Bang! How small particles form the big ideas

By James Deehan

When we think of science, we tend to think of historical figures like Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Curie and others. Or we think of anonymous modern scientists working on complex modern problems: climate change, energy futures, artificial intelligence and others.

Both these approaches are understandable and far from inaccurate. But science must be understood as a process of collective knowledge building and application for the betterment of society. The goal of all levels of science education should be the development of a scientifically literate population who understand how scientific processes and knowledge relate to their worlds and catalyse meaningful positive actions. The work of our most brilliant scientific minds would be rendered meaningless if it falls on deaf ears.

Science education: how are we faring?

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) affords comprehensive (albeit still flawed) insights into the science learning of Year 4 students in Australian and other OECD nations. There are some positive trends with Australia’s performance remaining quite steady, a closing gap between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan learners, and reports of more engaging, student centred practices in primary science classrooms. 

But there remains room for improvement as 90% of Australian Year 4 students in the 2020 TIMSS fell below the ‘high threshold’ (550), which denotes a capacity to generalise science skills and knowledge beyond the classroom. This trend is echoed in the 2019 Australian National Assessment Program (NAP) Sample Assessment in Science Literacy (NAP-SL) where 58% of Year 6 students met the proficiency standard. 

In my view, there is a promising foundation in primary science which we should nurture. 

What works?

There are many grand concepts that drive practice and research in primary science. As a primary science academic, I find a core part of my work is translating grand concepts (e.g., student-centred, constructivism, active learning, etc.) into tangible classroom practices for preservice academics. 

Student-centred teaching approaches such as community projects, outdoor science, project-based learning and many others all have established records of success in both the experiences of teachers and the academic literature. Even teacher-centred approaches, such as direct instruction/ transmission, worksheets, and videos have important roles to play. I have just published a framework of 38 primary science teaching approaches for those eager to learn more. 

In an effort to consolidate our collective understanding of what works in primary science education, my colleagues and I reviewed 142 academic articles which investigated the impact of science teaching approaches on primary science learners’ scientific content knowledge, skills and dispositions. 

Common student-centred approaches

We found that common student-centred approaches, such as Project/Problem-based learning, inquiry learning, cooperative learning, science beyond the classroom, nature of science instruction, cross curricular integration and others, were associated with remarkable improvements in learners’ science knowledge, skills and dispositions. 

For skills and dispositions, the levels of growth associated with student-centred approaches were above markers of normal and above average progression. 

And this is truly remarkable – our finding that the average growth in scientific content knowledge grew markedly.  Usually, this type of learning growth is typically associated with one-to-one tutoring (the 2-sigma problem) and would be considered 900 per cent (yes, 900 per cent) higher than normal progression. This means that the student-centred approaches common in primary science have the potential to be orders of magnitude more impactful than more traditional approaches such as “cook book” investigations, rote note taking and lectures.

The science education array

As interesting as these findings may be, they cannot provide us with a notion of “best practice” that can be simply enacted in every primary science classroom. Most of the lessons, units and interventions used an array of complementary science teaching approaches that require considerable teacher expertise and reflexivity. Just as we can’t make every primary science lesson a lecture with note taking, we can’t just give the students a problem and put them in cooperative learning groups and expect to achieve the same outcomes reported in the academic literature. 

Research is seldom an accurate reflection of real world classrooms –  it is quite common for academic research to report on the teaching of external experts and academics, which cannot be scaled or sustained across all schools.

We now have a strong evidence base showing “what” teaching approaches are effective in primary science education. The importance of student-centred approaches appear to be widely understood by educators, academics and policy makers. 

This leaves us with the “how” question as we strive to work out how academic insights can be applied in ways that are sustainable (i.e., manageable for typical schools despite inconsistent funding and support) and scalable (i.e., reasonable for all schools to implement in “normal” conditions).

Science education: How can we make it work?

The “how” question will always be the domain of classroom teachers responding to the unique traits of their students, and it is being answered every school day across Australia. Teacher decision-making is of paramount importance and we cannot simply commit to an ideal approach and leave it at that – to do so would be a gross misuse of academic evidence.

But we should strive to draw together the collective knowledge of primary science teachers enacting these effective practices regularly in their classrooms. Not only would this provide useful examples of theory working in practice, it would provide the authentic insights necessary to advance primary science in a sustainable and scalable way. Rather than answering the “how” question, those outside the classrooms can work to support teachers to more easily and effectively answer the “how” question for their own students. 

An excellent example of teacher support in primary science education is the longstanding and widely lauded Primary Connections Program. Primary Connections addresses many areas of need among primary teachers through flexible professional professional development and freely available resources. It has also been consistently evaluated over nearly 20 years. The 5Es framework (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate & Evaluate) that underpins the Primary Connections program also provides conceptual guidance to assist teachers in making informed decisions about science teaching approaches.

Where to from here?

In a practical sense, we need more shared research to better understand how best practices are realised in typical school settings where academic support and targeted funding are sparse. This should ideally occur alongside development in how we conceptualise and make decisions about primary science teaching practices. 

There are many (really too many) interesting ways to discuss and conceptualise primary science teaching.

Here are a few big ideas

  • Big Ideas encapsulate the purpose of science learning in succinct terms for students and teachers alike. Harlen’s 14 Big Ideas of science (for example, all matter in the universe is made of very small particles) and about science (for example, Science is about finding the cause or cause of phenomena in the natural world) lead the emerging research in big ideas. Big Ideas have also been incorporated into the Australian K-10 Science Curriculum in the form of Inquiry questions and key ideas. It has the potential to aid the navigation of different activities by helping students to retain the purpose of their science learning
  • Learner Choice or agency is at the heart of student-centred teaching. Primary science teachers can approach choice in different ways, including minimisation, pre-planning/ designing choices in science learning or responding to emergent opportunities for choice. Choice can be enacted in many ways, including peer interaction, mode of communication, research methodologies, variable changes, etc. 
  • Outward and inward facing pedagogies is an alternative conceptualisation to student and teacher centred pedagogies. In this case, inward facing pedagogies are those that are focused solely on within-school events whereas outward facing pedagogies are those that connect students to the world beyond the school. While both can be student-centred, outward facing pedagogies are often more time and resource intensive approaches that may consolidate earlier inward focused learning.

If everyone in this space (educators, academics, policy makers, professional development providers, and parents) is committed to ensuring our young people grow to become scientifically literate citizens then we must collectively emphasise sustainable and scalable improvement in primary science education.

James Deehan is a senior lecturer in Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University who specialises in primary science education. His research interests are primarily in preservice and inservice primary science education. James is also interested in interdisciplinary education research and firmly believes that good research should both inform and advocate.

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