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Top tips for science curriculum planning

Published: Jun 4, 2021 5 min read

STEM Learning

By Mark Langley, Science CPD Lead at STEM Learning

One-size fits all, off the shelf schemes of work are not ideal. Why? Well many of the examples and contexts given can mean very little to young people. Curricula should have an element of localisation, as if students cannot easily relate to the curriculum, then there is the risk of students disengaging. While they can form a starting point for a schools own scheme of learning in science, they will usually need a lot of adaptation to meet local need. This may be additional resources, but often how the units or modules are organised.

Within secondary schools, taking a holistic five (or seven) year plan can support students make progress, work towards mastery and build on their experiences from primary school and everyday life. Ofsted have flagged this in their recent Research Review Series: Science… that students substantive and disciplinary knowledge development is well planned, with coherence in the curriculum planning and effective sequencing.

A whole school science curriculum plan needs to focus not just on the hard science knowledge and understanding, but also the skills and techniques demanded. By the time students reach GCSE or A Level, they should be able to apply and refine techniques, rather than “doing them once” just so a box can be ticked. A high quality curriculum allows for time to develop the skills required to be effective within the subject.

In primary level education, science being granted sufficient curriculum time and prominence is important, with conceptual frameworks around core knowledge and understanding planned through- with also teachers understanding the “where next” for knowledge, so that alternative conceptions are not inadvertently developed. This in itself can mean teachers need additional support with their own underlying science knowledge.

Excellent resources, like the BEST (best evidence science teaching) materials, not only help with misconceptions, but also evidence based subject mapping, to enable ideas and topics to be structured in a logical learning order. Then students will be building on their own conceptual understanding in an evidence based approach, rather than an order of teaching based on more prosaic choices such as availability of equipment on a rota system.

For planning individual topics, a “PCK Framework” approach can help. This is incredibly important for those teaching out of specialism, whose own pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) may need support- such as a physicist teaching biology. For each unit, it starts with outlining the key ideas and then how will you know students have learnt it? This means that identifying good assessments to allow opportunities to demonstrate understanding should come before the how you actually plan the teaching… this is backwards design and is not teaching to the test, but ensuring that the assessments are actually effective.

The steps of developing a framework include answer these questions:

  1. What you intend the students to learn about this idea?
  2. How will you know they have learnt it? [assessment]
  3. Why it is important for students to know this?
  4. What will the students know (but not just yet!)? [next conceptual level]
  5. What difficulties/limitations are connected with teaching this idea?
  6. What knowledge about students’ thinking (including misconceptions)are there which influences your teaching of this idea?
  7. Any other factors which influence your teaching of this idea?
  8. What opportunities for Working Scientifically are there?
  9. Opportunities for Assessment Activities (formative/summative).
  10. Teaching procedures (and particular reasons for using these to engage with this idea). [now how will you teach it!]

An effective science curriculum should include a robust approach to health and safety- not just proper risk assessment, but also supporting students so that, in the future, as they enter the world of work, they are better positioned to look after themselves and others around them. An outstanding curriculum should support all young people, regardless of ability, to perform the best they can. With the view that the majority of young people will not be directly entering science careers, the curriculum should enable a high level of scientific literacy, and allow students the opportunity to increase their science capital, recognising how science effects their everyday lives.

Points key to success:

  • Plan for long-term progression across subject and ages
  • Localise the curriculum where possible
  • Opportunities to embed development of science capital of students
  • Build in effective assessment for learning- not just relying on tests
  • Enable support for non-specialists (and potentially non-scientists) to enable their PCK to be enhanced
  • Allow scope for teacher professionalism- not a didactic approach
  • Develop life skills- including health and safety

Excellent curriculum design, leading to an efficient, supportive and effective scheme of learning is at the centre of education recovery. It gives a framework for teaching and learning that makes genuine progress, helps identify areas for development and can also highlight needs for supporting staff development. We have brought together two collections to support with curriculum design in primary and also in secondary which will be useful for classroom teachers and leaders of science in school.