The Knowledge

The Knowledge. How can we engage more primary pupils in science?

Getting the UK up the international league table for science depends on engaging more learners earlier – and classroom talk could be key, says Marianne Cutler

Getting the UK up the international league table for science depends on engaging more learners earlier – and classroom talk could be key, says Marianne Cutler

15 Jan 2024, 5:00

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.

Voicing opinions can help bolster self-confidence

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.

Latest education roles from

Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA)

Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA)

Platanos College

Teacher of Boys’ PE

Teacher of Boys’ PE

Platanos College

Head of Girls’ PE

Head of Girls’ PE

Platanos College

Art Teacher

Art Teacher

Platanos College

EA to the CEO & Senior Directors

EA to the CEO & Senior Directors

Haberdashers’ Academies Trust South

Head of Faculty (History and RS)

Head of Faculty (History and RS)

Ark Greenwich Free School

Sponsored posts

Sponsored post

How can we prepare learners for their future in an ever-changing world?

By focusing their curriculums on transferable skills, digital skills, and sustainability, schools and colleges can be confident that learners...

SWAdvertorial
Sponsored post

Inspiring Education Leaders for 10 Years

The 10th Inspiring Leadership Conference is to be held on 13 and 14 June 2024 at the ICC in...

SWAdvertorial
Sponsored post

Inspire creativity in your classroom. Sky Arts’ Access All Arts week is back!

Now in its third year, Access All Arts week is a nationwide celebration of creativity for primary schools (17-21...

SWAdvertorial
Sponsored post

Unleash the Power of Sport in your setting this summer! National School Sports Week is back!

Unleash the Power of Sport this summer with National School Sports Week powered by Monster Kickabout! From 17-23 June,...

SWAdvertorial

More from this theme

The Knowledge

Covid delays release of long-awaited phonics study

Important £1m trial study now due in 2023

John Dickens

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One comment