Does It Matter What We Teach in Primary Science?

Does it matter what we choose to teach in primary science, or is it more important that teachers teach what they are confident in?

Some say that primary science is about developing a positive attitude towards science. Some say that it’s all about developing an understanding of enquiry. I believe that a knowledge rich primary science curriculum is foundational to future success in science.

Is there any evidence?

Yes. There are several longitudinal studies which show that teaching scientific concepts in primary, including children in reception, results in more rapid progress sustained over their whole school careers (e.g. the Swiss MINT longitudinal study and Novak 2005 from the US).

The study below is from Novak (2005).

Data from Novak 2005

In the study, pupils in grades 1 to 2 (years 2 to 4 in England) were given 24 short science interventions spread over 2 years. Unsurprisingly, the intervention children knew more immediately at the end of the intervention. But the authors didn’t stop there. They continued to track the students until completed their school careers at age 18. The assessment data showed that the intervention pupils made greater science progress over the entire period.

Another study show that pupil’s fundamental ideas about chemistry evolve rapidly develop between the ages of 6 and 12 and only slowly afterwards, despite intensive instruction (Horton 2007).

So initial content is important to later development. It seems likely to me that choosing foundational topics, rather than leaving it to teacher choice will optimize this effect.

Misconceptions

Another concern some colleagues have is that children pick up science misconceptions in primary that have to be unpicked at secondary. I can’t say this never happens, but I’m sure pupils pick up many misconceptions just through being alive. The same study (Novak) shows that effective science teaching in primary not only reduces misconceptions developing early on, it continues to reduce the number of misconceptions developed over their entire school careers.

So, the primary science curriculum is important in terms of later learning, both as a foundation and as protection against the development of misconceptions.

Ben

Thanks to Alex Sinclair and Christian Moore Anderson for conversations and references which helped me with this.

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