Why the KS2 science sampling results are so terrible

I couldn’t think of a witty title, so went for a ‘does what it says on the tin’ approach. Anyway, this post puts together a few of my thoughts, as a relative outsider to teaching who has a degree in science, on why barely a quarter of children meeting the standard in science at the end of KS2:

Too many ‘experiments’ and not enough listening, reading, writing or regular testing of science knowledge.

There, I said it. It’s like I’m the worst sciencey person ever, right? Do I want children to die of boredom or something?

The reason I have such an issue with experiments in primary schools is that they tend to be used to help children discover their science facts rather than consolidate. Further, experiments seem to trump all other activities such as listening and note taking, reading and answering questions or even just watching a demonstration and hearing the teacher model their thinking. Due to the fact that little children are just, erm, little children, what little knowledge content that could be lurking in the science lesson is ignored because little children get distracted by their need to grab all the equipment before anyone else, take the shortest route possible to the ‘actual science bit’ and proceed to do their own version of an experiment (which has all sorts of consequences).

Tornado
The year 6s thoroughly enjoyed their ‘To be able to describe the influence of material type on drag at high velocity’ lesson.

I did go on a science CPD recently and while the session on communication in science was really interesting (although we had to put up with the loud whoops next door of the ‘how to do more experiments’ session), the initial session, chaired by a very important person who had set up an organisation offering schools the chance to work towards an Ofsted-approved badge, rehashed the main ethos of science in primary schools, particularly the type of science lesson that Ofsted wants to see, allegedly.

  • Children hate it when science lessons are boring and the teacher talks too much
  • Children learn most when they are active, hands on and enjoying themselves
  • If we want children to go on to careers in science, the ‘evidence’ shows that we need to make them love science by the end of KS2, otherwise they’re not going to become scientists

This was accompanied by a very slick powerpoint presentation that included a page of ‘statistics’ complete with side-by-side pictures of a) miserable children sat at desks in rows facing the front (black and white) and b) happy children doing experiments (full colour for that one). I looked around me in disbelief, only to see everyone agreeing wholeheartedly with what was being said, heading straight towards total compliance and setting themselves up for an arduous journey of heightened workload in order to gain this special ‘Ofsted-approved’ badge. Was there something wrong with me? Have I been wrong about science all these years? Am I the only one who believes that The Answer is not always for the teacher to work ever harder to make all the experiments a bit more ‘Wow!’ but instead for the children to work harder to learn the facts?

What I have consistently found is that children cannot write or even spell science vocabulary, nor can they recall key science facts let alone use them to explain observations or analyse results. What they do seem to have is a collective ‘understanding’ that science is all about experiments and having mad hair. This is the opposite of what most of us science people know about the various strands of science: it’s the interesting knowledge that turns our brains on, the discoveries and of course that part where you finally crunch the numbers and it turns out that your hypothesis was right (or utterly wrong). I believe that when these children-who-know-nothing go to secondary school, they are turned off science because they haven’t been adequately prepared for their KS3 lessons – they were expecting chemical explosions and ‘ended up’ with chemical equations, they were trained to be constantly up and moving yet were told, abruptly, to sit down, focus and listen.

I believe part of the problem is that primary teachers themselves might think that science is all about the bit where you’re wearing a lab coat and goggles. They have no idea that your typical PhD student has spend so much of his life pouring over background knowledge, attending lectures, reading research outcomes, honing methodology and seeking official approval before he even puts the whitecoat on and then proceeds to spend an eternity being best friends with the fruit flies. Science people have an intense fascination with the minutiae of the world around us, they want to know why and how and what of the universe and when each new fact is digested, their hunger is only satiated for a short while before yet another question pops up. One scientist may be all about the theoretical cosmology, another may be all about the molecular structure of insulin (just randomly picking out subjects here). What fired them up in the first place?

Knowledge.

The children who do really well in tests (I’ve been doing a bit of surreptitious analysis on this over the years) are the prolific readers who have access to a wide range of science books. My analysis therefore also seems to show that science lessons in schools have minimal impact. I was the same: I read lots and through gaining basic science knowledge I was able to progress to more and more science knowledge and then something sparked – genetics seemed fascinating to me and that was it, my knowledge path formed before me and there was no turning back. Speaking to friends who ended up in various fields of expertise the story is pretty much the same: they tended to find their ‘love’ in the late teenage years having spent a long time in science lessons just getting on with learning, being focused, working hard and reading lots. None of us would have found our paths had it not been for a thorough grounding in the basic facts.

