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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


ITT Market Review: excellent science teaching needs skills in overcoming misconceptions

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 April 2022

Marian Mulcahy.

The National Curriculum states that the purpose of science education is to provide a foundation ‘for understanding the world’ and that it is essential for ‘the world’s future prosperity’. It can safely be argued that these aims, whatever is thought of them, cannot be met within the confines of a school classroom or lab, but they do highlight the importance that is placed on students experiencing a really high-quality science education.  This in turn can only be achieved through exceptional teaching.

We have a very clear vision of what that teaching should look like, from the crucial point of view of the pupils.  Exceptional science teachers are those:

  • who can help their pupils develop their curiosity about the world around them;
  • who can help them to acquire knowledge and conceptual understanding;
  • who encourage them to explore what is meant by the nature of science and
  • who can develop their pupils’ critical and creative thinking.

Such teachers uncover students’ misconceptions and use both their subject knowledge and understanding of how children learn  to challenge them effectively. Teachers use assessment for learning (AFL) techniques to help them identify these misconceptions, but so much more is involved if they are to be effectively ‘corrected’.

Simply giving the ‘right’ answer provides scant evidence of whether or not a child has understood the concept behind it.  An over-reliance on some ‘quick win’ pedagogies such as retrieval practice and repetition may not help children learn effectively. These methods, cited in the Government’s Core Content Framework (CCF), are undoubtedly of value in some situations, but can result in ‘training’ pupils to give the right answer but with minimal underpinning understanding.

Science educators frequently use models to help pupils understand abstract concepts or to address commonly held alternative ones.  These models can take many forms, including diagrams, 3D  structures, analogies or mathematical representations.  Correctly used, they can help enhance understanding and address misconceptions, but used incorrectly or unskilfully, can sometimes be limiting or indeed lead to misunderstanding.

Learning can be both facilitated and assessed by encouraging evaluation of the model used. Pupils can identify those features that address aspects of the target concept, and those that are less helpful, citing the reasons for their choices. For this, the teacher needs a high degree of subject specific knowledge, both of the material itself and of its sequencing in the curriculum.  The spiral nature of the science curriculum allows understanding to be developed over time, and often involves use of different models to explain new aspects of a topic which is being revisited. For example, pupils learn about particles and atoms, and, over the course of their secondary school education will encounter four or five atomic models, each one developed as understanding of its structure increased.

This relates to the transient nature of some science knowledge, something many pupils struggle with. Inherently as scientists we understand that a current theory is the one that best fits the data available. New evidence may require a revision of that theory. This fluidity is something that is counter-intuitive to many. It will be interesting to see what effect the  pandemic has had on pupil and indeed public perception. We were constantly being told that ‘thescience’ was being followed, but also that treatment regimes were evolving and becoming better as new evidence emerged, two competing ideas in one sentence. It is the use of the definite article ‘the’ that is problematic to a scientist or science educator. As the British Council states, it assumes that the listener or reader knows exactly what we are talking about as there is, by inference, only one – in this case – science.

Creating a safe and positive classroom environment is a skill all student teachers need to develop, but it is one with an added dimension for science teacher educators. In addition to maintaining the safety of pupils during practicals, they need to help their student teachers to plan very carefully, ensuring that their pupils are thinking and learning rather than just ‘doing’ in those lessons. A skilled science teacher educator can help beginning teachers to appreciate the vital link between these two, i.e. the domain of observables and of ideas, outlined by Millar and Abrahams, 2009.  To conduct practical lessons where results are recorded and conclusions written is a relatively easily measurable outcome. However using the same practical lesson to maximise student learning and to encourage interrogative dialogue requires expert subject specific guidance.

As a science teacher you are expected to teach three subjects at least to KS3 but often to GCSE.  This requires not only subject knowledge, but also an ability to transfer that into a form that pupils can learn.  This involves a plethora of decisions all designed to engage, enthuse and to help increase both understanding and love for the subject.  The true endeavour of science is to try to find out more, why, how…….  Great science teachers not only help their pupils to do that, but also to want to.


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One Response to “ITT Market Review: excellent science teaching needs skills in overcoming misconceptions”

  • 1
    Professor Rosemary Davis wrote on 5 April 2022:

    This is a really sensible blog. Knowledge is clearly of vital importance but without understanding of the what, why and how, knowledge remains at a rote level.