We need to talk about science: primary edition

Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, talks school science provision and discovering a world beyond the bunsen burner

Scientific investigation develops flexible thinking and problem-solving abilities, alongside more obvious science-specific skills and knowledge. Yet science is taught relatively little in UK primary schools (typically for one hour and 24 minutes a week compared with an international average of two hours a week for OECD countries).

According to new research from the Wellcome Trust, part of the reason is that its perceived importance is comparatively low: more than eight in 10 teachers say that maths (84%) and English (83%) are “very important” to the senior leadership team of their school, compared to just three in ten (30%) when it comes to science. In addition, it may have something to do with the fact that schools are not held to account for science provision in the same way as they are for English and maths. 

Classroom teachers have a lot of freedom to teach investigative science frequently and creatively, and some do so brilliantly. However, in general, there is not enough help for teachers in this area, with just under a third of primary school teachers saying they have had no support for science in the past year, and a quarter saying they were concerned they might not be able to answer pupils’ science questions. So what can teachers do to increase the focus on science at primary level?

Don’t get hung up on what you don’t know (ask questions)

Science is often seen as content-heavy, and reliant on the understanding of complex ideas. It’s not surprising, then, that some teachers lack confidence in teaching some aspects of science, including enquiry. But you don’t need a science degree to be a brilliant primary science teacher– it’s about finding ways to engage pupils with the heart of the subject: curiosity, observation and discovery. At the Wellcome Trust, one of the ways we want to help teachers to do this is through our Explorify platform, which offers activities to spark pupils’ curiosity and develop their thinking skills. 

In general, teachers should look for activities that are inclusive and discursive, using conversation starters to spark curiosity. Crucially, it’s not about anyone (including the teacher) knowing the “right answers”. Simple “What if?” activities are a brilliant way to inject creative thinking into lessons with minimal preparation. We spoke to a teacher who asked her class what would happen if plants could talk and was amazed that one child wondered whether plants would have their own language or pick it up from their surroundings – meaning forest trees might talk like a bird and playground trees might talk like children. The exercise brought out some fantastic imaginative ideas.

Get stuck in (not always physically)

Hands-on science might be viewed as messy, expensive and time-consuming, and teachers may be worried about things going wrong. But we must make sure that pupils learn about science by doing it themselves rather than by watching demonstrations from a teacher at the front of the class.

Use the world around you to inspire scientific discovery. Simple observations could be spotting the odd one out in a group of objects in a playground – perhaps learning about different materials – or peering into a pond to see the mini beasts congregating there, and taking a closer look at organisms and ecosystems.

And resources online are equally compelling. The act of navigating resources, fact finding, and developing critical discernment skills is important in becoming scientifically minded. You don’t always have to get your hands dirty to investigate – tech is important too.

Use tech to collaborate with others

Finally, primary school teachers are some of the most collaborative professionals we know. Open software is well used too – some tech savvy teachers are building their own services and sharing their work with others.  

To develop great teaching in science, teachers need to connect their experience, expertise and resources. Working together is crucial. With the growing movement to recognise teachers as constantly developing professionals, epitomised by the launch of the Chartered College of Teaching, teachers are increasingly sharing their ideas and resources in school, online, through local partnerships or multi-academy trusts, and via more science-specific groupings such as ENTHUSE Partnerships. Online forums work well too – so let’s get the discussion rolling.

The Wellcome Trust’s Explorify website draws on educational research, behavioural science and teacher insights to offer activities that are highly inclusive, develop transferable thinking skills, and help pupils see the science in the world around them.