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Unpicking the vocabulary of Ofsted's review

Updated: Feb 9

In the second of our blogs on Ofsted's Research review of the factors that influence the quality of science education, we thought we’d try to clarify what we think some of the unfamiliar terms used in the review mean in a primary context.

There are three pairs of terms that are used throughout the Ofsted review that are worth considering in the primary context. They are:

  • substantive and disciplinary

  • conceptual and procedural

  • discovery learning/enquiry-based teaching approaches and scientific enquiry.

Substantive and disciplinary knowledge

Fortunately, ‘substantive’ and ‘disciplinary’ knowledge appear to map fairly directly to the language used in the National Curriculum. It seems safe to assume that, when Ofsted refers to ‘substantive’ knowledge, they mean the ‘knowledge’ statements in the National Curriculum and, when they refer to ‘disciplinary’ knowledge, they mean the ‘working scientifically’ statements.

Conceptual and procedural knowledge

Where things get a little more complex is trying to establish how Ofsted’s ‘conceptual’ and ‘procedural’ knowledge relate to ‘substantive’ and ‘disciplinary’ knowledge. Here again, it seems that they can be mapped reasonably simply, as defined in the table below which illustrates how the knowledge and the working scientifically statements from the National Curriculum can be divided between Ofsted’s ‘conceptual’ and ‘procedural’ knowledge.

You will have noticed that scientific enquiry is missing from the table above. Scientific enquiry is 'disciplinary' knowledge, but we haven't included the five types of enquiry specified in the National Curriculum in the table above because carrying them out requires pupils to be applying conceptual and procedural knowledge that is both substantive and disciplinary. In other words, it requires knowledge from all four areas to do it, so it would be inappropriate to put it in any one of the boxes in the table.

If the above definitions of ‘conceptual’ and ‘procedural’ knowledge are applied to the content of the National Curriculum (with the caveat about scientific enquiry mentioned above), what emerges, in terms of where the content is likely to belong under these terms, is illustrated in the table below.

Enquiry-based teaching approaches/discovery learning and scientific enquiry

The other two terms used in the Ofsted review that it is helpful to clarify the meaning of, in a primary context, are ‘enquiry-based teaching approaches/discovery learning’, as distinct from ‘scientific enquiry’. For simplicity’s sake, we are going to use the term ‘discovery learning’ rather than ‘enquiry-based teaching approaches/discovery learning’, but the review uses both terms.

‘Discovery learning’ refers to practical activities that enable pupils to be introduced to objects and phenomena, such as air resistance, dissolving and melting, making a light bulb work, making shadows or observing living things in their habitats, before they are taught the substantive conceptual knowledge. The review does not suggest these activities are not a valid part of teaching science. However, it does make it clear that the substantive conceptual knowledge needs to be taught explicitly and before pupils undertake ‘scientific enquiry’. It also makes clear that ‘discovery learning’ should not be confused with ‘scientific enquiry’.

Ofsted are clear that ‘scientific enquiry’ involves pupils using previously learnt, substantive and disciplinary knowledge together to answer scientific questions, using the scientific enquiry types set out in the National Curriculum. ‘Scientific enquiry’ can be scaffolded or independent, but the pupils must be answering a specific scientific question, not just exploring objects or phenomena, which would be ‘discovery learning’.

Should schools be using these terms in future?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Ofsted feels these terms are a helpful way of thinking and talking about science education but, when we asked Jasper Green (Ofsted’s Subject Lead for Science) whether Ofsted inspectors would expect schools to know and use these terms, on #ASEChat this week, he said they would not.

As long as the planning and teaching of science in your school reflects the factors associated with quality science education highlighted in the review, what terms your school chooses to use does not matter to Ofsted.


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