9 Simple Steps to Revolutionise the Teaching of Primary Science

Definition of Science : the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Teaching science at primary level can cause stress for many teachers who feel their science knowledge isn’t sufficient to do a good enough job. Interestingly the research in the UK  has shown that although Primary teachers feel less confident about their delivery, they often do better than their secondary counterparts- The ASE Report is  here. Reasons given  for higher performance were

  • More empathy with the problems students have in understanding concepts
  • More discussion of the meanings of key terms
  • Shorter practical tasks enabling more time to discuss the realm of ideas rather than simply following a recipe in order to get a set of ‘good’ results (hands on and minds on ) See blog here about practical work

Much has been made of the importance of subject expertise, but with expertise often come assumptions that others understand what you do.

So you are probably doing a better job than you think you are!  But how can you become even more effective?

Step 1 : Understand what science is and share it with your students

Young students have no shortage of curiosity about the physical and natural world . Forever asking questions such as

“Why is the sky blue?” – Another question is why isn’t the sky purple?  here

“Why is that dog/man/woman so fat/thin/tall/short?” always loudly !

“Where do  babies come from? ” …. Where and when do you start ?

Science can give us the answers to these questions but much more importantly it can give us a set of tools to answer the questions yourself. That to me is the purpose of science  to be able to evaluate evidence and make decisions.

If we use this definition then Lawyers, doctors, nurses, footballers, ballet dancers, farmers, mechanics, hairdressers and beauticians are all scientists.  The stereotypical view of a scientist that is fed to people through the media , cartoons and film is of slightly deranged old whiIsaacNewton1-209x300te men in white coats.  This is damaging as it creates the perception that scientists are somehow different. If you can think like a scientist you will be better at every job and be less likely to be fooled by advertising claims and scams.

We are all scientists!!



Step 2 : So we are all scientists – What is a really good one?

I have asked this question to countless students in classrooms across the globe. The answer is nearly always the same focussing on a high performing nerdy / geeky  type.

  • Answers all the questions
  • Gets top marks in tests
  • Always does homework
  • Understands everything easily

There are many problems with this perception, not least of which is that the students don’t think they can be outstanding, nor do they particularly want to be – its not usually cool to be the nerd or geek – Want to know the difference there is a helpful infographic here

Discuss with your students what they feel the key things should be. Try to make the criteria so that everyone can achieve them and also they are fairly cool. My students came up with the following

  • Asks questions -( thats what scientists do!)
  • Listen to others ideas and think about their validity (particularly if the idea conflicts with their own)
  • Creative problem solvers
  • Resilient – Sees failure as an opportunity to learn and doesnt give up
  • Curious – we cant make ourselves happy but we can be curious see blog here

The other great thing about scientists is that they never fail – unless they fail to learn! There is no failure only learning experiences


Step 3 : So what is a great science teacher?

Make this whatever you are !

You don’t have to be the all knowing sage. I feel considerably less comfortable discussing things I dont understand well with people who are much smarter than me (of which there are many).  It’s not so important that you know the answer, much more important is that you know where you might find the answer. A good science classroom is one of high challenge and low stress. Ideally to reach a state of Flow . What is vital is that students feel comfortable asking questions and sharing their ideas without fear of being made to feel stupid. Its far better to say “What a good question! How might we find the answer?” than to answer with something you are not sure about – There are no stupid questions!

Step 4 : Understand there isn’t always one right answer 

A common misconception is that science gives us one particular answer to a problem and that scientists know everything.  Often science in schools is like following recipes. We give students tasks and we want them to get the ‘right’ answers.  Most practicals are about solving problems that we already know the answer to. Scientists very rarely do this other than to verify other peoples results.  We can try and give them problems where we dont know the exact right answer. Like: What are the best conditions to grow a bean plant?  Here is a bean seed, find out (more of this later)

It’s not the destination – It’s the glory of the ride !

Step 5: Create opportunities for Divergent Thinking 

We want to keep our students generating ideas and not being fixated on one single solution. I do a group activity involving lowering a chain of straws and what is striking is as people get older they get far worse at solving it creatively.

A simple way of doing this is simply to ask students the following questions

  • How many ways can you think of that might solve this problem? (even if there is a fairly obvious single one)
  • How might we do it if we had/ didnt have  … equipment?

The research for divergent thinking came from George Land who  developed a test for  NASA to assess the creativity of its engineers.  He then used this to test the imaginative capabilities of 1500 children aged 3-5, who were enrolled in the early Head Start program. His TED – X talk is here

He found that an incredible  98-percent of those children scored as creative geniuses, compared to just 2% of adults. The same students tested 5 years later  scored 30% ten years later it had dropped to 12%.  Land observed that we don’t learn to be creative; on the contrary, we start out creative and learn to be uncreative!

Further research is here

An article outlining different ideas of Divergent Thinking and Creativity is here

Some interesting Divergent thinking tests are here 

Step 6: Get them to Predict what might happen. Then What Might Happen If …!

Note the key word is might. This is deliberate as we are still looking for creative thinking however outlandish – we can evaluate the ideas later.  Might is a less threatening way of asking than what will happen.

Predictions are hugely important for a scientist and for thinking. The research done by Professor Mazur at Harvard University working towards improvements in practical work has found some evidence it helps with learning here

The second stage of predictions is to think about What Might Happen If … conditions changed – so the mass increased/decreased, the force got bigger/smaller etc.  This can often lead to students asking more interesting questions then following it up with a practical they develop themselves.

Step 7: What’s the evidence? Why might we think that ? What alternative explanations might there be?

I sometimes deliver lessons still dressed in my motorbike gear and talk about evidence. I then ask them how I got to school. They all answer “On a motorbike!” I then ask if they know that , many of them will say that they do. I then get them to think of alternative explanations to my wearing protective  gear: A very cautious cyclist ?  A racing car driver?  A fashion victim? Trying to impress people? ….  This is a fun and easy way of bringing divergent thinking into the classroom.  We can then discuss the evidence suggests I probably came on a motorbike (unless they have decided I have psychological problems) but they don’t have enough evidence to say that I did. Sometimes a student says that a friend in another class saw me and told them – this can lead into a discussion of secondary sources of information and reliability – This goes into history and media territories about deducing the ‘truth.’

Even if the answer appears obvious try to get them to come up with alternatives and we can consider evidence that shows these are not likely .

Step 8: Use engaging ‘hooks’ that they cant answer and then leave them hanging!

When curiosity is piqued then research has shown learning is more effective and not just for the hook, subsequent information is also retained better.  I have a forthcoming blog on curiosity but some of the ideas are within this one here . I have youtube accounts for CoolSciSuff and 3ActScience that I’m currently populating. Links to follow

Step 9: Use Technology Appropriately

Technology on it’s own adds nothing to the classroom it is simply a tool that may or may not add value.  There are some incredible ways technology can be used and I offer CPD on these that can transform understanding, slash marking, track students learning journeys and allow full differentiation.


Step 10: Get in contact !!

Any questions or suggestions add to the comments below or get in contact directly through email or twitter @natkin

Looking for appropriate and very cost effective CPD in your school?  I work all over the World so location is not a barrier.  I have a few places left for Hub Schools that I work with and that sell places on my courses. So If you are interested in this or any other CPD then fill out this Form













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