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Ofsted Research Review of Science – A summary

Ambition for All

The picture for science is not an improving one for all pupils and may be deteriorating.


  • Focus on the products and practices of science.
  • Products enable pupils to explain the material world and develop excitement and curiosity about natural phenomena
  • Practices enable pupils to learn how scientific knowledge becomes established through scientific enquiry.
  • Pupils also learn about use and significance to society and own lives – history of science and its contribution.
  • Continuing importance of science – global challenges like climate change etc.

National Context

  • Starts in EYFS – understanding the world. Introduce to a wide range of vocab but do not consider EYFS just as preparation for KS1 science.
  • NC outlines the content – concern it is being squeezed out. More of a focus on Eng and Ma.
  • In 2018, 21.2% of pupils in Y6 sample testing reached Exp standard
  • Pupils experienced ‘fun activities’ without developing deep understanding of scientific concepts.

Curriculum Progression – what it means to get better at science

Expertise in science needs to forms of knowledge. Substantive (knowledge of products of science) and disciplinary (knowledge of practices of science). In high quality science curriculums, knowledge was sequenced carefully to reveal the interplay between substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

Learning science – from novice to expert

  • Experts differ from novices not only in the extent of their domain specific knowledge but also how their knowledge is organised in their memory.
  • Experts know more so knowledge is better structured making it easier to access as well as being more meaningful and flexible.
  • Pupils need a connected knowledge base – new knowledge should integrate with existing knowledge.
  • Knowledge should be organised around the most important concepts which predict and explain the largest number of phenomena.
  • Curriculum should break down complex concepts and procedures into manageable chunks.

Substantive Knowledge – the products of science

  • Organised broadly into biology, chemistry and physics.
  • Each discipline gives unique perspective of the world around them.
  • As pupils progress, they should develop knowledge about the similarities and differences between each discipline.

Disciplinary knowledge – knowing how science establishes knowledge through scientific enquiry

  • The NC specifies the disciplinary knowledge through working scientifically section in PoS
  • 4 content areas of disciplinary knowledge
    • Knowledge of methods that scientists use to answer questions – not just fair testing!
    • Knowledge of apparatus and techniques including measurement
    • Knowledge of data analysis
    • Knowledge of how science uses evidence to develop explanations
  • These tend to classed as ‘skills’ and pupils are assumed to pick these up by ‘doing’. This assumption fails to recognise that this level of disciplinary ‘skill’ is dependent on domain specific knowledge.
  • Disciplinary knowledge is underpinned by knowledge of procedures and concepts – these need to be broken down into their component parts and taught explicitly.

Disciplinary and substantive knowledge: the importance of interplay

  • Teaching these two areas separately should be avoided.
  • 1st problematic curriculum model treats science as only a body of substantive knowledge – learn substantive facts but unaware of how it was developed and accepted – naïve understanding.
  • 2nd problematic model only focuses on working scientifically – a focus on general skills such as observing or classifying where these skills are dependent on context and substantive knowledge.
  • Solution is to organise curriculum so disciplinary knowledge is embedded within substantive content.
    • Appreciate nature of substantive knowledge by knowing evidence for it.
    • Use both to ask and answer scientific questions by carrying out scientific enquiry

High quality science – curriculum

  • Curriculum is planned to build increasingly sophisticated disciplinary and substantive knowledge
  • Disciplinary knowledge includes learning about diverse ways that science is interrogated.
  • Curriculum outlines how disciplinary knowledge advances over time
  • Disciplinary knowledge is explicitly taught and not expected to be learned as a by-product
  • Scientific processes are taught in relation to specific substantive knowledge – not generalised skill

Organising knowledge within the curriculum

Curriculum needs to identify key concepts and procedures and how these build over time. This starts in Early Years. High quality curriculums are coherent. Pupils need to know how knowledge connects.

Sequencing substantive knowledge

  • Careful curriculum design breaks down new knowledge into meaningful components and introduces them sequentially. This can support all pupils to learn scientific concepts.
  • Many science curriculums present arbitrary topics in an ad-hoc fashion. This means that knowledge is difficult to use and is easily forgotten.

Curriculum coherence: building conceptual frameworks

  • Coherence = teaching topics and the substantive content in them in a particular sequence that reflects the hierarchal structure of the scientific disciplines.
  • This all starts in Early Years – introduce a wide range of vocab and phenomena – clear correlation between young children’s general science knowledge and later science achievement.
  • New knowledge gets systematically integrated into pre-existing knowledge.
  • Strong curriculums began with teaching a few of the most fundamental topics of science.
  • Important scientific concepts are built on over time – not repetition of previously taught knowledge but created opportunity for new knowledge to become part of emerging conceptual structure.

