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 first’ 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 first’ 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

Science Action Planning: Help!

Another  Lewisham Science Leaders’ Forum on Friday! Thanks to Carole Kenrick from The Ogden Trust for giving us some super  free CPD at the beginning.

Amongst other things we also did some science action planning. To follow up, I thought these questions might be helpful for people new to science leadership and struggling to know where to start to make an impact. Here are a list of questions that might form the basis of an action plan. New people might only start with the first few questions this year and go on to getting to grips with the others after they’ve got their first year under their belt. Hope this helps:

  • What is being taught?  (What is the science curriculum map for each year group) 
  • Is this being taught? (Book monitoring, pupils conferences, learning walks) 
  • Is this adequately resourced to enable teachers and learners to learn? (Resources audit/ budget) 
  • Are teachers confident and supported in their subject knowledge for the curriculum (if not try Reach Out CPD, for example, or get some CPD in.)
  • What is the quality of the learning and teaching of the curriculum? (Is it more child-led than teacher led? Do pupils enjoy it? Do they investigate their own questions enough? Is  there a range of the five types of investigations and lots of practicals? Use observations, pupils surveys, learning walks and books to understand this).
  • How is the learning assessed? (Are teachers clear how to assess science?  Do they use prior knowledge to inform planning? What are they recording for assessment record keeping? 
  • What does the achieved and attainment in science look like? (How many pupils are on track, behind or ahead? SEN? FSM, EAL? What are you going to do to address the issues?) 
  • How can the learning and teaching be enriched? (Visitors, Science Weeks, Science events, extra funding, partnerships etc)
….and I think this last question should be on everyone’s plan, new or more experienced:
  • How can you become a better Science Leader?  (Do you need CPD? Advice? Are you getting time and support?)

I would also say that the enrichment doesn’t have to be only if all those other things are in place because science weeks and visitors etc can be great fun and a quick win; however, if you’ve no time and you’re sinking, then perhaps enrichment is not a priority, but ensuring science is taught should be.

Lastly, when you find something out as a leader, and this creates an action point then think: What am I going to do to address this? How will I know I have? The ‘how will I know I have?’ is so important as it will prevent you from doing things that turn out to be like a ball of string unravelling with no end in sight. Think about going from A to B, but be really clear what B looks like, so you know you’ve got there. It’s like good AfL practice – be clear on quality.

If you can get your head teacher to let you do the Primary Science Quality Mark then this is great way to start and you will get support in making a great impact on science in your school.

With tight budgets now and extreme pressures on schools to make great gains in reading, writing and maths, science will be squeezed on all sides. So chin up science leaders, take a breath and stick your necks out!

Keep waving the flag for science!



Teaching Evolution

Last year I attended an excellent lecture at the IOE by Professor Martie Sanders on teaching evolution to young children. I’ve been meaning to share this.

As evolution now has to be taught in Key Stage 2,  I think it’s really important for teachers to think carefully about how to do this, and do it well. To begin with I’m going to use a quote Martie used:

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”            

  (Dobzhansky, 1973:125)

You can also watch a quick Ytube clip below explaining this in a snappy set of clips, but in essence life processes and living things begin and end with evolution. If children understand the basic concept of evolution it will mean they have a fundamental foundation for understanding all the other biological concepts. Even if pupils don’t become scientists, which most won’t do, understanding evolution brings the individual a clearer sense of the relationship between living things and the environment; this helps them become an informed citizen. For example, take the over use of anti-biotics causing bacteria to become resistant to common drugs then developing into ‘super bugs’. This is evolution!!

Why evolution is important:    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRJnqJqBfsY

Worries about teaching evolution

Martie shared her studies carried out in South Africa and found that when confronted with teaching evolution, teachers were most worried about their own subject knowledge and also conflicts with their own or pupil’s religious ideas. However, her quote ‘knowledge is power’ really made sense here. The best thing to do then is not to shy away from teaching it, but jump right in and try to understand what’s going on here.

One suggestion is to present the scientific ideas about evolution as ‘scientists’ explanations’. A teacher then should never use scientific theories to confront religious beliefs. In fact it is important to make a distinction between scientific explanations and religious beliefs and not set them against each other, even if they seem contradictory. For me, it’s a mistake to present religious and scientific ideas as both theories because we are then using ‘theory’ in a very causal way and not the scientific way. A theory comes about when a hypothesis has been tested using evidence. A theory is not a belief; a theory is a viewpoint arrived at using all the evidence presented so far; theories themselves can also evolve and change depending on the evidential base. So – I would say, please don’t call beliefs theories; you need evidence to have a theory.

So, once you’re comfortable with presenting these scientific explanations, and have not set these against any ‘beliefs’ in the room, then it’s all about getting the subject knowledge and the teaching method right.

