‘Students need time to practice their science – but instead they are taught to simply regurgitate the facts’

Practical science lessons are often overshadowed by a mountain of facts and an emphasis on maths and English, writes the chief executive of the British Science Association Katherine Mathieson in the TES.

What is science? Is it a body of facts, to be memorised and regurgitated? Or is it a method for finding out facts and testing and refining ideas?

Currently – and correctly – the curriculum requires children to learn how to “think scientifically”, learning the skill of applying the scientific method when faced with a problem to solve.

But how do we learn how to think scientifically and, perhaps more importantly, how do we teach it? 

No-one believes that you learn to play football, for example, by reading a textbook day after day – you get outside and play. Even at a young age, when their skill levels are still very low, children are encouraged to play music, act, draw and write stories.

Students need opportunities to practise their scientific thinking and not just concentrate on the facts. 

The British Science Association’s CREST Awards use enquiry-based learning approaches to give students a structured way to lead their own research or engineering design projects, usually outside of formal lesson time. They must plan and manage their own project, present their findings and reflect afterwards on what worked well and what didn’t.

CREST is based on the principle that by doing science or engineering, young people learn about science or engineering – like they learn music or football.

A report published in 2016 found that students who’d done a Silver CREST Award obtained, on average, half a grade higher in their best science GCSE compared to a matched controlled group. Students eligible for pupil premium saw an even bigger effect – they got, on average, two-thirds of a grade higher. And now this idea is about to be tested again on a much larger scale.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has set aside funding to do a randomised controlled trial of Silver CREST Awards, aiming to discover once and for all whether enquiry-based learning can improve science attainment. 

Recruitment of schools to take part in the trial is still ongoing; schools who take part will benefit from a tailored package of support and financial incentives. 

And if young people are given the chance to try out science for themselves, I believe that can only lead to a generation that understands and appreciates science as something more than just a bunch of facts.

Read more ‘Students need time to practice their science – but instead they are taught to simply regurgitate the facts’

Do you think there should be a more hands-on learning approach in science? Would your pupils be interested in taking part in the CREST awards? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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