While it’s not always the easiest to teach, the recent PISA results show the need to enhance science performance in UK schools. On the surface, the subject may not appeal to every pupil. However, maximising engagement with and curiosity about its positive role in shaping today’s society is important to uncover individual interests. But how?
John Hattie suggests that “the most important factor for improving achievement is when teachers increase the range of their styles of teaching, thus encouraging dialogue”. Therefore, considering a more conversational approach, facilitating discussion and debate in the classroom could be key to helping pupils more actively participate in science learning, develop key subject skills including communication and critical thinking and, importantly, enjoy the subject.
The idea is not new. A 2017 study by Sheffield Hallam for the EEF found that the use of dialogic teaching approaches in English, science and maths resulted in approximately two months of additional progress in the subjects.
One key challenge for teachers is that more abstract or complex scientific concepts can be daunting or appear inaccessible when first introduced, particularly for pupils not naturally drawn to the subject or those with low prior attainment. If a topic is more difficult to grasp, pupils can often disengage and even become disillusioned.
Incidentally, the same applies to attempts to improve girls’ participation in STEM; they face lower academic confidence brought on by harmful stereotypes from an early age, which manifests in their attitudes to these subjects throughout their schooling.
Dialogic teaching challenges this by encouraging pupils to dig deeper into topics, share ideas and question concepts rather than absorbing and regurgitating facts. Recently endorsed within the EEF’s Improving Primary Science report (based on a systemic review of approaches to primary science teaching), the second of its six recommendations for improving primary science centres on improving science learning by capitalising on the power of dialogue, creating a collaborative learning environment and cultivating reason and justification.
This way of teaching and learning not only promotes active participation but can also be useful in exploring potentially contentious topics and promoting their expression of informed opinions. For example, when learning about vaccinations teachers can spark debate and discussion linked to science, history and modern-day impacts. Students can be challenged to consider the differences between the ethics and scientific processes used in historical clinical trials, such as the work of Dr Jenner to produce the smallpox vaccine, compared to a modern equivalent like the development of the Covid-19 jab.
The prevalence of non-specialist science teachers in primary schools means many may find putting this theory into practice challenging. However, there are a range of professional development, free training opportunities and resources, including those from ASE, to elevate classroom learning and equip teachers with the knowledge and confidence to implement the dialogic approach. Here are a few considerations:
- Reframe “mistakes” as a learning opportunity rather than a failing by creating a supportive atmosphere, where children aren’t afraid of trying
- Make space for children who may be shy or quiet by empowering them to voice their thoughts to the group
- Consider the physical environment of the classroom, including the layout of tables and chairs, to facilitate open discussion
- Give adequate time for children to think about their opinions and formulate answers in their own time; don’t intervene too soon in group discussions
By focusing learning through the lens of discussion, pupils are more inclined to actively participate in discussions, preventing any child from disengaging or sitting quietly while more interested peers participate more animatedly. They are encouraged to formulate and voice their own opinions and thoughts, which can help bolster self-confidence and reinforce the belief that every child can ‘do’ science.
By participating in discussions that value different perspectives and interpretations, all pupils – including girls and those who may have historically struggled more with the subject – can feel more invested in science, more comfortable to share their thoughts and, in turn, more fully engaged in their learning.