A little thought for our ‘knowledge’ based science curriculums.

It’s all about knowledge… but what about the knowledge?

The findings in (Zhang and Cobern, 2021) regarding the ‘confusion’ over science learning and inquiry are an interesting read. On the one hand, it would appear that where pupils are left to design and carry out their own science inquiries there is a detrimental effect on science achievement, whereas when there is teacher guidance then things start to look up. However, it is worth noting that as even the authors say themselves of the data in question, “statistical models often suggest associations rather than confirming causal relationships.” Like this, the findings from the many studies cited describing the link between minimal guidance and worsening academic outcomes for science needs careful thought, and as the authors also ‘insist’, “the negative findings should not be used to support arguments against inquiry teaching.” (Zhang and Cobern, 2021, p. 208).

Questions about the definition of ‘inquiry’ lie at the heart of this, as do definitions of ‘teacher guidance and instruction’ I expect.  While some pop any form of inquiry into the ‘discovery learning’ basket (Kirschner et al., 2006), others assert that science inquiry should not be defined by this, but rather, effective science inquiry should feature instructional guidance when necessary (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007), (Taber, 2010). In fact, I’ve written about this before and wonder if they are not all ultimately agreeing somehow?

So, I’m glad Zhang & Cobern included this caveat: that we should not be arguing against inquiry. There is a real danger that with the ‘knowledge centred’ agenda in full swing, teachers might think that the focus should be to get pupils to simply ‘know the facts’, while anything else is a bonus… if there’s time. Worst still, a ‘lecture then worksheet’ approach might be considered a decent way for children to ‘learn science.’ With our jam-packed curriculums weighed down by the need to create an ‘equity of provision’, then planning and carrying out science inquires might easily drop off the curriculum shelf and into the bin.

So, what to do? Well, it’s clear that Ofsted are taking the ‘knowledge centered ’ approach with science, which I think I agree with… for now. Read their latest report on science learning here, and you’ll see, knowledge is all over it, with a noticeable absence of their ‘maintaining curiosity at all cost’ message of 2013. However, it is my view that schools will make a mistake if they are not clear on what this ‘knowledge’ might refer to.

The latest report delineates two forms of knowledge, the ‘substantive’ knowledge which is the conceptual ‘bodies of knowledge’ in science, such as, ‘the model, laws and theories,’ as the report puts it. The second is ‘disciplinary knowledge’ which is considered ‘knowledge of the practices of science’. This involves pupils learning about the different types of scientific inquiry and how these are practically implemented.

As previous reports have highlighted, learning about science inquiry should not involve only learning about fair tests, but should include other types of inquiries that involve pattern seeking, observations over time, classifications and research inquiries as well.  However, mixed in with this, not defined as such in the recent Ofsted science report, is ‘epistemic knowledge’, which concerns knowledge about how scientific knowledge is established and revised. In addition, there is also ‘social knowledge,’ which is knowledge of how science involves collaboration, teamwork, presentation of data, argumentation and debate.  Pupils need to know about this aspect of science too.

It’s worth noting that in their report, Ofsted rightly assert that, ‘in high-quality science curriculums, knowledge is carefully sequenced to reveal the interplay between substantive and disciplinary knowledge. This ensures that pupils not only know ‘the science’; they also know the evidence for it and can use this knowledge to work scientifically.

Like this, it’s helpful to think of ‘science knowledge’ as comprising four domains, as described by these researchers  (Duschl, 2008) (Furtak et al., 2012) (van Uum et al., 2016).

In terms of everything we know about memory, instruction, and knowledge acquisition there are times we might have overlooked that there is more to knowledge than simply ‘what’. As Duschl asserts, “missing from the pedagogical conversation is how we know what we know and why we believe it.” (Duschl, 2008, p. 270). In essence, all the ‘knows’ of science should be part of science learning and especially so in today’s climate of fake news and the echo chambers of social media.

Furthermore, in reading (Friege and Lind, 2006), the research cited by Ofsted to define their understanding of knowledge and the importance of knowledge acquisition, then it becomes clear that if our aim is to move pupils towards science expertise, then just teaching conceptual knowledge, or ‘the facts’ will not suffice. Friege and Lind assert that experts not only know their facts, but also have extensive ‘problem scheme knowledge’ so they have in-depth knowledge of the different ways conceptual knowledge can be applied to problem solving, or here, ‘inquiry’.

It is likely that their concept of ‘problem scheme knowledge’ equates with knowledge of the different ways to inquire in science. If this is the case, then as they note, conceptual declarative knowledge and problem scheme knowledge, “are acquired simultaneously in the course of the development of expertise.” (2006:458). In other words, we are not teaching science effectively if we’re not ensuring that pupils engage in science inquires where they acquire procedural, epistemic and social knowledge, as well as the conceptual.

