Life at the crossroads

By Ed Walsh,  Lead Consultant for Science with Cornwall Learning and Science Consultant to Rising Stars on the New Curriculum Assessment Science Progress Tests

In some ways being the coordinator of a core subject is like choosing to live by a crossroads – lively, things arriving from all directions, careful management required and highly variable. Teachers need guidance, pupils need inspiration, the SLT needs stories of success and parents and carers want children to succeed.

If that subject happens to be science, how should the challenges and opportunities of the new Programme of Study be viewed and responded to? What will effective science coordinators be doing to guide colleagues through the teaching of the subject, the tracking of progress and the use of assessment evidence?

Here are some suggestions – they are in an order of sorts, but use them as you will.

1.       Know what’s good about what you’re doing already 

Think about current practice and what’s good about it. I don’t mean from the point of sentimentality or just because ‘the kids seem to like it’, but because it engages pupils and leads to effective learning. As science coordinator I would argue that the prime responsibility is to support pupils in being intrigued by science, understanding the big ideas and understanding how we find out about things. Delivering the Programme of Study is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  Current effective practice should be identified, cherished and carried forward.

2.       Know what your agenda is 

Whilst things are in the melting pot, it’s a good opportunity to change other things too. If there are some rubbishy old worksheets that keep getting dragged out, now is the time to ditch them. View the changing Programme of Study as a Christmas Tree – you can hang on it whatever you like!

3.       Devise some good topics

I mean, some really good topics – ones that you can’t wait to teach. Dinosaurs, crime scene investigations, space exploration, whatever it may be, go for it. The statements in the Programme of Study don’t need to be taught in the groups in which they’re presented. If those groups work, then great,  if not, reach for the scissors.

4.       Integrate Working Scientifically within the topics 

The Programme of Study tells you to do this, but you should do so anyway. Working Scientifically isn’t a separate part of science, but it is how we know about forces, materials, systems in the human body and everything else. Spotting patterns in data is how we understand circuits – so why separate it? Oh, and don’t try to cover all of Working Scientifically in every topic or you’ll wear yourself out and miss the trickier bits. Be smart about which bits lend themselves well to that topic. Also don’t try to shoe-horn everything into the structure of a fair test – there are more types of enquiry than that, and the Programme of Study specifically requires them.

5.       Be clear about outcomes

This is well established in some schools, but not in all. When you’re planning, start here and work backwards. Everything should be driven by the outcomes you want. The activities should be chosen because doing them will secure those outcomes (and if they won’t, then why do them?).

6.       Ensure outcomes are progressive

Does Year 5 build on Year 4 (and on Years 3, 2 and 1) for example? As subject coordinator you need to have an overview of how the outcomes build up. The Programme of Study is a useful guide, but it needs care and scrutiny. Work with individual teachers to develop outcomes for that year – but then make sure they fit across the six years. Does the Year 6 work on circuits build on that done in Year 4, and the Year 5 work on materials build on that in Year 2? Are older pupils asking better questions than younger ones – and coming up with better ways of answering them?

7.       Set up some checkpoints

Decide how you’re going to assess pupils, and be eclectic. There are a number of types of evidence and the more types you use, the more robust your conclusions will be. Don’t leave it until the end of a topic (it’s a bit late to do anything about it then) and make sure you’re not just testing bits of knowledge. The good scientist doesn’t just know stuff – they can apply it and interpret evidence as well.

8.       Scrutinise evidence

Make sure the evidence you gather is useful. ‘More marks = better scientist’ might be true but it’s not very useful when planning teaching. ‘More marks on knowledge and fewer on application’ is more useful when thinking about the next few lessons, as is ‘gets the use of circuit symbols but doesn’t understand how to control the amount of electricity flowing’.

9.       Develop the dialogue with pupils

Pupils may know whether or not they’re good at science, but do they know how to improve? Ofsted found out that pupils often received less diagnostic feedback in science than in English and maths, even though it was usually taught by the same teacher*. Pupils should know what they’ve mastered and what their focus for improvement is.

10.   Check the calibration with other teachers

It’s really useful, every so often, to touch base with colleagues in other schools about their identification of outcomes and use of assessment evidence. Exchange some ideas and examples of work. Get some secondary colleagues involved and decide what works well.

11.   What about levels? 

Your school may decide to use levels and if it does, you’ll need to come up with some numbers. Tests are a good way of doing that. At the end of the day though it’s really important to hang on to the idea that the ultimate purpose of assessment is not to report on progress but to improve it – the bigger question is not ‘what level is this piece of work?’ but ‘what does this piece of work indicate we need to do next?’.

* Ofsted, Maintaining curiosity: a survey into science education in schools, November 2013


key stage 1, key stage 2, science

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