A Reflection on “The 10 Key Issues with Children’s Learning in Primary Science in England” (Bianchi, Whittaker and Poole: 2021)

This post is a reflection on the publication by Bianchi, Whittaker and Poole’s publication in March 2021 (here).

This publication has proven to be a powerful checklist for the curriculum we have developed at Paradigm Trust. Over the past four years at Paradigm, we have written our own EYFS-KS3 science curriculum, including resources and assessments. It is a spiral curriculum based on the National Curriculum, underpinned by our own values (here).

Central to our curriculum development is the motto: we teach the right things efficiently. We spend a lot of time discussing what we think ‘the right things‘ are and we work hard to make our teaching ‘efficient’. Ensuring that we don’t waste limited and precious classroom time is a preoccupation. It isn’t about speed. It often means slowing down to make sure our pupils really have understood what we want them to understand. We don’t want to teach magnetism in year 3 and then not mention it again until year 8. We revisit and review. We retrieve and we elaborate.

The publication is fascinating for me because I believe the authors have a more progressive philosophy towards primary science pedagogy and curriculum than we do at Paradigm, yet I agree with almost everything they have written. Where I don’t agree, the points made are challenging.

So, point by point:

1. CHILDREN’S SCIENCE LEARNING IS SUPERFICIAL AND LACKS DEPTH
Children are not developing a deep understanding of the big ideas of science.
o Lesson planning lacks sequence: the ‘Why this? Why now?’ isn’t clear.
o Teachers and senior leaders align success in science with vocabulary recall, often using age-inappropriate terminology
o Overload of inappropriately selected science.

I suspect this is true in many primary classrooms in England. At Paradigm we address this through our science network group. Each school in the trust (6 or them) has an allocated science lead. We meet termly to plan the curriculum and prepare resources. We favour an evidence informed approach with an emphasis on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. This demands strong teacher subject knowledge, which we support through termly online year group science subject knowledge meetings. These meetings are tailored to the upcoming units and are followed up with an in school support session led by the science leads.

Our Initial Teacher Training and Early Career Programmes also emphasise subject specific training for teachers.

2. CHILDREN’S PRECONCEPTIONS AREN’T ADEQUATELY VALUED
Children are not able to process or build on their prior learning.
o Staff have limited science subject knowledge relevant to their year group teaching
o Assessment does not inform next step teaching

In my view the National Curriculum for Science at KS1/2 is incoherent. It is all but impossible to build on prior learning if followed closely. At Paradigm we have taken the NC and made it into a spiral curriculum with each topic reviewed and developed each year. We use retrieval practice lesson starters to keep the learning ‘hot’ and tackle misconceptions as they arise.

At Paradigm, we have prioritised assessment for learning using strategies from the Embedding Formative Assessment programme which our teachers are taking part in, as well as emphasising the Check for Understanding and Plan for Error strategies from Teach Like a Champion (Lemov).

We also use multiple choice online assessments (google quizzes) to easily identify whole-cohort gaps and misunderstandings. We then feed these forwards into upcoming planning and review resources for next year.

I have already mentioned the science subject knowledge enhancement meetings. These provide an opportunity for highlighting common misconceptions and suggest strategies for addressing them.

3. CHILDREN’S SCIENCE LEARNING LACKS CHALLENGE
Children do not meet their full potential which limits their opportunities and aspirations.
o Assessment practice does not inform teaching leading to insufficient response to children’s needs
o Resources are selected with insufficient professional critical analysis

We have spent considerable time ensuring that our curriculum is challenging, but achievable. Our internal quality assurance (we visit each others schools to find what is working well and to support each other.

Our internal peer review model

Our resources go through an internal QA process to make sure we aren’t introducing misconceptions – and to ensure that the resources are a good match to our learning intentions. We don’t want teachers to be spending time finding resources, instead we want them to prepare their lessons so that they are using the materials effectively and ensuring that they support all of our learners (see TLaC 3.0 – chapter 2. Lemov 2021).

