How Much Enquiry In My Primary Science Curriculum?

I started writing a series of posts on inquiry learning vs explicit instruction earlier in the summer. Over this period of writing, I have had stimulating and challenging conversations with well informed colleagues. I think I understand the disagreement better and my use of language is more precise. So for clarity, ‘inquiry learning’ and ‘enquiry skills’ are different:

  • Inquiry learning is a form of minimal guidance: pupils are given rich tasks so that they can discover substantive and disciplinary knowledge themselves. Inquiry learning doesn’t work (Kirschner, Swellar and Clark, 2006).
  • Enquiry skills are the techniques scientists use to discover new knowledge. Enquiry skills can (and should) be taught explicitly (Klahr and Nigam, 2004).

This post is about dividing up primary science curriculum time. If you had 6 hours of time to teach a science topic to your KS2 class, how much time would you allocate to teaching enquiry skills, such as:

  • designing an experiment
  • collecting data
  • analysing data
  • evaluating the data

Please choose the bar below which best fits your view:

Please choose your preferred breakdown of enquiry knowledge to substantive subject knowlegde (the ‘facts of science’) in a science topic (I recognise it will differ between topics).

If you chose A, I would like to challenge you. Primary pupils love learning knowledge. It isn’t unkind to expect them to learn loads of science, including the technical vocabulary. They can learn about habitats, ecosystems and biomes. They can learn about the water cycle and explain it in terms of evaporation and condensation. They can learn the rope model of electrical current. This knowledge is powerful. It enables them to understand the world far more effectively, efficiently and accurately than discovering it for themselves.

There is a view that primary pupils love to make their own enquiries and discovering things for themselves. Some do. If you can run a science club, this is ideal. Use curriculum time sparingly.

If you chose B, you are still choosing a curriculum which teaches less scientific knowledge. Every minute of primary science curriculum time has to be fought for from reading, writing and maths. There’s not a minute to lose.

For my money, C is the best option. Teaching pupils how scientific knowledge is created – enquiry knowledge – is an important part of each science topic and merits curriculum time. I would embed it in the substantive topic because it is different for each topic. For example, describing how Stephen Gray demonstrated that electricity could travel long distances would be appropriate. Letting pupils discover it for themselves is probably not.

It may be that after all the discussion, we just needed to agree how much time we were talking about.

These are my other posts on enquiry in science:

Thank you for reading. I would welcome comments.



  1. Forgive me for not commenting on the substance (although I am enjoying this series of blogposts), but making a distinction that appears to include spelling with an e or an i is not likely to be helpful. Apart from particular uses, such as ‘public inquiry’ (which is usually with an i, although there are examples of sites that also use an e), the meanings of the two spelling forms are surely fairly interchangeable in general use.


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