Friday, 1 November 2013

Working Scientifically

Recently I've been talking with secondary school teachers about the quality of science enquiry that can take place in primary classrooms. I've become more aware of what goes on in primary classrooms because I've been working on a course for primary science specialists.  I have developed sessions on physics subject knowledge (up to KS3), and with colleagues have linked this to activities that take place in the primary classroom.

In the previous national curriculum, science enquiry became a strong focal point in primary classrooms, with a lot of good practice being developed.  The Primary Science Quality Mark (PSQM) and also the Primary Science Teaching Trust have highlighted what good primary science can look like. 

In the new National curriculum, scientific enquiry has been subsumed into 'working scientifically'.

‘Working scientifically’ specifies the understanding of the nature, processes and methods of science for each year group. It should not be taught as a separate strand. These types of scientific enquiry should include: observing over time; pattern seeking; identifying, classifying and grouping; comparative and fair testing (controlled investigations); and researching using secondary sources. Pupils should seek answers to questions through collecting, analysing and presenting data.
I know that a lot of work was done by the primary science community, including the ASE, to ensure that the definition of science enquiry in the new NC was not limited to 'fair tests', but included a range of different ways of doing science.  If you are interested in looking at these ideas in more detail then the ASE publish a book called 'It's not fair...or is it' which is worth a read.
Looking further through the programmes of study, working scientifically is defined in more details for each of the key stages.  So in lower KS2 (years 3 and 4) we find that children  "... should draw simple conclusions and use some scientific language, first, to talk about and, later, to write about what they have found out."  In upper KS2 (years 5 and 6) children "... should select the most appropriate ways to answer science questions using different types of scientific enquiry… Pupils should draw conclusions based on their data and observations, use evidence to justify their ideas, and use their scientific knowledge and understanding to explain their findings."
In good primary science lessons this happens.  Children choosing their own equipment, devising a method, thinking about controlling variables, taking measurements and drawing conclusions from their experiments. 
If you haven't had chance to visit a primary science lesson recently (or at all), I would recommend that you try to do so - especially if you have a PSQM primary school near you.  You might be surprised by what you see.

And then the children enter secondary school, and often this level of independence disappears.

Looking at the statement about what children should be doing in years 5 and 6, many secondary teachers that I have been working with have been struck by the similarity in description between the new primary national curriculum and the marking descriptors for controlled assessment.  

That set me wondering if there were some interesting ideas for enquiries that could also be used as part of the preparation, or even as investigations, for controlled assessment.
A few years ago (when it was still coursework) I was involved in moderating for an exam board.  At the moderation training, we were told to expect to see a wide variety of different investigations.  In reality, I saw a very narrow range of experiments: resistance of a wire, osmosis using potato chips, and the thiosulfate cross.

On one of my courses (small advert!), I do a session on physics enquiry, where we look at different investigations that students could carry out and I thought that perhaps this could be developed further to reflect the changes to the national curriculum from 'How science works' to 'Working scientifically'.  I also wanted to incorporate some of the skills that I'd seen in primary science.

It's a physics course, so I asked my physics minded twitter followers if they had any good examples of experiments used for controlled assessment tasks or investigations that went beyond the ubiquitous resistance of a wire.  
I wanted examples where students would have more freedom about what they might investigate, where the science was perhaps not straightforward. 
Some of the suggestions were of quite straightforward experiments, but I could see that it might be possible for students to design their own method, choose suitable equipment and take data that could be interpreted using their GCSE science knowledge (with perhaps a bit of stretch).
Suggestions given included:
These last two were from the Gatsby SEP Innovations in Practical work series.  They produced a series of booklets on a variety of different topics which included a lot of practical work and also worked with Mindsets online to develop equipment that can be used in science investigations.  The booklets are all available as downloadable PDFs .

With the eventual demise of controlled assessment, I hope that teachers will be able to include a wider variety of practical work.  But as you can see, there is quite a lot of practical work that can be done which will fit into the controlled assessment model - especially if that includes an investigation.

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