Ramble #6 Achieving coherence in primary science (Why primary Science needs to be less like the Simpsons and more like Game of Thrones)

Before reading this, it will be helpful, if you are not already, to become familiar with the National Curriculum for primary science – it can be found here https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/425618/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_-_Science.pdf

Disclaimer: I am not a science specialist but have engaged with science teachers where possible. If you spy any scientific errors/improvements that can be made within this post, please feel free to engage.

The current set-up:

I like the science curriculum, I like the way it is written. Clear thought has been given to its progression and content from year 1 through to year 6. Unlike some other subjects, it sets out very clearly what is to be taught in each year group (though schools have the flexibility to introduce content earlier or later than set out in the programme of study should they wish) but the sequence in the National Curriculum is a logical one. The curriculum provides over arching ‘topics’ that set out what content is to be taught.

In KS1, pupils will learn about the following:

• Plants

• Animals, Including humans

• Everyday Materials

• Seasonal Changes

• Living things and their habitats

KS2 pupils will learn about the following:

• Plants

• Animals, Including humans

• Rocks

• Light

• Forces and Magnets

• Living things and their habitats

• Animals, including humans

• States of matter

• Sound

• Electricity

• Properties and changes of materials

• Earth and Space

• Forces

• Evolution and Inheritance

It could be, therefore, quite easy to see how the pupils can acquire a cohesive understanding of each topic as they progress through school, as long schools follow the national curriculum children will be building on this knowledge year by year. And to the most part they do – At my current school we base a terms learning on either history or geography and then decide on a science topic that will best fit. I am sure the school I’m in is not the only one to do it this way.

For autumn term 2018, we looked at local history, particularly transport and joined that with the circulatory system from science – the link being looking at man made transport and the transportation of blood, oxygen and nutrition carried out by bodily functions.

The problem:

It does rather put science into a straight jacket. It makes it harder for the pupils to see how science could link back to previous learning of scientific knowledge as it is being attached to the topic of transport. What I am interested in is can we make the links clearer and more explicit when science is arranged this way. When they learn about the digestive system in year 4, through studying the Romans and the food they eat, do they realise that recalling this knowledge will be helpful when looking at nutritional absorption in Year 6 when it is under the topic of ‘transport’? Indeed, when science is taught independently of other subjects, are the children understanding that it’s relevant?

I expect it’s a mixed answer – some might and some won’t. What I do expect though it that this link is not as clear as it could be. I expect most teachers introduce the topic as ‘the digestive system’ the leave out the ‘Animals, including humans’ and that, I feel is a huge opportunity lost in developing a child’s scientific schema and putting all this information into long-term memory.

The cognitive bit:

Tom Sherrington and Sara Stafford writing for the Chartered College of Teaching write about schema, ‘As we learn, we arrange information into sets of ideas (schemas) that help us make sense of the world. This makes future recall easier because whole sets of ideas can be recalled together. This is why knowledge builds on knowledge.’ (https://my.chartered.college/2018/08/introduction-schemas-knowledge-students-learning-teaching/ – members only). To put this into practise I only need to mention ‘1066’ and your brain is thinking about all it knows about that – Battle of Hastings – Kent – South-east England – William the Conqueror – Norman – French – Harold Godwinson – Anglo-Saxon – arrow through the eye – Bayeux Tapestry – Doomsday book etc. That is your schema working. So when we just tell pupils we are doing the ‘digestive system’ there is not much prior learning we recall in our schema as we have not developed or can see the connection between this new learning and a topic we have previously learnt. If we don’t give students the ideas and the ideas of how information connects, then it is a bit of Russian roulette as to who makes that connection. We are leaving it up to chance.

Why does this matter? OfSTED, through recent youtube videos, document releases and workshops have made it quite clear – the coherence and narrative structure that curriculum has will be key in the new framework. While somethings should not be done because ‘OfSTED want it’, this focus on curriculum is a good things that will be better for the pupils in the long run. This is not a new revolutionary idea. Martin Robinson, the author of Trivium 21c and curriculum consultant writes, ” Curriculum has to be joined up with each teacher knowing how what they teach fit in to the overall narrative. They pass the baton on from teacher to teacher…” (accessed from Martin’s twitter account on 4.1.19). Right now, that narrative is not there.