4. CHILDREN ARE OVERRELIANT ON TEACHER TALK AND DIRECTION, THEY LACK AUTONOMY AND INDEPENDENCE IN LEARNING SCIENCE
Children’s learning outcomes in science mimic those of their peers, as such not supporting individual feedback and progression.
o Teacher talk often dominates the lesson
o Learning is not structured to be truly collaborative with decisions on groupings steered mainly by organisation of equipment or behaviour issues
o Talk for learning is compromised
o Children’s work lacks value and ownership

So – point 4. Here’s where I disagree. As an outcome of learning, I would like my pupils to be autonomous and independent. However, it isn’t at all clear that pupils become autonomous and independent by being given lots of opportunities to be independent and autonomous. The need to know an awful lot of science at a deep level to be able to question and challenge their understanding and that of their peers.

So, the goal is the same, but I challenge the assumption that providing opportunities for independence and autonomy, they will get there. Until they know what they are doing and why, the value of autonomy and independence is limited. Some children will make progress through independent reading, but many will not and that learning to read requires a lot of highly structured teaching.

The same is true for maths: it would be lovely if pupils could be autonomous and independent learners of maths. Some children might make progress, but certainly many would not. I can’t accept a model of teaching which leaves children behind.

Instead, I want the teacher to be the designer and orchestrator of lessons in which learning is carefully sequenced, with plenty of practice opportunities, so that all children make good progress towards clearly defined learning goals.

There may be some collaborative work involved (see EEF on collaborative learning here). But equally, I expect to see the teacher deliver clear and well thought-through explanations. I expect the teacher to model outcomes and to guide pupil practice.

I dispute that this leads to work which lacks value or ownership – in fact, my experience shows that pupils who expect to make progress, who have worked hard, practised carefully, engaged in thoughtful discussion and been successful in science will gain a greater sense of value and ownership than pupils who have received less guidance.

5. CHILDREN EXPERIENCE ‘FUN’ SCIENCE ACTIVITIES THAT FAIL TO DEEPEN OR DEVELOP NEW LEARNING
Children retell the ‘magic’ moments in science learning and aren’t able to explain what they have seen or the concept explored.
o Teachers misunderstand the point and purpose of practical work

I 100% agree. We use the subject knowledge enhancement sessions as well as the guidance in medium term plan to focus teachers on the purpose of all activities. Practical work is essential to good science education, but to often is is not used effectively.

‘Fun’ is problematic in education. Sometimes learning is hard work. I hope that pupils find learning satisfying even when it is hard. Enjoyment is not a key aim of science education – learning is. if ‘fun’ supports that, great. If it become a key aim, then the point is missed.

6. CHILDREN ARE NOT ENCOURAGED TO USE THEIR OWN CURIOSITY, SCIENTIFIC INTERESTS AND QUESTIONS IN THEIR SCIENCE LEARNING
Children lack motivation towards working scientifically.
o Inconsistent understanding of how to model working and thinking scientifically
o Contexts for learning science relevant to children or of public interest are poorly utilised or seized

I question this point. The headline seems right to me, but the following text misses an important point .

My suspicion is that those teachers who do not welcome questions, encourage interests or curiosity have not been supported adequality to develop their own subject knowledge. This is the elephant in the room.

Subject knowledge is vital – and I don’t only mean an impoverished understanding of ‘how science works’. A GCSE from several years ago combined with a couple of sessions on teacher training on doing enquiry is not sufficient: it is just the start.

At Paradigm, we support our trainee teachers’ and early years teachers with additional curriculum based subject knowledge enhancement. This combines the substantive ‘what we know’ with how we know it. But that isn’t enough. We see subject knowledge enhancement in all subjects as a career long endeavour.

So I agree with the authors, but I don’t think they go far enough – working scientifically is not the heart of science: it is only one part. Pupils who know more scientific knowledge, supported by teachers who know more will be curious and questioning.

7. CHILDREN ARE ENGAGED IN PRESCRIPTIVE PRACTICAL WORK THAT LACKS PURPOSE
Children experience working scientifically that is formulaic and lacks authenticity.
o Being ‘hands on’ dominates being ‘minds on’
o Teachers are working harder than the children

I have seen a lot of time wasted in practical work in my time – both in primary and secondary. It is difficult to make practical work a part of an efficient and effective learning sequence because there is so much going on at once.

Pupils working memory is easily overloaded. Using unfamiliar equipment to experience phenomenon that are poorly understood leads to poor learning outcomes. Effective practical work is just as structured and directed as any classroom activity. The teacher needs to be totally clear about the intentions of the practical work – and the fewer intentions the better. I don’t think this makes it formulaic.

