Thinking like scientists: how to cultivate scientific thought in primary classrooms

By Ellie Caple posted 12-02-2024 13:48


Ellie Caple and Rebekah Edwards are evidence advocates at Tudor Grange Research School - this article originally appeared here

Children are born with a deep, innate desire to understand their world. Anyone who has interacted with small children will be familiar with endless why?’ questions! Primary science provides an excellent opportunity to tap into this natural curiosity and to encourage the why question’ stage of development and create a permanently inquisitive mind. We want children to retain their urge to question, challenge and explore – to think like scientists’

The EEF’s new Primary Science Guidance Report is an excellent resource that provides guidance to science leads, class teachers and school leaders in how we can best support inquisitive young minds. The second recommendation in Improving Primary Science encourages students to explain their thinking about scientific ideas, initially verbally but in time through writing too...

Strategies that encourage pupils to make their thinking explicit can create opportunities for pupils to recall, organise, and express their thoughts and ideas, refine their understanding, and think scientifically.’

In Tudor Grange Academies Trust (TGAT) science lessons, thinking like a scientist is encouraged through a range of activities such as:

  1. Debating whether a statement is true of false

2. Asking children to justify their choice of an odd-one-out

3) Discussing similarity and difference

4) Drawing on personal experience

Taken from

However, thinking about new ideas requires significant cognitive effort and can be daunting. Children are often motivated by getting the right’ answer and it takes a shift in mindset to view the thinking process as the goal rather than an answer. Improving Primary Science spotlights the need for building a collaborative learning environment where children feel safe to explore new ideas. At TGAT, students are encouraged to think like scientists through paired (think, pair, share opportunities) or small group work tasks where they can develop part-formed ideas in a low-stakes supportive environment. Whiteboards or post-it notes can be highly effective methods to encourage suggestions or ideas to be expressed in written form. Their temporary nature makes them feel less threatening than committing an answer to paper in a book which will be reviewed by a teacher. What is written on a whiteboard or post-it note can be rubbed out or discarded as thinking develops and this encourages children to explore and change their minds.

Dialogue between the teacher and pupils, and between pupils, can provide opportunities to articulate thinking and….identify gaps in their understanding, and reorganise their thoughts to consolidate their learning.’ 

Thinking about unfamiliar science concepts, like all learning, can be messy. At TGAT, students will refine their thinking multiple times as their understanding of a concept grows. Teachers can encourage this by providing opportunities in lessons for students to revisit an earlier prediction or explanation and amend or add to it after new learning has taken place.

For most young children, questioning, challenging and exploring – thinking like scientists – is part of natural development. And yet, as they get older, these thinking skills can become muted in the public forum of a classroom, where the perception may be that there is a right’ answer. By normalising questioning, debate and the need to sometimes change our mind, by creating a safe and collaborative environment, we nurture the scientific thinking which comes so naturally to younger children. And we create future analytical adults, who are open to new evidence and able to reshape their ideas – a generation who think like scientists.

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20-02-2024 20:54

I agree with Yolanda. Your article is excellent.

Sometimes I ask pupils to put on their Science thinking cap and with younger pupils they have a paper strip with 'Science thinking cap' on it to wear during the lesson. I also have pairs do 'Think Link' (De Bono) when they think of connections between science-topic vocabulary e.g. (Materials) 'Our magnet attracts the paper clips but not the plastic pens.' 'The paper clips sink but the plastic pens float.'

18-02-2024 15:03

Thank you so much for sharing this, I completely agree that children engage when they have the opportunity to ask why and think inquisitively. I will share the EEF's report with my colleague who is the Science leader at our school as I think that she will find this really useful to further develop our class teachers classroom practice. I also like the phrase 'Thinking like a scientist,' as it helps the children to focus on the nature of the career and encourages them to question and explore ideas before coming to the answer.

13-02-2024 09:24

A superb article Ellie. 100% agree. Thank you for sharing this.