Sequencing disciplinary knowledge within the most appropriate substantive concepts

  • Disciplinary knowledge should be articulated and sequenced in the curriculum.
  • Sequencing should take account of its hierarchal nature and the progression of substantive knowledge
  • A high quality curriculum will identify the best substantive contexts to teach specific disciplinary knowledge.
  • Once taught, disciplinary knowledge should be practised in different topics to show that it can be used in different substantive concepts.

Coherence between maths and science

  • Teachers shouldn’t assume pupils can transfer learning from maths to science – they will need to be taught how to use maths in science.
  • Science is dependent on maths but not the other way around.

High quality science – organisation of knowledge

  • EYFS introduce wide range of vocab that categorise and describe the natural world.
  • Attainment targets are broken down to component knowledge.
  • Substantive knowledge sequenced to build knowledge of important concepts.
  • Knowledge is sequenced to show the deep structure of scientific disciplines – show how it is connected.
  • Disciplinary knowledge is sequenced to take account of hierarchy and substantive context.
  • Once introduced, disciplinary knowledge should be used in a range of substantive concepts.
  • Planning progression takes account of what is taught in other subjects.

Other curricular considerations

Practice makes sure learned knowledge is accessible and not forgotten

Time in the curriculum for consolidation

  • Time for extensive practice will help pupils consolidate knowledge before moving to new content.
  • Consolidation takes time. Plan for sufficient time for knowledge to be practised and remembered.

Reading, writing, talking and representing science

  • Pupils need to learn about the ways scientists engage in their work – reading, writing, talking and representing science.
  • This is called disciplinary literacy
  • Research shows pupils are expected to pick this up implicitly
  • The aspects of disciplinary literacy which are specific to science need to be made explicit.

Misconceptions and the curriculum

  • Some substantive concepts are tricky to learn because they conflict with everyday knowledge – for example: buying plant food when plants make their own food.
  • Pupils need to know why a scientific idea is correct and why the misconception is scientifically wrong.
  • Pupils need repeated opportunities to practise activating the scientific concept.
  • When the gap between prior knowledge and new concept is too large, information may be ignored or misconceptions developed.
  • The curriculum should identify which substantive concepts might create misconceptions.

High quality science – curriculum considerations

  • Must give time to embed learning in LTM through practice.
  • Disciplinary literacy is identified and sequenced and explicitly taught.
  • Plans consider how knowledge introduced influences future learning
  • Curriculum anticipates misconceptions and explicitly addresses them.

Curriculum Materials

Quality textbooks used well can be help to create a coherent learning progression and free up teachers’ time. Resources that focus on activities rather than content don’t lead to positive science achievement.

High quality science – curriculum materials

  • If science kits are used, they need to help achieve the curriculum intent and the activities themselves must not become the curricular goal.

Practical work

Practical work is an important part of science education. High-quality practical work has a clear purpose and forms part of the wider instructional sequence and takes place only when pupils have enough prior knowledge to learn from the activity,

The purpose of practical work in relation to curriculum content

  • Practical work is fundamental to science as it connects concepts and procedures to the phenomena and methods studied.
  • Teachers often prioritise ‘wow’ moments with clear reference to any curricular goal.
  • Important first step of effective practical work is to clarify its role to specific curriculum coherent.

Practical work to help pupils learn substantive knowledge

  • Enough time before or after the practical work needs to be given for pupils to interpret and explain the observations and measurements made or about to make.

Practical work and disciplinary knowledge

  • Enough curriculum time needs to be given to teach underlying substantive and disciplinary knowledge first.
  • Carrying out scientific enquiry requires knowledge of concepts and procedures to guide what is done and why – otherwise pupils will be participating in ‘discovery learning’ not scientific enquiry.

Practical work through teachers’ use of demonstrations

  • Teacher demos allow pupils to encounter objects they are learning about while minimising the distractions associated with handling apparatus and recording data.

Practical work and objects of study

  • Teachers need to take account of the distinct and varied nature of each discipline.
    • Tend to be zoo-centric
    • Should take pupils beyond everyday experiences

Challenges of practical work

  • Children tend to remember what they saw and did, not the curriculum content.
  • Scientific ideas cannot simply emerge from carrying out a practical – dismissed on cognitive and epistemological grounds – pupils wont arrive at a scientific conception that took scientists years to develop.
  • Practical work should form part of wider instructional sequence and pupils need enough prior knowledge to learn from the activity.