Curriculum:

Working with these ideas, I like to think of curriculum as a well written tv series. There needs to be the main plot for the whole season, but each episode itself has a plot which can act as a sub-plot that is solved within the episode and gives some hint at resolving the main plot of the season. Once the main plot is resolved, the last two minutes normally normally provide a cliff hanger to make sure you come back to season 2. The higher up the school you teach, the more important it is to have seen the previous series. So when it comes to writing yours, you can bring previous ideas, that may have seemed irrelevant at the time, back to the forefront. The lower down the school, the more you need to be aware of where the final episode of the whole series is heading so you can weave all those little things into your series. This is what a sequence of lesson across an educational phase should look like. Right now though, science is The Simpsons – just one individual episode and when it is over is never referred to again, it needs to be a Game of Thrones. There is a clear plot that covers each series and indeed across all series combined. Each episode stands on it’s own with a sub-plot that is resolved in the hour and it provides information that will help resolve the main plot of the series and in turn the plot of the show. And you can bet there is a hook at the end of the series to keep us waiting. This is what a coherent curriculum should look like.

By tagging on the ‘topic’ the content comes under i.e. ‘Today class we are doing Animals, including humans and we will be looking at the digestive system,’ it will go someway in activating the schema for that topic but I believe greater coherence can be had. As mentioned above, rocks and Earth and Space stand on their own – they are not revisited – but they are still important. We don’t want that information to be in a silo that is not called upon again or linked to anything else.

What I am suggesting I am sure is far from an original idea but I think it is something that could really help pupils widen and deepen their scientific understanding. It is a work in progress and I understand that right now I have not addressed the ‘working scientifically’ aspect of the curriculum. Though I plan to later.

The obvious thing to do would be to put all the science topics into their corresponding scientific disciplines and start presenting it like that to the pupils.

KS1

Biology

• Plants

• Animals, Including humans

• Living things and their habitats

Chemistry

• Everyday Materials

Physics

• Seasonal Changes

KS2:

Biology

• Plants

• Living things and their habitats

• Animals, including humans

• Evolution and Inheritance

Chemistry

• Properties and changes of materials

• Rocks

• States of Matter

Physics

• Light

• Forces and Magnets

• Sound

• Electricity

• Earth and Space

• Forces

Nothing revolutionary but I expect it is not done so much across the primary sector. Reasons why organising the topics into the different disciplines could be:

1. Science will be timetabled this way in secondary school.

2. The national curriculum tells us that we should.

3. It brings all the topic under the 3 disciplines so their schema will connect all these topics together. When they hear Biology, their brain will (hopefully) go Biology = Plants, Animals, Including humans, Living things and their habitats, Evolution and Inheritance.

The issue here is it may be difficult for students to make links across the scientific disciplines. What’s in biology stays in the schemata of biology.

What I’ve done:

Inspired by the work of Clare Sealy’s article on tes about writing a strong primary curriculum and the use of mapping concepts across the curriculum (https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/how-build-a-primary-curriculum) and Mary Myatt, who in a recent researchED talk mentioned how big ideas are like a holding basket that can help make connections, I set to work about what a coherent science curriculum could look like.

*A lot of what comes next will be referenced comes from Working with Big Ideas of Science Education booklet which can be found here – https://www.ase.org.uk/bigideas *

I reached out to Twitter to ask secondary science teachers about what they would want someone coming up to Y7 to know and I am grateful that Adam Boxer retweeted it to start the conversation.

What could be more beneficial to link science together is the use of ‘Big Scientific Ideas’. These are ideas of science that are cross discipline that would provide a good scientific basis of things students should know by the end of compulsory education. The problem at the primary level being is that some are quite abstract and would be difficult for students of the younger year groups to understand. Furthermore, this list does not take into account the English National Curriculum so some editing was needed.

What I have done below is combine topics from the national curriculum into 5 umbrella themes these themes helped narrow down the topics and focus the big ideas.

