Enquiry Belongs in Primary Physics – But Where?

A simple model for the primary physics curriculum

Reasons for teaching physics in the primary curriculum include:

  1. to understand how the world works;
  2. to understand and contribute to informed debate;
  3. to solve problems using scientific understanding;
  4. to understand how scientific knowledge is generated and
  5. to prepare for further study.

These are complex outcomes. To be able to achieve any of them, pupils need to know a lot. They need to have the facts of physics at their fingertips, so that they are able to focus on the more complex challenges we are setting for them. Therefore, substantive knowledge needs to be taught and learnt first. (If you want to read more, I recommend Clark, Kirschner and Sweller’s American Educator article here).

This post recommends teaching the skills of enquiry, as you would teach other skills and knowledge – and only once your pupils have acquired the substantive knowledge you want them to enquire about.

Substantive knowledge

Substantive knowledge in physics is the raw material for thinking. Without a big bank of readily accessible knowledge, your pupils won’t be able to problem solve, read or write scientific texts or make successful enquiries about the physical world.

Teaching for substantive knowledge in physics is the same as for all good teaching:

  1. check for prior knowledge
  2. teach using clear explanation, images and demonstrations
  3. practise, practise, practise
  4. check for understanding and misconceptions

Don’t forget that substantive knowledge in science isn’t all pub-quiz facts. A physical knowledge of acceleration, circular motion, free-fall, temperature and other sensations are the foundations of physics.

Enquiry

Enquiry is an important, but complex part of physics education. It isn’t more or less important than the other knowledge or skills, but it is controversial because many educators conflate the outcome of knowing how to enquire with the process of learning science. This is a mistake.

Enquiry is too complex to be an effective pedagogy. Discovery learning is an inefficient way to learn, which widens gaps between pupils (see the Learning Scientists post here).

It is however important that your pupils learn how to enquire in physics. I’ve taken a list of enquiry skills from the Primary Science Teaching Trust (here) and explained how I would approach each one (see the table below).

Enquiry SkillHow and When?
Asking questionsAsking good questions requires good knowledge. 
When: after knowledge is secure. Assess whether the knowledge is secure enough for all pupils – any pupils who aren’t secure will not benefit from this task and should practice with simpler activities.
How: Model how to ask questions before asking your pupils to craft them (I do / we do / you do). 
Making predictionsMaking good predictions requires good knowledge. 
When: after knowledge is secure. Assess whether the knowledge is secure enough for all pupils – any pupils who aren’t secure will not benefit from this task and should practice with simpler activities.
How: Model how to make predictions before asking your pupils to craft them (I do / we do / you do). 
Setting up testsSetting up tests requires a good appreciation of the relevant variables. 
When: once appreciation of the relevant variables has been established. Assess to be sure. 
How: model how to set up tests (use I do / we do / you do).
Observing and measuringWhenever pupils are asked to observe, there are many things they could pay attention to, but only a few of them are relevant. Pupils need to know what to look for before they observe.
Observing: you will need to guide attention to the relevant features to observe.
Measurement: accurate measurement requires teaching and practice in various situations. Measurements are context specific (e.g. measuring the extension of a spring requires a different technique to measuring the length of a wire). Measurement should be practised regularly and not just when it is needed.
Recording dataBreak this skill into small parts and teach and practice each step separately, gradually withdrawing support. Each step should be regularly practised (i.e. not just when it is needed) – you don’t always need to use real data. 
Interpreting and communicating resultsIn order to interpret a set of results, the concepts need to be secure. Assess before teaching.
How: Model how to interpret results and communicate them (I do / we do / you do). Regularly practise this skill (you don’t need to use real data).
EvaluatingThis is probably the hardest skill. It is especially hard to evaluate your own experiment. Break it down by modelling and practising a planned sequence of evaluations. It will help if the pupils have seen the experiment, but they don’t always need to carry it out themselves.
How and When to Teach Enquiry Skills in Primary Physics

In short, break each enquiry skill down and practise separately. You shouldn’t try to tackle all of these at once until your pupils are really experts. Teach and then practise one skill at a time. Once your pupils have acquired some expertise, interleave with other enquiry skills, gradually building up over months and years.

I hope that this post is helpful. I am absolutely not against enquiry in physics, but I am against the use of enquiry teaching, especially when pupils are not yet expert. Teach enquiry like you would teach any other knowledge or skill and your pupils will learn.

Ben

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