This means that teachers need to plan how to teach these, not leaving these to chance, or presume that just because children are involved in practical science they are learning these other types of knowledge. ‘Doing science’ and ‘learning science’ are not the same thing. We know that when it comes to knowledge acquisition and memory, better results come from explicit teaching, and I expect this is true for all types of cultural knowledge. (Although, this is not so for instinctive human knowledge, I’ve written about this distinction here). This is why the different types of inquiry (procedural knowledge) needs to be explicitly taught and modelled to pupils, together with the explicit teaching of epistemic knowledge- explaining why scientists use different types of inquiry and how these create evidence leading to theory building and knowledge formation, which can be updated, or even refuted if new evidence emerges.

However, it is important to note that not all science learning is directly involved in knowledge acquisition, even if it might be the end goal. As Kalyuga and Singh, (2016) suggest, domain specific knowledge is not always the goal of instruction, there might also be ‘pre-instructional goals’ such as engaging pupils in exploration, and even play, in order to activate and assess prior knowledge. These might also be considered legitimate aspects of a learning journey in science. What is not correct, is to make these the main focus, or a means to acquire knowledge. However, I would say that activating and assessing prior knowledge and using this as a starting point for planning science is vital, if not the priority if we agree that memory and schema building underpins learning. (I think this is another blog for another time.)

To end, clearly Ofsted want us to get away from simply focusing on making science exciting and ensuring pupils ‘feel’ like scientists at the cost of learning fundamental knowledge. As lamented in the report in reference to primary science, ‘pupils regularly experience ‘fun activities’ without developing a deep understanding of the associated scientific concepts’, so in the end, ‘maintaining curiosity’ is not going to be enough… unless of course, it is built on the foundation of science knowledge…s.

(As always, these are my thought trails, put together after reading here and there. I don’t believe knowledge is permanent, or that I won’t change my mind based on new knowledge. I’m keen to know what other people think, whether they agree or not…  Argumentation is a scientific tool!


Duschl, R., 2008. Science Education in Three-Part Harmony: Balancing Conceptual, Epistemic, and Social Learning Goals. Review of Research in Education 32, 268–291.

Friege, G., Lind, G., 2006. Types and Qualities of Knowledge and their Relations to Problem Solving in Physics. Int J Sci Math Educ 4, 437–465. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10763-005-9013-8

Furtak, E.M., Seidel, T., Iverson, H., Briggs, D.C., 2012. Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Studies of Inquiry-Based Science Teaching: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research 82, 300–329.

Hmelo-Silver, C.E., Duncan, R.G., Chinn, C.A., 2007. Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist 42, 99–107. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520701263368

Kalyuga, S., Singh, A.-M., 2016. Rethinking the Boundaries of Cognitive Load Theory in Complex Learning. Educational Psychology Review 28, 831–852.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., Clark, R.E., 2006. Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist 41, 75–86. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Taber, K.S., 2010. Constructivism and Direct Instruction as Competing Instructional Paradigms: An Essay Review of Tobias and Duffy’s Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure? NY: Routledge. Vol. 13 No. 8. Education Review 0. https://doi.org/10.14507/er.v0.1418

van Uum, M.S.J., Verhoeff, R.P., Peeters, M., 2016. Inquiry-based science education: towards a pedagogical framework for primary school teachers. International Journal of Science Education 38, 450–469. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2016.1147660

Zhang, L., Cobern, W.W., 2021. Confusions on “Guidance” in Inquiry-Based Science Teaching: a Response to Aditomo and Klieme (2020). Can. J. Sci. Math. Techn. Educ. 21, 207–212. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42330-020-00116-4

2 thoughts on “A little thought for our ‘knowledge’ based science curriculums.

  1. Yesterday, via Whatsapp, came a minute long video of 7 month old twins, at last, communicating to each other. One was intermittently squealing, whilst the sister watched attentively. Mother would occasionally say his name and the boy would stop, turn to acknowledge, but quickly revert to continue his conversation. One had some knowledge that, now, another might learn, socially.

    He was epistemically updating a skill, teaching & learning, in a procedural fashion. It might be said that the acquisition of the concepts involved had been aided by skills/conceptual-knowledge imparted to some extent by the parents earlier (cf the topmost line in the “Knowledge Domain” table in the article). In rear facing buggies there exists a captive audience.

    Contrast with their sole interaction with leaves on trees whilst in a sling at the right height & close enough to grasp. The primary piece of substantive knowledge that is “given” is not to allow them to play with roses/holly, for safety reasons. There is no social aspect, but through the weeks they have shook, torn and generally explored the forces and textures involved making their way down the list of forceful interactions as outlined by @BenRogers in a table in one of his recent tweets.

    Finally, it’s all about the tools, both within (ie fine motor control) & outwith the body. Compare feeding implements: some plastic spoons are simple, others have improved bowl shape for food delivery plus enhanced grip surfaces. And of course toast, melon etc can be fashioned so no artificial aids are used.

    In early life, with limited sensory channel capability, direct instruction is handicapped & less effective than a play IBSE (Inquiry-Based Science Education) approach. At some point in time, it may be said that the balance shifts and it might be that ”its all about knowledge” and its explicit instruction However, at some stage the pendulum swings back and, in such as a PhD — but most likely earlier, the IBSE approach re-asserts itself primarily because post formal education in the workplace textbooks are of “little” use.

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