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!



Science made simple…

As for being a deeper and more rigorous science curriculum, yet again I find the very latest offering everything but this.

Now nine and ten year olds should be taught to, ‘notice that we hear with our ears’? Really? Are we expected to believe this is the great up-scaling of science learning in primary schools?

Perhaps Gove really is trying to introduce a ‘wet lettuce’ national curriculum so we’ll all fall on our knees pleading to become academies to get away from it. This does however seem a little far fetched, besides schools can always add to the curriculum, they merely need to ensure they cover this basic entitlement.

However, my worry is that with science it’s usual for teachers not only to find themelves strapped for time to teach everything they should, but it’s unlikely that they will have the time (or head space) to extend the science curriculum under their own steam. Anyone who works in a school would know this. Teachers are spinning so many plates, they don’t usually have the band width to check the size or shape of the them. And how many schools will rewrite their science curriculum when the other core subjects are biting at their heels?

My feeling is that if the National Curriculum is the minimum entitlement for the nation’s children it should be so much more than this. Our children deserve more.