This chapter summarises the range of effective practices used by the schools in their science teaching for Years 5 to 8 students, providing examples for other schools in managing science education.

Capable science teaching for Years 5 to 8

The effective teachers at the schools in this study applied a range of sophisticated strategies in support of science learning. They recognised that the quality of thinking, or conceptual development, shown by students is central to effective science teaching.

It is through high quality investigation, reflection and discussion that students increase their understanding of scientific knowledge and scientific processes. Much of science teaching is also practical or hands-on; it involves students’ investigating their own ideas as well as the ideas of others. It is collaborative in that it involves groups of students working together. It is also relevant, drawing on local contexts and ideas, as well the particular interests of students.

Effective teachers observed in this evaluation understood the complex nature of science teaching and used this understanding to plan, deliver, assess and evaluate their teaching. High quality planning included strategies for identifying students’ prior knowledge about a topic. This information was used to plan the activities to be undertaken in a unit, as well as to form a baseline for assessing the improvements made in student understanding.

Good planning also focused on the key concepts (or big ideas) students were to explore in a unit. It included the use of strategies to help students develop the key competencies of The New Zealand Curriculum, as well as any school-based priorities for learning.

Some schools used science to reinforce literacy and numeracy skills. Often schools drew on an inquiry-based approach that included numeracy and literacy tasks as part of the unit. Where this occurred, teachers were sometimes conscious of the Nature of Science strand of The New Zealand Curriculum, and the need to make clear to students when they were learning science, so that science activities were not lost in literacy and or ICT-based investigations.

High quality science lessons were engaging for students. While practical and hands-on aspects of science are appealing to most students, the use of students’ ideas, and the ability to have students think about scientific material, can make science lessons highly engaging and effective. This underlines the importance of teachers and students asking questions in science and having class members attempt to understand such natural phenomena as why water forms on the outside of refrigerated bottles, or why it is that some animals are extinct.

In some cases, effective teachers moved away from their initial planning to follow students’ interests. Being flexible is an important part of science teaching. It shows the judgement effective teachers need to make the most of opportunities as they arise.

High quality science lessons matched the needs of diverse students. Because students were using collaborative learning techniques, and investigating their own ideas as part of the programme, they were able to be involved in ways that extended their thinking. As a result, different students learnt different things in an effective science class.

Effective teachers were sensitive to the religious and cultural background of students. Such teachers also made links between the science learnt in the classroom and the particular careers that make use of such learning.

Good quality assessment information was important for high quality teaching. Through the use of the ARBs, as well as the curriculum exemplars and matrices, effective teachers knew the level of work expected from Years 5 to 8 students and created opportunities for them to reach and exceed different curriculum levels. They could also, therefore, give high quality feedback to students on their understanding of science knowledge and processes. Good assessment information could also contribute to the quality of teaching by providing evidence about how well students understood particular aspects of a unit.

High quality science teaching across a school depends on effective school leadership and good resources. If science is to prosper in a school it should be given status by the principal and supported by an effective science leader. Teachers need good professional leadership and support so that they develop the knowledge and skills required to sustain good science teaching as a regular part of the school programme. Teachers do not need to have a science qualification to be effective science teachers. To teach science well they do need to have a good understanding of scientific ideas. Understanding and confidence can be developed with the help of principals and lead science teachers.

As part of their self-review reports the board of trustees should get information from the school about the achievement of students in science. In some cases a school may also develop particular goals for science learning, reflected in school planning, reporting and self-review documentation, and translated into some of the other aspects of school operations, including the number of hours schools allocated to the teaching of science.

The resources required for teaching and learning science in Years 5 to 8 need not be technical or expensive. Teachers are, however, well served when there is a person who manages the school’s science resources effectively and, where possible, assists teachers to identify and gather the best possible resources for a science unit.

Challenges for science education in Years 5 to 8

This report focuses on capable and competent science teaching, and the importance of school leadership in fostering science education. ERO also found that most schools in this study faced some challenges in developing high quality science education.

ERO therefore intends to undertake a large scale national evaluation of science education, in order to provide a more detailed picture of the overall quality of primary school science across the country, and to identify any system-wide issues that require the attention of policy makers.