One thing at a time…

How much class time should you devote to working scientifically?

A Summary of the English National Curriculum for Science (KS2)

All of the ideas above are important, but time is short. We teach science at primary on average for 1 hour and 24 minutes per week (‘State of the nation’ report of UK primary science education (Wellcome Trust 2017). How should we allocate the time?

It probably makes sense to give each topic in the biology, chemistry and physics columns approximately equal time – the National Curriculum categorises the substantive knowledge into 20 topics in Key Stage 2 – so that’s 12 terms. You could teach one topic per half term and have two half terms spare. (This isn’t how we’ve chosen to do it at Paradigm Trust – we have used the 12 topics from the chart above and repeat them all in a spiral each year).

So when should you teach ‘working scientifically’?

The school science curriculum sets out what it means ‘to get better’ at science. Expertise in science requires pupils to build at least 2 forms, or categories, of knowledge. The first is ‘substantive’ knowledge, which is knowledge of the products of science, such as models, laws and theories. The second category is ‘disciplinary knowledge’, which is knowledge of the practices of science. This teaches pupils how scientific knowledge becomes established and gets revised.

Ofsted Science Research Review (2021): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-science/research-review-series-science

Some schools try to teach substantive knowledge through enquiry – they weave the substantive and disciplinary together. The results and models of cognitive science suggest this is not the most effective way to teach either scientific substantive knowledge or ‘working scientifically’ – there is too much going on and learning suffers. In the end they learn less science content knowledge and and less about how science works.

It is more effective for learners to learn one thing at a time (Rosenshine’s ‘present new material in small steps’) – and practice each step carefully before adding to that learning. In other words, if you want to teach ‘working scientifically’, don’t expect learners to develop content knowledge simultaneously.

It makes more sense to teach the substantive knowledge first, and make sure your pupils understand it, before you use that knowledge as a context to learn about ‘working scientifically’.

Back to the original question – how much class time should you devote to working scientifically? If you believe you should teach each new concept separately, you can’t weave ‘working scientifically’ through each lesson: it needs separate lesson time.

The simplest split would be to allocate working scientifically a quarter of the lessons you have, and probably at the end of each topic. In a half term, one or two lessons sounds about right. Teach the content in the first 3/4 of lessons and then use that learning as a context to ‘work scientifically’.

I’m not convinced myself that ‘working scientifically’ really merits 25% of lesson time – it rarely gets that at high school or university. But that’s a curriculum argument. The cognitive science is pretty clear – teach each concept separately, practice carefully and don’t assume it’s learnt if they can do it once. Don’t blend the teaching of new content with working scientifically – just do one thing at a time.

Ben

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