To be published on 6th December 2019
Seven recommendations for improving science in secondary schools
The attainment gap in science may not be as well-documented as the gap in English and maths, but it is just as pervasive. Our research has shown that disadvantaged pupils start to fall behind in science in Key Stage 1; the gap only gets wider throughout primary and secondary school and on to A-level.
Helping schools to use evidence and to understand better the most effective ways to improve results is the best way to tackle this country’s stark science attainment gap.
This is why we’ve produced this guidance report. It offers seven practical evidence-based recommendations—that are relevant to all pupils, but particularly to those struggling with science.
Science is about how the world works and long before children start a formal education in science they build their own understanding about the phenomena that they meet on a daily basis. These preconceptions are built through sensory experiences and social interactions. These self-constructed ideas may or may not align with scientific understanding and, if they do not, are called misconceptions. Pupils usually need to go through a process of adjusting their ideas, or even replacing them with more scientifically correct ones.
First, find out what your pupils’ preconceptions are. Well known misconceptions are a useful place to start. Once you have identified their preconceptions, you can begin to help pupils develop their thinking. A useful way to develop thinking is to provide evidence that may conflict with pupils’ currently held ideas.
Throughout teaching sequences it is useful to revisit misconceptions and remind pupils of what they thought at the beginning, getting them to revisit these early ideas and acknowledge any changes in their thinking. Some misconceptions can take time to shift, so it is important to use formative assessment to check that thinking has changed in the long-term.
Metacognition is not just ‘thinking about one’s thinking’, but also monitoring one’s learning and, importantly, making changes to one’s approach to a task as a result of the monitoring. Encourage pupils to engage in the Planning-Monitoring-Evaluation cycle as part of science lessons.
Show your pupils how you think. You can provide a useful example for pupils by making your thinking processes explicit. You can do this by working through problems in front of a class, talking through how you are approaching the problem, the kinds of strategies you are trying and why you’ve chosen them, and how you are monitoring if they are successful.
Promote metacognitive talk and dialogue in the classroom: Discussion requires careful structuring and pupils need explicit instruction on how to have effective group discussions.
Scientific knowledge is difficult to learn because we are constantly moving between observations we can make with our senses, the explanations for observations, and the symbolic representation of these explanations. You can use models to link observations to explanations and representations.
As a science teacher you have many models in your repertoire. Models should only be used if they aid understanding—and there are plenty of concepts that can be taught without the use of models.
Think about the models that you are going to use before, during, and following lessons. A useful way of doing this is the Focus, Action and Reflection (FAR) approach.
For pupils to get the most out of models they need to understand how models relate to reality and why they are used. This is an important step in developing their ability to ‘reason like a scientist’.
The limit of the working memory means that it can quickly become overloaded when dealing with a new task. Any task that exceeds the limit of the working memory will result in cognitive overload and this increases the possibility that the content may be misunderstood and not effectively encoded in the long-term memory.
Learning everything to do with a topic during a single time period is not as effective as distributed learning. Spaced review involves revisiting a topic after a ‘forgetting gap’ and strengthens long-term memory. A simple way to manage this is to build in review time, including reviewing learning from the previous lesson at the start of the next one or over longer periods (at the end of each week, month, or topic). This also links with retrieval practice. and combining spaced review and retrieval practice can lead to great benefits in retention in the long-term.
Repeatedly re-reading a text is not an effective way of learning. It is much more effective for pupils to try to retrieve what they already know about a topic, or what they have recently read about it, from memory. Retrieval practice involves retrieving something you have learnt in the past and bringing it back to mind. You can use retrieval to review past learning before introducing new related learning.
Encourage pupils to elaborate on what they have learnt. Elaboration involves describing and explaining in detail something you have learnt. This approach supports learning by integrating new information with existing prior knowledge, helping to embed it in the long-term memory. This is useful as pupils progress in their understanding of a concept.
It is important that you are clear about the skills or knowledge that you are trying to develop in your pupils with a particular practical activity. Think through the best approach to developing these things and plan how to sequence it with other learning.
It is unreasonable to expect lasting learning of a scientific concept from a single, relatively brief practical activity. Practical work is an important string to your bow, but as a successful science teacher you will use it alongside a range of other activities. An experiment may be the centre-piece of a lesson, but don’t forget the activities that go with it.
Science, for humans, is the most powerful way of discovering truth about the world. A scientific attitude is an attribute that will serve pupils well in life.
Every time you do an experiment, you can model some aspect of scientific reasoning. Even if the main purpose of the experiment is to develop a particular scientific theory or a scientific skill, you can point out how you are using scientific methodology.
There are different ways to expose pupils to the processes of practical science, from virtual experiments to open-ended projects. Virtual experiments, such as the PhET simulations from the University of Colorado at Boulder, allow pupils to quickly change variables, see patterns in data, and understand relationships.
An approach to practical work that requires more time involves open-ended projects, with pupils pursuing a project of their own choosing over an extended period of time. Providing project opportunities within the constrained curriculum, especially at GCSE, is challenging. But there are opportunities for project work outside the timetable and in STEM clubs.
Be aware of the vocabulary demands of a topic and make a conscious choice about the words that you are going to teach and when to introduce them. Focus on the words that pupils really need to understand and make sure they understand them well. Less is more: a deep understanding of fewer words is better than understanding lots of words at a surface level.
Teach new scientific vocabulary explicitly. Direct instruction has benefits, but this is not just about rote learning; you need to show pupils how words are linked and how to use them in a range of contexts.
It is important that the texts pupils are reading are at an appropriate level, but challenging and interesting; pupils should have the opportunity to engage with authentic scientific books and texts.
The use of authentic texts does not mean that all pupils need to be reading journal articles but they should have access to quality texts from a range of sources, including news articles and parts of popular science books.
Writing about science is more than communication alone; it supports pupils in their learning because when they write about science they reflect on their understanding, formulate their own ideas, and combine ideas in new ways.
Pupils can have strengths in one area and weaknesses in another. So it is important that you build up an accurate picture of the current understanding of all your pupils.
Feedback should help the pupil develop as a learner, not just improve on the specific task that you are providing feedback on—and teachers can provide feedback at different levels.
Provide feedback as comments rather than marks. Marks can demotivate low attainers and can make high attainers complacent; in contrast, comments show both how they can do better.
Seven recommendations for improving science in secondary schools