Ofsted science research review - my thoughts

By Mark Langley posted 20-05-2021 15:34


Ofsted have previously produced a series of three well-received science reports, but it’s been eight years since Maintaining Curiosity was published. A few weeks ago, Ofsted launched their research Review Series: Science which is the metastudy of the relevant science education research, which will lead to the full science report to be published in spring 2022. Ofsted “will use this understanding of subject quality to examine how science is taught in England’s schools” so it is a timely read for those leading science:

There are some excellent observations, which can help school and subject leaders plan for improving science teaching and learning, from EYFS through to post-16 science. There are two phrases that come out in this review that might be unfamiliar to many teachers, but are a strong hint to the language that may percolate down in future Ofsted science publications:

Substantive knowledge which is knowledge of the products of science, such as models, laws and theories.

disciplinary knowledge which is knowledge of the practices of science (working scientifically)

Ofsted break down the research into a number of sub areas, many of which are of course linked:

  • Ambition for all
  • Curriculum progression: what it means to get better at science
  • Organising knowledge within the subject curriculum
  • Other curricular considerations
  • Curriculum materials
  • Practical work
  • Pedagogy: teaching the curriculum
  • Assessment
  • Systems at subject and school level

Of these, the key priority for many schools - as we move through education recovery - is likely to be practical work, curriculum progression and organising knowledge. All of this binds together in planning an effective science curriculum. However, possibly the easiest place to start is with practical science. Although not divorced from all the other areas, it could, for many schools, be a starting point for driving change within science.

Practical work is the particular area where science stands out from other subjects. However, often the practical work is not high quality, lacks purpose or is done where it is not the best learning approach. For example, many demonstrations carried out rarely link well to the curriculum - such as the impressive ‘Screaming Jelly Baby’ practical that is often done in secondary science, but its actual curriculum links are tenuous at best or can even sow the seeds of misconceptions with students.

Students remember the experiment and the demise of the poor Jelly Baby, but rarely understand the chemistry behind it. When they do remember the science, often linked to ‘energy in food’, it then causes them to think that the energy ‘flows out’ the food, rather than being the energy released from bond making. So they’re not understanding the role of the oxidising reagent (which they are unlikely to have come across before - or again after!).

Many activities, where students carry out a practical with no clear learning outcomes for the actual practical, or where teachers assume that students will learn the subject knowledge by doing the practical (such as investigating refractive index of different material with light rays) – are unlikely to lead to good learning outcomes. They can waste time and even infuriate them. Practicals such as open ended enquiry where students are expected to develop their substantive and disciplinary knowledge at the same time are also likely to fail.

As we return to more normal teaching, practical work will once again become core to many science lessons. For early career teachers, or those coming from other subject areas, they may have had very little opportunity over the last year or so to develop good skills. To help meet this need, STEM Learning is running a series of summer schools to develop practical skills of teachers, for primary science, 11-16 and A level sciences, bursary funded by the Department of Education through Project ENTHUSE.

To support with curriculum planning, there are online courses, remote delivered intensive and local CPD to help department leaders develop their school curriculum, from identifying curriculum intent to embedding good progression, practical skills and assessment.

Really keen to hear your thoughts!

For secondary join in the discussion here.

For primary join in the discussion here