What are the key ingredients of a high-quality science education?

What makes a good science education? In a review out earlier this year, Ofsted tried to answer this question. In its examination of a range of evidence, it found that a central plank of any top-quality science education was for teachers to possess in-depth subject knowledge, plus an understanding of how to teach science and of how students learn. But how do those in education answer the question?

‘I would like every school leaver to maintain their innate curiosity in how the world around them functions and seek out accurate information as new technologies and issues arise’

For Helen Skelton, head of science at Beaumont School, a comprehensive in St Albans, a high-quality science education develops ‘a richer understanding of the world, enables informed engagement with scientific questions in everyday life and prepares the next generation of scientists’. While Jon Hale, head of biology at Beaulieu Convent School, an independent girls’ school in Jersey, broadly agrees, he goes further and adds that the focus of science education should be to improve and maintain a scientifically literate population, particularly against the backdrop of the pandemic.

‘Science education has a huge role in developing a population that will make good choices, both for themselves and for the global community,’ he says. ‘Students need to be taught what we know, why we know it and what value it has to them if they are to retain this knowledge in later years.’

In-depth subject knowledge

Both agree that building teachers’ knowledge is critical to achieving these aims. ‘The majority of science teachers have a good understanding of their subject but can always develop a better knowledge of how to teach it well, particularly in the context of their specific curriculum,’ says Helen. ‘Teaching a particular concept in one teaching sequence might require a different approach to teaching it in another. It’s therefore important for teachers to have training which supports them in understanding this and in developing appropriate explanations.’

‘The challenge for teachers is how we can make abstract concepts concrete, using examples and applications, and how we can engage the most apathetic students to understand these high-value ideas,’ says Jon. ‘Teachers’ subject knowledge is key to this, in how they articulate explanations and draw upon experiences to provide meaningful links with these concepts. I would like every school leaver to maintain their innate curiosity in how the world around them functions and seek out accurate information as new technologies and issues arise.’

‘All students should be exposed to some enquiry-based learning experiments. This is how scientists actually work’

It’s not only classroom teachers who welcome this emphasis on the importance of in-depth subject knowledge. The University of York’s David K Smith, who is responsible for chemical education and outreach, also welcomes this emphasis. ‘This has historically been (and still is) particularly problematic in subjects such as chemistry where many A-level chemistry teachers do not have relevant degree qualifications.’

Helen believes there is not a single best route through the curriculum. ‘It’s definitely important to develop students’ understanding of the various disciplines,’ she says, ‘and to ensure that knowledge is taught in a coherent way to build from simple to more advanced ideas, and to develop students’ understanding of links between topic and subject areas. I would argue that there is a strong case for narrowing but deepening the key stage 4 curriculum to ensure that this can be achieved.’

Enquiring minds

While stressing the key role practical chemistry plays, David reminds us how important it is that not all practical activities should build on pre-taught principles. ‘All students should be exposed to some enquiry-based learning experiments. This is how scientists actually work in laboratories,’ he says.

‘A key issue we have is students in university wanting to get the right answer from their experiments,’ David says. ‘I would be disappointed if, on the back of this report, all student access to enquiry-based learning in schools were to be stopped. It doesn’t work in every situation, but, used judiciously, it can be invaluable in helping students truly experience what science is.’

Principles of a quality science education

The Ofsted review into the factors influencing the quality of science education in England identified three key guiding principles, which show how achieving excellence requires teachers to balance competing priorities and tensions. These are:

  • A high-quality science education is rooted in an authentic understanding of what science is.
  • A high-quality science curriculum prioritises pupils building knowledge of key concepts in a meaningful way that reflects how knowledge is organised in the scientific disciplines.
  • Science curriculums should be planned to take account of the function of knowledge in relation to future learning. 

For David, practical work is not only about reinforcing the principles of science or the curriculum. ‘Practical science also teaches a distinct skillset in itself, such as how to weigh things out accurately or how to interpret data. These are not skills linked to the curriculum itself, but all have value in terms of developing the next generation of scientists.’

The emphasis on knowledge and how to obtain it are key to a good science education, in the opinion of Michael Reiss, professor of science education at UCL Institute of Education. But he also notes that school science must be engaging to encourage more students to choose to study it and because so many of the world’s pressing issues require an understanding of science. ‘We want people to trust science,’ he says. ‘We therefore need to equip school learners with the skills of criticality, persistence and rigour, so that they can learn for themselves, test all things and hold fast to that which is good.’

Maria Burke is a science writer