These 5 themes also lend themselves to being put into the scientific disciplines if you wanted to do so. They are:

1) The Natural world – Living things and their habitats, plants, seasons and changes, animals inc humans, Evolution and inheritance, (Biology)

2) Pushes and Pulls – Forces, Forces and magnets (physics)

3) The Universe – Earth and Space (Physics)

4) Energy – Light, Sound and Electricity (physics)

5) Materials – Materials, states of matter, rocks (chemistry)

My next step was to develop big scientific ideas based on those is the ASE booklet that are relevant to the umbrella themes. Some would have to be broken down into KS1 and KS2 but I tried to make sure that the KS1 would naturally lead into KS2 and there may be a case for having more than 1 big ideas within the umbrella theme. After some discussion with some helpful science teachers on twitter, this was the result.

The Natural World:

1. Animals and plants are living things, they have things that are the same and things that are different (KS1)

2. All living things are interconnected in some way (KS2)

2b. Bodies are complex systems that need to be taken care of (KS2)

2c. Fossils are formed over millions of years and appear in certain rocks (KS2)

Materials

1. Materials are different and each material is useful for different jobs because of their properties (ks1)

2. All matter is in the solid, liquid or fast state at room temperate but may change state if warmed or cooled. (KS2)

Pushes and Pulls

1. Changes in movement or an object require a net force acting upon it (KS2)

The Universe

1. The Earth is part of a solar system with other celestial objects. Many solar systems form our galaxy (KS2)

Energy:

1. Electricity can only flow in a complete circuit (KS2)

2. Light and sound sound travel in waves and reflect off objects (KS2)

To see how I would anticipate the schemata of someone who has gone through this by the end of Y6 I made a diagram:

I like the circular nature of this and feel the links between the ‘big ideas’ when the cross to other umbrella themes are rather self explanatory.

Fossils are formed of rock and rocks are a material

Objects are made of matter and require pushes or pulls to change movement

Gravity is a force that is linked to Earth and other celestial objects

The sun produces both light and sound which are forms of energy

Through food chains, energy is transferred between living things

These are the hinge moments and content where the link between the big ideas happen.

How it would work in practice:

The first lessons would either do one of the following:

1. Introduce a new umbrella theme, the big idea and topic.

2. Introduce a new topic that has the same theme and big idea as one previously taught.

Where the 2nd one is the case, a review of previous topics that share the big idea and umbrella theme should be done – as recommended by Rosenshin, (Tom Sherrington writes well about this here https://teacherhead.com/2018/06/10/exploring-barak-rosenshines-seminal-principles-of-instruction-why-it-is-the-must-read-for-all-teachers/ and his ResearchED talk on the subject was fantastic)

When a big idea from one theme links to another big idea from a different theme, this should be explicitly taught and consistent review of this should be made so all students are clear of the link.

AfL should not only focus on the content of the topic being taught but by checking for understanding of the links between them. Carefully considered multiple choice questions could be a useful tool to check misconceptions.

Cross-curricula:

I do believe that it would be possible to use this method in combination with how I mentioned my school currently structures the curriculum. The umbrella themes and big scientific ideas just act as a hook that carry the scientific ideas across the year and year groups. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable to link a local history study of transport to the study the circulatory system as it would be introduced in the following way as the first slide of a lesson.

Theme: The natural world

Big idea: Bodies are complex systems…

Linked to the other big idea of all living things are interconnected

Topic: Animals, including humans – Circulatory System

The teacher would be able to then make the linked across the other subject as well making link between the schemata of the science domain and others.

Final thoughts:

These ideas are still very much in their infancy and still much scope to develop these ideas further. By arranging the science curriculum this way, it would support the first point in Improving Secondary Science report by the EEF (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Support/Links/Campaigns/Science/EEF_science_summary_of_recommendations_poster.pdf)

All secondary teachers would have a clear conceptual understanding of the ideas that primary school leavers are bringing up with them which could then be explored further during secondary education.

It naturally spaces out the topics of the National Curriculum but allows for clear and meaningful spaced review when starting a new topic that shares a big idea that has been used for a previous topic.

The big ideas act as the narrative across the whole educational phase. They provide a clear link between and across the themes and the understanding that each lesson is building on each other to understand the big idea fully.

There is a clear progression model that uses the curriculum and the big ideas as the progression model. The more they can write and discuss the about the big ideas the more they have learnt and understood.

It creates a shared language when discussing science in primary schools. Teachers in each year group will understand how what they do is relevant works into the the greater scheme.

What do you think?

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