Eight-year-old Dean is a white, working-class Londoner who doesn’t usually engage much during science lessons. As he tells his teacher, Ms Lessing, he’s going to be a footballer when he’s older, so he doesn’t think he needs to learn science…
The question of how to engage and reach more children through science is one that concerns many primary teachers. In this article, we share news from a new collaborative project between teachers and researchers called Primary Science Capital: A whole-school approach, that is identifying some encouraging ways forward.
The Primary Science Capital project
What does a social justice approach to science teaching look like in practice in primary schools? To answer this question, researchers at UCL and KCL (with the support of Primary Science Teaching Trust and The Ogden Trust) are collaborating with ten teachers from primary schools across England to co-develop an inclusive teaching approach that will better engage diverse learners with science. Our team, led by Professor Louise Archer, has previously worked over four years with secondary teachers to co-develop the ‘science capital teaching approach’ which forefronts issues of social justice within the teaching and learning of science. We are excited to now be able to work with colleagues to extend and develop the approach within primary schools – not least as research tells us that primary is a crucial time during which children’s ideas about science, and whether it is considered ‘for me’, or not, are formed.
What is a ‘science capital’ approach?
Science capital is a concept that refers to all the science-related resources, experiences and ideas that a child might have. As an analogy, we can think of science capital like a bag, or holdall, that you carry throughout life, containing all your science-related knowledge (what you know), attitudes (what you think), experiences (what you do) and contacts (who you know).
(Image © 2015 Cognitive)
Some children have bags that are full of science-rich experiences and resources that they have gained from home (these children can be thought of as having ‘high’ science capital). Other children may have ‘lower’ levels of science capital, although they will still have knowledge and experiences that can be related to science, even if these are not always recognized as such.
At its heart, a science capital approach seeks to build the relationship between children and science by broadening the ways in which science is represented, by valuing what all children bring with them and by connecting science with children’s identities, experiences and what matters to them and their communities. The approach asks teachers to adopt a social justice mindset - that is, thinking critically about power relations that can exist in classrooms and inequalities that may go unnoticed. The approach works with any curriculum, supporting teachers to reflect on every aspect of their teaching, and then ‘tweak’ their practice in line with the core principles and ‘pillars’ of the approach. Find out more in this animation.
What do teachers say about the approach?
We asked our ten teachers, what first attracted them to the project? Teachers primarily felt that the science capital approach would help provide greater science-related opportunities to their students. A Year 4 teacher in a Worcester school said, “I got involved because I want our children to have choices and opportunities”. Another teacher explained: “I want to improve the life chances of young people in my school – to show them their place in science, that they are valued, and that science is for them!”
"Small tweaks to science lessons"
Teachers felt that this initiative offered something different from other science education programmes: “This is not a new initiative, fad or fashion; this is an approach that appreciates who we teach and where they come from and making that count for something” (Year 3 teacher in a London school). Ms. Davis, teaching at a school in Wellingborough, particularly appreciated that the approach does not entail upheaval of her current teaching plans but a more subtle form of change. She says “You do not have to re-write your science lessons – it just takes small tweaks”, making it an approach which builds on teachers’ expertise instead of discounting it.
"Personalising the lessons has made science more of a personal connection for the children"
In the few months (since October 2019) of attempting and experimenting with the approach, teachers are already finding success. In particular, teachers are valuing the opportunity to critically test and thereafter reflect on the impact of small changes. They have also enjoyed finding out more about the children’s lives and have noted that efforts are leading to increased engagement in science lessons. Ms Lessing explained: “Personalising lessons has been thought-provoking. It has engaged children from the start of the lesson and has taught me more about the children. It has made science more of a personal connection for the children”. Similarly, Ms Davis said: “Personalising science lessons has meant that I have discovered more about their interests and lives”. Ms Hawker even felt that parents are now getting more involved in school science: “Making learning personal to pupils' own experiences and home life has improved pupils' and parents’ involvement in science”.
And what about Dean, the aspiring footballer? Ms Lessing has been applying the approach throughout her science lessons and our lesson observations have recorded the buzz and engagement of all the children in her class. On our most recent observation, we saw Dean not only engaging enthusiastically with the activities but also putting up his hand first to answer teacher questions and excitedly sharing his experiences.
We are still in the early stages of our project journey, but we all feel that these initial steps are rewarding and encouraging.
To find out more about the Primary Science Captial Project, visit UCL's website.