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What does it say about practical work in primary science?

Updated: Feb 9

In our third blog on Ofsted's Research review of the factors that influence the quality of science education, we thought we would share our thoughts on what we think the review says about practical work in primary science.

Well, for a start, it makes the following, unambiguous statement,

“Practical work forms an important part of a science education.”

Expanding on this general statement, the review indicates that it is essential for teachers to be clear about the purpose of practical work “in relation to specific curriculum content”. It states,

“This means defining whether the practical activity is carried out in order to help pupils to learn substantive or disciplinary knowledge or whether it is a curricular object in itself. For example, pupils may add sugar to water to help them learn substantive knowledge of dissolving. In this case, the concept of dissolving, and not the activity, was the goal. However, it may be that the activity itself is the goal. For example, pupils need to learn how to use a thermometer or how to carry out a specific type of scientific enquiry.”

This appears to identify three purposes for practical work in primary science. They are:

  • directed discovery learning that introduces pupils to scientific objects and phenomena to help them learn substantive knowledge, such as dissolving or air resistance

  • directed discovery learning that enables pupils to learn and practice disciplinary knowledge, such as how to use a thermometer or carry out a specific type of scientific enquiry

  • scientific enquiry.

All three purposes are equally important, but teachers must know the specific purpose of each practical activity in relation to the content of the curriculum and they need to be clear that the first two purposes are ‘directed discovery learning’, not scientific enquiry.

Directed discovery learning to introduce scientific objects and phenomena

With regard to directed discovery learning that introduces pupils to scientific objects and phenomena, the review makes it clear that, “it should not be assumed that pupils will acquire abstract, and often counterintuitive, ideas simply by taking part in a practical activity”. So, when directed discovery learning is used to introduce scientific objects and phenomena to pupils, it must be part of a sequence of teaching that includes the explicit teaching of the substantive knowledge.

Directed discovery learning to teach disciplinary knowledge

Pupils are required to use disciplinary knowledge as part of scientific enquiry. However, the review makes it clear that this disciplinary knowledge must be taught discretely in advance of being applied in scientific enquiry. Some disciplinary knowledge may be most effectively taught discretely through directed discovery learning.

Scientific enquiry

The review makes clear that scientific enquiry should involve pupils using previously learnt substantive and disciplinary knowledge together to answer scientific questions, using the scientific enquiry types set out in the National Curriculum. It can be scaffolded or independent, but pupils must be answering a specific scientific question.

Engaging in scientific enquiry not only provides the opportunity for pupils to learn about the scientific enquiry process shown below but, as the review states, also helps them to “learn how scientific knowledge becomes established through scientific enquiry. By learning this, pupils appreciate the nature and status of scientific knowledge: for example, knowing it is open to revision in the light of new evidence.”

What does this mean in practice?

To illustrate what this means in practice, let’s take a scientific enquiry question and consider the sequence of teaching that would prepare pupils to successfully carry out the enquiry. Let’s take the question, “How does the number of cells affect the brightness of a bulb?"

In order to answer this question, pupils need to gather evidence of the amount of light from circuits using different numbers of cells. To do this, pupils need to know the substantive knowledge of how to construct and adapt complete circuits and the disciplinary knowledge of how to measure the amount of light from the bulb. Both these pieces of substantive and disciplinary knowledge can be discretely taught through directed discovery learning. Once pupils have acquired this knowledge, they are then equipped with the required knowledge to successfully engage in gathering evidence to answer the scientific enquiry question.


We think the diagram below illustrates the review’s position on the relationship between practical work and scientific enquiry. It shows that not all practical work is scientific enquiry, and not all scientific enquiry involves practical work.

However, what is beyond doubt is that the review indicates that it is critical that teachers and pupils know what substantive and disciplinary knowledge is being learnt during practical work and that, when carrying out scientific enquiry, pupils have been taught the substantive and disciplinary knowledge that is required to successfully undertake it.


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