The Science of Teaching Science
Having an effective understanding of science is incredibly important both for the individual and for our society. Children are entitled to know how the world works – without this knowledge their lives aren’t as rich. A good understanding of science will allow them as adults to make informed decisions on important matters, such as voting, or receiving a vaccination as has been seen recently. And it opens doors to numerous careers in a huge range of fields, not just the ‘traditional’ science professions.
Our approach to teaching science is different from some schools, as they will use an inquiry-based learning approach, which involves minimal guidance from the teacher and pupils designing their own experiments to check their own hypotheses. For example, this could take the form of asking the children to look at a bug and see what they can find out. However, an increasing number of studies show this is ineffective as, without having the right knowledge in place, children won’t know the questions they need to ask to get the most out of the approach.
To teach science effectively we, and all Paradigm schools, use a ‘knowledge-first’ system instead, which focuses on teaching children the scientific knowledge before anything else. Each lesson starts with a Do Now task to recap on prior knowledge and fill any gaps, then the teacher breaks problems into manageable parts and shows the solution to each, before the children practice using similar problems. By doing this, the children then have the foundation they need to be able to do the inquiry-based learning effectively. It also helps the children develop essential skills such as problem solving, understanding scientific texts or extrapolating accurate conclusions from results.
Another way we improve science outcomes is to meet regularly with teachers from the other schools in Paradigm Trust to share ideas. A large proportion of time is spent discussing ways in which children can be better prepared for the move from primary to secondary school, and how to make science effective from Nursery to Year 9. We have found by doing this there is now less disruption when pupils move from Year 6 to Year 7 and their learning experience is far smoother. Much of this work is led by Ben Rogers who is on the Education Committee at the Institute of Physics, and on the editing panel for the Association of Science Education journal. He is also part of the Ofsted Science advisory group, with a particular focus on primary schools.
Since we have been working this way it is noticeable that children are achieving better results and becoming more engaged in the subject. Lessons aren’t any less fun and interactive in a knowledge-first approach, we just ensure they are as effective as possible. For example, during lockdown we have given our KS1 children seeds to plant at home, and also asked them to see what plants, flowers and trees they can recognise as part of their Plants topic. When children get to Year 4 we teach them how to use a telescope, and Years 5 and 6 travel to the Centre of the Cell to learn more about the human body. During Science Week we will start our sunflower competition with the children competing to grow the tallest flower, and – guidelines permitting – this summer we will have a wildlife workshop, giving the children a chance to hold and touch wild animals, so they can learn more about the natural world.