Mr Smith and Mrs Jones both teach a Year 3 class in the same school. Mr Smith is an ECT (first year) and Mrs Jones is now in her 5th year of teaching.
This term the Science topic is rocks. They both have access to the school Science Scheme of Work, which ties in with the National Curriculum Programme of Study, and has been adapted to suit the resources they have available.
In their first lesson pupils are learning about the properties of different rocks and are testing them for “hardness”.
After the lesson I take the opportunity to chat to the pupils about what they’ve learned in Science today.
Mr Smith’s class
They were learning about rocks and were testing them to see which were hardest. They had to give them a hardness score on a scale of 1 to 10. They scraped some rocks with a coin, and if nothing came off it was a low score, and if some did it was a medium score. They had a nail to hit the rocks with, and if some came off with the nail it was a higher score.
The first rock had a low score (2), the 2nd and 3rd rocks were medium (5 and 6) and the last rock was a high score because it was the hardest (8).
Mrs Jones’ class
They were learning about rocks and were testing them to see which were hardest. They were given 4 different types of rock; sandstone, marble, slate and granite. Sandstone is a sedimentary rock because its made from lots of small bits of sand or sediment pushed together. Marble and slate are metamorphic rocks which is what happens when other rocks get squashed down and heated up in the earth. Granite is an igneous rock and its made from magma that cools down.
They tested the hardness of the rocks by scraping them or hitting them with coins or nails. Mrs Jones spoke to them about how they could decide how hard the rocks were. They decided not to use a score, as there was no fair way of giving them a number from how easy they are to scrape. They decided to put them in order of hardness instead. They found that the igneous rocks where the hardest, then the metamorphic, and the sedimentary was softest.
What’s going on?
It was clear that both classes enjoyed the lesson, particularly the practical work, and they’d all learnt something, but there’s no denying there’s a difference in outcomes between the classes. So what happened?
Teachers prioritise the need to provide fun, awe and wonder moments that ensure children enjoy science. They are actively seeking to use and find great wow activities from internet ideas, video platforms and social media etc. These activities often stand alone and lack a relevant or appropriate curriculum rationale, with many relevant concepts inaccessible because the scientific explanation would be too abstract or complex. A clear rationale and articulation of why this activity is in this sequence of learning is not evident to the children or articulated by the teacher.Bianchi et al. The 10 key issues with children’s learning in primary science in England (2021)
Mr Smith, like so many science teachers before him (at all key stages) took a look at the scheme of work, recognised that the practical would be interesting and fun for the pupils, and went into it with full gusto. And the pupils enjoyed it. But he’d not stopped to think about the underpinning rationale for doing the practical at all.
Mrs Jones did the same in her first year (and her second year too, actually). But her end of topic assessments showed a real gap in pupil knowledge about the properties of rocks, so she shifted her focus.
Mrs Jones recognised that the purpose of the practical wasn’t really about finding out how hard different rocks are. She could just tell them that. For her the practical was about
- making the different types of rocks tangible and real (concrete) rather than abstract concepts.
- Opening up a discussion about the limits of their quantitative data (scoring hardness) and looking at alternatives (rank ordering).
And for Mrs Jones the main focus of the lesson was recognising the different categories of rocks and their properties. She spent a lot of time focussing on scientific vocabulary (and the pupils articulated this to me beautifully).
Two classes. Same practical. Both classes had fun. But in one class the practical was purposeful, the intent was understood, and the breadth and depth of learning was far greater.
P.S. I know Moh’s hardness scale is a thing. Its just particularly ineffective with children. Most don’t have fingernails long or strong enough for scraping, and big burly Harry can scape a lot more off with a coin than little Larry sat next to him…