get out and make their own science. Simple observations could be spotting the odd one out in a group of objects in a playground, or peering into a pond to see the creepy crawlies congregating there.

And, of course, the same goes for parents. Encourage parents to support their children in scientific discovery – to look for animal tracks, observe the way ducks animals care for their young, visit the vet with their pet, observe the changes as a cut heals, ask to see x-rays at the doctor’s or dentist’s office, or ask about the equipment that a doctor or dentist uses.

Prioritising training and development

We know that subject leaders must regularly access high-quality CPD to ensure that their expertise is sustained, and that it is a leader’s duty to invest in adequate training for all teachers.

There is a significant correlation between a school’s provision of science-specific training and the overall effectiveness of its teaching in the area. But where resources for formal training are lacking, we’d encourage school leaders to ensure teachers know where to go to find their own information.

There’s lots out there for teachers – we work with BBC Terrific Scientific, for instance, which links great information and resources which can help teachers further their own knowledge, and become more confident in their science teaching.

Initiatives like Project ENTHUSE also provide funding options and practical help for schools. A unique partnership of government, charities and employers, this scheme is designed to bring about inspired STEM teaching through the professional development of teachers, technicians and support staff across the UK.

Conclusion

So, we all know that early years education is capable of delivering a desire to learn that will help children throughout their education, and beyond, into an evolving and unpredictable employment market. And science provides a “motivating context” for pupils to develop and improve skills in many areas, including literacy and mathematics.

We hope that having discussions like this will put science back on the agenda for primary school leaders – and help them blaze a trail in igniting or re-invigorating a passion for the subject.

  • Louise Stubberfield is the primary science programme manager at the Wellcome Trust.

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