High quality science – practical work

  • Disciplinary and substantive knowledge is sequenced so that practical work can be learned from.
  • Practical work forms part of wider instructional sequence.
  • Pupils aren’t expected to learn disciplinary knowledge through practical work.

Pedagogy: teaching the curriculum

Teacher explanations important in building from what pupils already know. Unguided ‘discovery’ approaches are not effective. Learning in science benefits from systematic teaching approaches that scaffold learning.

Teacher-directed instruction

  • Teacher-directed instruction involves the following
    • Teacher explains scientific ideas
    • Whole-class discussion takes place with the teacher
    • Teacher discusses the questions
    • Teacher demonstrates an idea
  • Teacher instruction is not ‘passive learning’.
  • Explanations are key – pupils said ‘explaining things well’ is most important to helping them learn.
  • Technology can play an important role in helping pupils learn abstract concepts.

Enquiry based teaching

  • Challenges for learning through exploration when you are a novice learner with little prior knowledge.
  • When solutions are left to be found, it carries heavy extraneous (irrelevant to learning) load. This is increased if apparatus is included.
  • Pupils often record measurements that conflict with the scientific idea. If they record valid data, they often lack knowledge to draw conclusions. It is also intellectually dishonest to ask pupils to ‘discover’ something when the answer is already known.

Reading, writing and talking in science lessons

  • Reading achievement is associated with science achievement.
  • Well-written scientific texts support vocab development and conceptual relations.
  • Even more effective when key vocab is explicitly taught alongside shared book reading.

High quality science – pedagogy

  • Activities are chosen to match intent
  • Teaching takes account of limited working memory
  • Pupils shouldn’t be expected to arrive at scientific explanations without sufficient prior knowledge
  • Systematic approaches alongside text are used to teach important vocab.
  • Pupils have regular opportunities to learn vocab through story, non-fiction, rhyme, song.


Pupils often learn different things from what was intended. Assessment should help prevent pupils from forgetting what they have learned and to check that pupils have reached specific goals.

Assessment for learning: formative assessment

  • Most effective when embedded within a lesson at the same time knowledge is taught.
  • Distractor-driven assessment such as multiple choice questions that present conceptions and misconceptions are especially helpful.
  • Teachers’ content knowledge influences their ability to evaluate pupils’ ideas and feedback given.

Assessment as learning: the testing effect

  • Draws on cognitive principle that pupils remember more if the practise retrieval over time.
  • Retrieval should be followed by feedback.
  • Careful attention should be given to what they are asking pupils to retrieve.

Assessment of learning: summative assessment

  • Identifies whether curricular goals have been achieved.
  • Consists of assessment of substantive and disciplinary knowledge.
  • TA at primary (KS1 and KS2) are over inflated based on 21% of children sampled reaching expected standard – could be as it is based on classroom work at time of study and not summatively.

High quality science – assessment

  • Feedback is focused on scientific content and not generic features.
  • Pupils regularly retrieve knowledge from memory – this is coupled with feedback.
  • Systems are in place to support teacher assessment in KS1 and KS2

Systems at subject and school level

Dependent on effective subject and school (trust) leadership. There must be sufficient curriculum time (research suggests this doesn’t always happen at primary school). Pupils also need access to sufficient resources.

Teachers’ knowledge and expertise

  • Science teachers often have insufficient subject knowledge.
  • Weak knowledge prevents clear explanations and develop misconceptions.
    • Research study showed that many teachers shared the same misconceptions as the children.
    • The majority in the study thought gravity increased as objects got higher.
    • One third of primary teachers thought all metals were magnetic
  • Expecting teachers to pick up knowledge through time spent teaching is misguided – high quality subject-specific CPD is needed which is focused on content and how to teach it.
  • Suggestion for primary is to have at least one teacher who specialises in teaching science.

School timetabling

  • At primary, curriculum time for science is a concern as it is being squeezed out of the curriculum.

High quality science – systems

  • High quality, subject specific CPD to develop subject knowledge aligned to the curriculum
  • Science specialist in primary and science leaders with dedicated leadership time.
  • Subject teachers engage with subject associations.
  • Timetables allocate appropriate teaching time.
  • Pupils have access to enough resources to take part in practical work.

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