Secrets to science success

Written by: HTU | Published:

After helping to redraft the new primary science curriculum, Anne Goldsworthy discusses some key considerations for school leaders when delivering the new programmes of study and lists some key tenets to science success.

Sometimes one regrets raising one’s head above the parapet and shouting “fail”, but writing a lengthy critique of the Department for Education’s (DfE) proposed primary science curriculum in June 2012 is something I certainly do not regret. I felt we had come so far in the teaching of primary science in the past 30 years that I could not stand by and allow the status of science in the curriculum to slip further.

The surprising result of my outburst is that the DfE asked me to redraft the primary curriculum. It was one of those “what me?” moments and I am hugely appreciative to my colleagues that gave me a push and encouraged me to accept the invitation.

This then led to a feverish few months working with primary science expert the late Brenda Keogh (a marvellous friend and colleague of 25 years) to try to bring the new science curriculum into a form where we felt satisfied it would give teachers some basis from which they could inspire and engage children in science.

We now have a primary science curriculum that we can use. Rather than saying whether it is better or worse than what has come before, I think I would say that it is simply different.

What has changed?

The biggest change is that we now have more types of enquiry specified in the curriculum. Carrying out a fair test, or controlling variables, will still be important, but children will also use other kinds of evidence-gathering investigations.

For example, in key stage 2 there is a requirement to “plan different types of scientific enquiries to answer questions, including recognising and controlling variables where necessary”.

This means that children will have the opportunity to think about the different ways of finding out and to select a reasonable way to answer their questions.

Another big change is the increased focus on learning outside, particularly in key stage 1 where more than half of the eight units ask children to explore living things in their local environment. The chance to take young children out of the classroom and get them learning outdoors is something that will make both teachers and children smile.

There are also new areas of content to look out for such as Seasonal Change in year 1, Digestion in year 4, and Evolution and Inheritance in year 6 – but the majority of the content will look pretty familiar even if it is now taught in different age groups.

Areas that need extra attention

Due to the timescale for redrafting the curriculum, and because some of our final recommendations were not included in the final version, there are parts where the progression is not as clear as it should be. For example if you look at plants in years 2 and 3 you will find that:

  • Year 2: find out and describe how plants need water, light and a suitable temperature to grow and stay healthy.
  • Year 3: explore the requirements of plants for life and growth (air, light, water, nutrients from the soil, and room to grow) and how they vary from plant to plant.

These two statements are very similar and come in two consecutive school years. Unless school leaders ensure that teachers work together on their planning and select different plants to grow in the different years, there will be a significant risk of repetition. Growing cress in the cupboard and on the windowsill two years running will not engender much enthusiasm for science.

There are four areas of content per year in key stage 1 and five in key stage 2. Teachers planning to do six units of science in six half-terms will need to decide how to divide things up so that science is taught throughout the year. School leaders should not be tempted to organise their curriculum so that science is missing completely from one or two half-terms. 

The latest subject-specific report from Ofsted, entitled Maintaining Curiosity: A survey into science education in schools (November 2013), is clear that school leaders should “provide sufficient weekly curriculum time in science so that individual pupils develop good scientific enquiry skills as well as the knowledge they need”.

Many key stage 1 teachers have expressed sadness at the lack of physics-based topics in their key stage. I would share their regret. As ever when doing this kind of work, suggestions are sought from many quarters. Often these suggestions differ. 

Key considerations for leaders

For me, the biggest plea to school leaders is to recognise science as a core subject and to give it the attention and resources it needs. I am sure that many readers are enthusiastically nodding their heads but I am very aware of the need to juggle conflicting priorities and that science can sometimes take a hit!

As there are a number of new areas, teachers will need support, time to plan and access to training and resources that are up-to-date. Consider organising a small group of teachers that could work together throughout the first year to support each other’s professional practice as they tackle different parts of the new curriculum. 

Each could focus on a different issue, trying out different teaching strategies, sharing ideas, reflecting on their experience, and refining their practice. At the end of the year sharing their conclusions would make a brilliant INSET for the rest of the staff.

The new curriculum is laid out as discrete subjects, but teachers are encouraged to make links where sensible. Therefore, leaders also need to consider the balance between teaching science as a discrete subject or across the curriculum. 

There are excellent links to be made between different areas of learning, but equally a completely cross-curriculum approach can often lead to omissions or repetition because aspects are chosen to fit the topic above all else. 

As a rule of thumb, I would recommend that a mixture of both approaches is probably the best way forward.

The inspiring science school

My work means that I visit many different schools and have the privilege to talk to them about how they teach science. It seems to me schools that teach inspiring science share a number of common characteristics:

  1. Relaxed, happy and enthusiastic teachers and children. 
  2. Children who are happy to voice their thoughts about science ideas and teachers who encourage them to do so.
  3. Teachers who are knowledgeable about children’s likely misconceptions in science and who know how to help them alter their thinking through experiences, rather than just by telling them.
  4. Children who are reflective and can tell you what they have learnt in science.
  5. Classes that use a wide range of recording methods, including song, drama, posters and videos, and written work that is kept short and powerful and only used when necessary.
  6. Full use made of outdoor space and steps taken to improve the variety of living things found there.
  7. Good simple science resources available to all teachers.
  8. A culture of professional practice that helps teachers to reflect on and develop their science teaching.

Keeping the new curriculum in perspective

I regularly ask teachers whether they feel that the time they will need to spend on planning for the new curriculum will be matched by a subsequent leap forward in children’s learning. The answer is inevitably hollow laughter. 

They would love to spend more time constructing stimulating lessons and every hour spent changing the curriculum is an hour not available to improve lessons.

However, I do believe the curriculum matters. It offers breadth and progression, gives a minimum entitlement, allows some consistency across schools, and prepares children for the next stage of learning. But when all is said and done, it is what you do with it in the classroom that matters most.  

  • Anne Goldsworthy taught for 13 years in a variety of primary schools and now works with schools and teachers to help children learn about science and enjoy the experience. She was asked to help redraft the new primary science curriculum in 2012 and 2013.

World Teach In 

Anne is speaking at World Teach In, a pop up science school for primary teachers taking place at Imperial College London over the half-term weekend November 1 and 2.

The weekend includes assemblies with leading science experts including Lord Professor Robert Winston, classes with teachers demonstrating their best science lessons and sharing resources, and playtimes with science comedians, kitchen scientists and even buskers.

World Teach In is organised by Tigtag and Suklaa in association with Imperial College London. For more information and tickets, visit www.worldteachin.com


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