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Primary Science Capital: project blog



The Primary Science Capital Project: A social justice approach to teaching primary science

By m.chowdhuri, on 20 July 2022

This blog was originally published as part of Wellcome foundation’s Explorify blog series. 

Feeling sciencey – A hard nut to crack?

By m.chowdhuri, on 3 February 2020

By Beth Budden

Changing pupils’ self-image of themselves as science learners remains a hard nut to crack. It is also an important nut to crack for equity reasons: STEM careers continue to attract less females and pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds, not to mention fewer individuals from lower socio- economic groups.

The primary science capital teaching approach

The science capital teaching approach provides a means for teachers to make an impact on how pupils see themselves in relation to science. It involves a new and distinctive approach to teaching, but not one that will require teachers to spend hours planning or resourcing. With teachers already swamped with demanding workloads, and with school budgets dwindling, new initiatives that require more time and money simply will not work. We need to think differently, and this is why this is a change in ‘approach’ and not a new resource package.

I joined the science capital primary programme in September 2019 and already I am seeing a change in the pupils I teach. The change is subtle, but I hope long-lasting. As a busy head of department and class teacher, I have purposefully ensured that the changes I have made to my science teaching practice are those I know any busy teacher could do. However, this does require teachers to be really reflective and honest about their own mind sets in relation to pupils.

Reflecting on what counts

To begin with, we have to reflect on our own, often unconscious, categorisation of pupils being more or less ‘sciencey’, and broaden our understandings of what counts. This requires teachers to be aware of their own thought processes – to develop their own metacognitive awareness of themselves as educators.

The good news is that most teachers I know joined the profession in order to make a difference to pupils’ lives, especially for those who are less affluent and from backgrounds with the potential to be marginalised. Social justice is a big driver in education, and although we may debate the methodologies to improve it, I see the the desire to level the playing field all around me in my profession.

A plethora of research now shows that how we think about pupils influences what we and they expect of themselves, and a self-fulfilling prophecy so often unfolds. The science capital approach is centred around undoing our own and our pupils’ unspoken prophecies about themselves as science learners.

We expect affluent, articulate pupils to be better at science. And such pupils often do well because they are ‘schooled’ at home about how to participate within the narrow parameters of what is of valued in the education system. Our job is to legitimise a far wider set of experiences and skills that count as being ‘sciencey’, while at the same time, imparting the bodies of science knowledge and understanding pupils need to know.

More advantaged pupils often dominate science lessons, possessing accepted, and indeed often expected currencies in science, such as family members who are scientists, regular visits to museums and the partaking of a range of extra-curricular pursuits that lend themselves to learning more about ‘science.’ We see these children as ‘good at science,’and indeed they often lead in questioning exchanges, dominate group work and importantly, are seen by everyone in the class as more ‘sciencey,’ leaving the others feeling increasingly less so.

We might try to ‘feed’ more science to those who need it, provide more ‘sciencey’ experiences in school for them too, but this never seems to change how they see themselves against those who we all seem to know are more ‘sciencey’. In fact, the more we try to boost and engage, the more the gap seems to remain.

Yet the science capital teaching approach takes a different line altogether. We are not attempting to change pupils to fit into the world of science. After all, the problem is not their engagement with science, but science’s engagement with them! If science says where you live, who you know and what you do outside school are not ‘sciencey,’ why would you want to have anything much to do with it, even if it is engaging and interesting sometimes? It’s nice, but it’s not your type of thing, right?

Broadening what counts in practice

Our job, then, is to teach science content well, but at the same time to change the expectation and opportunities available to pupils, including whether or not their own experiences have value. This is where the focus on ‘personalising’ and ‘localising’ science topics through ‘broadening what counts’ makes a big difference.

For example, in knowing that some of my pupils enjoy dancing, why don’t I ask them to put together a dance to show how soil formation occurs? I teach it well, ensure the concepts are embedded, then let them use that to choreograph a routine. In doing so I have connected a big part of themselves to the topic. In knowing that one young lad’s parents run a building business, why not focus on the fact his father works with soil and return to this link frequently in class, thus validating this part of his life?

Worksheets having their place, and projects on planets and plants are all well and good, but find what counts for the pupil rather than leaving that to chance. Ask pupils to do homework exercises, think outside the box, link them to the everyday aspects of their lives like mobile phones, bath time, washing machines, the shoes on their feet, the materials in their bedroom.

In this way, teachers have to think differently, and the more we do, the easier it gets. The more we experiment with this reworking of what counts, the more that pupils will be inclined to see science as part of their lives. What we teach should never be ‘dumbed down,’ it doesn’t need to be, but the avenues through which we teach it needs purposeful widening. I can’t say that I’ve cracked the science capital teaching approach yet, but I’ve tried things that have worked well, and others that have crumbled into nothing. However, in understanding that I can make more in pupils’ lives count, I feel this approach will prove to be invaluable.

Beth Budden is a primary school teacher at John Ball Primary School and also a PSTT College fellow. As part of the Primary Science Capital Project, she is one of the ten teachers participating in the development of the primary science capital teaching approach.