My interpretation of the word ‘authentic’ is that real learning takes place: ideally learning that can be assessed.

8. CHILDREN DO NOT DRAW ON THEIR LEARNING FROM PRIOR SCIENTIFIC SKILLS, THEY DO NOT BUILD ON REPEATED AND REGULAR EXPERIENCES
Children have gaps as they move to the next phase of learning.
o National curriculum coverage is not met
o Formative assessment is not focused on developing skills
o Availability of equipment or its accurate use when available is ad hoc
o Inappropriate scheduling or timetabling for science

I am optimistic that the current focus on progression and curriculum in schools will correct this problem. A well sequenced science curriculum supported by effective teaching and assessment will support pupils from EYFS through to the end of their school science learning.

9. CHILDREN RARELY SEE THEMSELVES, THEIR FAMILIES, COMMUNITY MEMBERS OR THEIR
TEACHERS AS SCIENTISTS
Children believe that science is about other people making a difference, not them.
o Unconscious bias reinforces messages of scientific stereotypes, gender and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups)
o The needs of disadvantaged children are not met
o Contexts for science learning are poorly utilised

There is plenty of evidence supporting this claim. This has been a key focus of our subject meetings, professional development and curriculum development at Paradigm. Progress in this is never fast enough. I’ve written more about this here.

10. CHILDREN DO NOT APPLY LITERACY AND NUMERACY SKILLS IN SCIENCE AT THE STANDARD THEY USE IN ENGLISH AND MATHEMATICS
Children fail to see the interconnectedness of their science learning.
o Limited opportunities for children to transfer, practise and embed skills

At Paradigm we have taken time from English to devote to subject specific reading, talking and writing. Each half term, we dedicate a week of English lessons to scientific literacy. We base our reading, speaking and writing lessons around a central text. The content of the text is familiar to the pupils – it is from a topic taught in the previous half term. This allows teachers and pupils to focus fully on the vocabulary, sentence structure, structure of scientific texts and scientific discussion. The sturucture of these weeks is heavily influenced both by Reading Reconsidered (Lemov, Driggs, Woolway 2016) as well as work by Beck, McKeown  and Kukan and Hockman.

We are working on the maths. The National Curriculum has a focus on data analysis at KS2 in science, but our opinion is that if pupils in KS2 are capable of ratios of strawberries to sugar in jam, they can cope with the ratio of distance and time to calculate speed. They can combine forces using addition and subtraction. They can use bar models to analyse current at junctions in parallel circuits.

Conclusion

We’ve found this list a powerful tool for discussion. Have we fallen into the traps pointed out by the authors? Are we clear about what we think is important? Where we agree, are we doing enough? Where we don’t agree, are we clear about why?

I have also found the exercise a thought provoking insight into common ground between colleagues who favour enquiry approaches and those who favour a more direct instructional approach. It’s a good starting point for conversations and perhaps we’ve got more in common than I thought.

Ben

2 Comments

  1. Please find paragraph 2 written by Libby Purves in The Times (December 12 2021) in an article entitled:
    A telling experiment in childhood freedom: AS Neill’s Summerhill School in Suffolk has survived a century of change and anxious interference by the government
    ” It is heady stuff and in the first years of parenthood few of us would gainsay it. We rejoice at a cheerfully grubby toddler in a sandpit learning basic physics and material science, making private aesthetic decisions and (if accompanied by teddy and a bucket of water) probably experimenting with the basics of drama and storytelling. Sometimes we wish it could stay like that: a blissful, undirected private discovery of the world under loving eyes. But we also need children to learn facts and understand ideas, fit into society and earn a living. For most parents, especially now that two pay packets are usually needed to house a family, there must be school. And schooling is an inexact science. No generation has ever got it inarguably right: even the most altruistic and earnest of educators make mistakes, leave scars, stunt or fail to seed good qualities. And the ghost of Neill is always with us, murmuring that every attempt to impose order might be a malign interference. ”
    Certainly, whilst playing with my one year old twin grandkids, I can relate to the beginning of this, but I now appreciate your point of view more as I see how Libby develops her argument – though there is a twist at the end.

    Like

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