What’s the answer? Well I certainly think that science lessons need to be focused on imparting knowledge and making sure that the knowledge stays in their heads. How this is done is another matter – personally I find that showing little children interesting pictures and talking about them is really effective, then getting them to use the vocabulary both in speech and in written form helps them to remember. Then, a while later, have a quiz. We can do an experiment, but it’s more of a side-dish to the main meal of science facts.

Who’s with me?

 

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7 thoughts on “Why the KS2 science sampling results are so terrible

  1. Yes.

    Whilst Science lead, my school completed the (Holy Grail and Ofsted approved) PSQM. Unfortunately, it runs out next year and I don’t think I will or want to do it again. Tired teachers just wanted a good quality scheme of work ( this emerged when I did the initial survey) and it took a year of extremely hard work on my part to persuade them otherwise.

    Two years on and Science has less of a profile than before we achieved the Gold Standard. Maths and English are the priority because they make up the data.
    Until we start nationally testing the children on subject knowledge at least, then children will continue to be provided with lukewarm and ineffective discovery learning.

    I am sure there are some fantastic exceptions to this rule but even within one school, the rigour will be patchy and inconsistent.

    I now believe that we should teach knowledge and model experimentation. We should learn about what has already been discovered and how. We should visit museums and invite real scientists to talk about their work.Science is fascinating enough without having to force the obligatory ‘Active Learning’ that clutters up the curriculum and stops children having a solid base for future learning to come. My in house survey showed quite clearly that Science was already marginalised in many classrooms. Two hours a week or a blocked unit per term. We are doing ‘Active Learning’ and the bit the kids remember is the whizz and bang. Our year six did the sampling science tests last year and only 50% were 100+ on the baseline for science.

    Something’s not working because those results aren’t good enough.

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  2. Sadly, it’s only too easy to believe that charlatans can make a good living by promoting exactly the same message that most primary teachers have already had drummed into their heads for three years in ITT and heavens knows how much subsequent CPD. I’m not a violent person, but I often feel that the world would be a better place if Pestalozzi had been strangled at birth.

    As I’ve discovered, it’s a waste of time trying to make a living writing good science books for schools. Working with a chap who teaches chemistry and physics in a Lancs comp, I wrote a series called ‘Morphemes For Chemistry’, which was designed around the KS3 scheme of work used at his school. Pupils were taught key facts, such as “Concentration is the measure of how many solute particles there are in a certain volume of solution.” It taught pupils how to break words into morphemes, such as “con-centre-ate-ion” and the rule for dropping the ‘e’ when the next morpheme starts with a vowel. He used this with one of his middling sets, and they loved it. We went on to produce lessons for the entire KS3 Chemistry curriculum. Sadly, he couldn’t even get his own SLT interested, but he hopes to have another go in September.

    We’ve also written a series called ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’, which consists of short biographies of scientists from Aristotle to Einstein. It’s not complete, and graphics have been a real problem. I wrote most of the early chapters up to Kepler, and my co-author wrote everything from Galileo and Newton onwards. It shows clearly why Newton made his famous statement–by drawing the pupil’s attention to how the work of al-Haytham formed the basis of his work on optics–and how al-Haytham had used experimental methods to overturn Aristotle’s misconceptions on the subject.

    Sadly, our experience promoting Fast Maths–which works wonders for teaching automatic recall of number bonds–has discouraged me from investing enough money to get these books into print. If anyone would like to try a few lessons from Morphemes For Chemistry, I’d be only too happy to send them electronically, with the understanding that it is copyright material. It seems a shame to put a really good programme together, only for it to go to waste. Especially as the kids really do love it–and their reaction is on a completely different plane than just messing around with stuff.

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  3. My own love for science came through an almost entirely knowledge-based, reading and research style curriculum at primary school. Nothing ‘whiz bang’ at all. The results in this sample suggest that there has been no teaching of science in English primary schools and that all we are are left with is what the pupils have picked up on their own.

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