The five key practices every good primary science teacher should know

  • The five key practices every good primary science teacher should know

The overemphasis of one approach to scientific investigation in primary schools means children are missing out on breadth in the subject, says Beth Budden

Teachers will agree that children love to experiment and investigate; however, science investigations in school are often focused on the traditional concept of a fair test. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with fair testing, and it certainly teaches pupils to make evidence-based comparisons, but fair testing is only one approach to investigating science questions.

It’s easy for us teachers to get bogged down with curriculum coverage, but science in school should always be about pupils investigating their own questions rather than just learning facts. All the great advances in science began with an inquisitive question, and there’s no reason this should be any different in schools.

But, it’s not always made clear during teacher training that there are different types of questions and different ways to find answers. And in order to acquire a breadth of science skills, children need to learn to carry out a variety of investigations.

Essentially, there are five approaches that pupils need to learn to recognise and use: fair testing; observing over time; pattern seeking; identifying and classifying; and research.

1. Fair testing

Fair testing is the most commonly used type of investigation in schools, and the one most of us remember from our own science lessons, but it can be used incorrectly to answer questions best solved by other methods. Therefore, it’s important to understand the types of questions best suited to fair testing, which might include:

  • Which material is the best for keeping Teddy dry?
  • What type of boats stay afloat the longest?
  • On which ramp do the cars go down fastest?
  • Where will the plants grow the tallest?
  • Which is the strongest magnet?

Fair test questions involve making comparisons, often trying to find out which is the ‘best’ or ‘most.’ Through fair testing, children are encouraged to see that one thing has an effect on another, identifying the differences they have noticed and exploring all the variables (any phenomena subject to change) that may have an effect. Children decide which variable to investigate and how to measure or observe the effects.

It’s important children are well grounded in what a fair test is before they carry out their own. They should learn to recognise when tests are fair, be able to generate fair test questions themselves and be practised in identifying variables.

Fair testing is quite a sophisticated type of enquiry and relies on secure progression; it certainly shouldn’t be the default for school science investigations – there are four others that are equally important.

2. Observations over time

Darwin was once asked how he came up with the theory of evolution, and he replied that he was simply good at noticing things, which is the concept at the heart of observing over time. This type of investigation allows children to identify and measure events and changes in a range of phenomena. It can take place over seconds, minutes, hours or days and begins with children making decisions on what and how to observe, as well as how to measure and record any changes. It also allows children to make predictions as time passes and patterns emerge. Typical observations over time might be triggered by these types of questions:

  • What happens to a seed when it germinates?
  • What happens to bread if it’s left out for a long time?
  • What happens to the ice cube in your hand?
  • What happens to the sun over the course of a day?
  • What happens to the caterpillar when it moves?
  • What happens to the flowers on the plant?

3. Pattern seeking

Pattern-seeking investigations involve observations or surveys where variables aren’t easily controlled, and answer questions by identifying patterns in the results. They enable children to find out more about the world and events and provide rich contexts to learn about habitats, diet, weather and animal and plant behaviour. Pattern-seeking questions might include:

  • Do birds feed at different times of the day?
  • Which flowers do bees prefer?
  • Do all apples have the same number of seeds?
  • Do we all have the same size hands?
  • Is it always cold when it’s raining?
  • Where does the grass grow in our playground?

When children gather the information and notice the patterns involved, this leads them to form important conclusions about why these patterns emerged, having much more impact than if they were just told.

4. Identifying and classifying

Human beings, especially children, love to label and group things, and this type of investigation is rooted in making sense of how the world is organised and differentiated through various features and characteristics.

Regurgitating lots of names might seem bit old fashioned, but comparing and contrasting a rich variety of phenomena, as well as naming and grouping them, supports children in understanding how they can be linked together. Identifying and classifying questions might be:

  • What types of flowers did we collect?
  • What do different animals eat?
  • How can we sort the clothes in the play corner?
  • What types of trees are in our playground?
  • Do we have different types of teeth?
  • Do all living things have four legs?

5. Research

You might consider research a poor substitute for carrying out your own investigations, but it’s vital that children learn how to answer questions that can’t be addressed with experiments in the classroom. Pupils can use secondary resources to discover more about the world beyond the classroom, and these sources don’t always have to be in books or online. Why not ask a real scientist to come in and answer questions, or arrange a trip to a museum? Here are some typical research questions:

  • Where do elephants live in the word?
  • How do we know how old a tree is?
  • What’s the strongest magnet in the world?
  • What is the most common spider in the UK?
  • How are plastics made?
  • What’s the deepest ocean on Earth?

As you can see, fair tests are only one type of science investigation that pupils should be experiencing in schools. As part of supporting progression in working scientifically, we should be making all such activities explicit to children and teaching them to decide which will answer their different questions.

This is also a feature of the current teacher assessment frameworks for primary science as by the end of Key Stage 2, children are expected to be able to ‘select and plan the most appropriate ways to answer their own questions’.

It’s a relief to know that we don’t have to stick to the same old fair testing all the time, and that there is a range of different investigations we can use to motivate and ignite curiosity in the minds of our young children.

About the author

Beth Budden is a teacher and assessment leader at John Ball Primary in Lewisham, and a Fellow of the Primary Science Teaching Trust, which awarded her Primary Science Teacher of the Year 2014.

Pie Corbett