Subject knowledge

Let’s start with variation in a population (a group of the same species living in a particular area). A farmer wants to breed sheep with thick curly brown fleeces.  He has a heard of sheep with different kinds of fleeces: grey, brown, black etc. What does he do? He selects two sheep with the thickest, curliest, brown fleeces and breeds them. This is selective breeding. The two curly, brown sheep have a few lambs. Of these the farmer only allows the ones with the curliest brown coats to breed. He continues like this so that over the generations, more and more offspring have the thick, curly brown feature and any other colour or texture is bred out.


Now, what Darwin thought was ‘maybe this happens in nature too’! Maybe somehow, there is a process of natural selection so that certain attributes become dominant? He was right, but here comes a problem and a potential misconception for pupils!

Anthropomorphism  and evolution on demand

The trouble is that the way we talk about living things often sends the wrong message and forms the basis of misconceptions for young children. Like this, when we say things like ‘some plants prefer more light’ or ‘roots try to find water’ we are implying that these living things possess volition (or decision making abilities). They don’t. So as teachers we need to be really careful how we say things. Most of biology is process driven and not decision driven, and we need to use language to indicate this.

The point here is that living things do not choose to evolve that’s why Darwin used the word ‘natural selection’. A polar bear did not at one time choose to grow thicker hair in order to live way up North, just as a tiger did not choose to grow a stripy coat so it could hide in the leafy jungle and hunt. Instead, these were naturally selected attributes that became dominant over generations. In fact let’s use Martie’s quotes to make the three key areas clear:

  • Evolution: “Changes in a population, resulting from the increase of certain features in the population over many generations
  • Natural selection: “The mechanism by which evolution occur.”
  • Adaptations: “Evolutionary results of natural selection, in a population”

Let’s take the tiger and its stripes. We take a population of big cats in the jungle. Some of the cats have are born with a stripe of two. While hunting this gives them a slight advantage, they are better camouflaged and as a result they have a better diet. In turn, they have more energy to breed and reproduce more offspring. These offspring are born with the same kind of stripes because they share the same genes. These tigers are also at an advantage to the less stripy cats and hunt more and reproduce more. So now there are more stripy cats and less non stripy cats. The stronger stripy cats are more likely to mate with another stripy cat. Eventually, this goes on over the generations and eat generation is more stripy because the adaptation of ‘stripy fur’ has been naturally selected. Remember, the tiger didn’t decide to get more stripes, or decide to choose a stripy mate even, but they might reproduced with the fittest mate who was stronger because he had stripes and was more successful at hunting – see ‘survival of the fittest’.  Even that term can be misinterpreted, like living things having some big kind of fight and the strongest one winning – as you can see, it’s not quite like that. It simply means that the living being with attributes best suited the environment is more likely to survive and reproduce than one that doesn’t. Remember, no decision making – just process.

tiger      tiger eating

Children rightly love stories with animals, but this can also serve to  create misconceptions about them. But please don’t stop reading them wonderful stories! Just make sure you don’t carry it on during science lessons!

Evolution is learnt mostly through observation

Just as Darwin arrived at his theory of evolution through observing living things and recording evidence, children will learn about evolution in the same way so they need to be provided with lots of opportunities to ‘play at evolution’ themselves. Martie Sanders suggested for example, using the attributes of insects to investigate camouflage and survival. For example, on a leafy green plant, which beetle is more likely to be spotted by a predator:

 green leaves   gren beetle   black beetle    yellow beetle

There are lots of games children can play like this. You could darken the room, like a deep jungle, cut the beetles out, lie them on a green leafy background and give the children ten seconds to pick up as many as they can. Because they will naturally find it easier to pick out the black and then yellow beetles against the green, they will see how more of the green beetles will be left to survive and reproduce with other green beetles. What I find fascinating here is that this shows the localised nature of evolution. Children often think all polar bears came at once or all tigers, or green beetles suddenly appeared. The point is that if evolution begins with variation in a population this is referring to groups of living things living nearby each other. In this way, the adaptations are local to the population, which of course might be so well adapted to where they are that they get bigger and bigger then you get migration and larger, more global populations. But all this is at the heart of the great ‘tree of life’ and the huge variety of life on earth. Amazing!!!

There’s also a similar game using different utensils to model bird beaks and different food types of food (see below).

Bird beak activity and speciation

So, if you’re having to teach evolution for the first time I hope this was useful.



Developing child-led science in primary schools


science 2   science

Here’s a paper  (click below) I’ve just done on teachers enabling pupils to follow their own lines of enquiry in science, effectively building their own curriculum. Before there’s a panic about coverage – I’ve also tried to tackle the meeting of NC requirements at the same time. Anyway, I know it’s a long read, and academic, but give it a go if you care about primary science! Ignore a lot of the appendices – some of them purely for the IOE side.

Would be interesting to try to take this approach with other areas of the curriculum, although perhaps not for all subjects? Can’t see how it would work for English and Maths, for example. That’s the trouble with our approach sometimes, we try to treat all subjects the same way, when they originate from very different disciplines. Science, by its very nature, certainly lends itself to this appraoach and it would be refreshing if teachers had a go at this, especially with the new curriculum freedoms. Come on! Try it!

Primary Science Currciulum Development Project