Science Curriculum Rationale: accounts of how we improved our Science curriculum (part 2)
AHT, Forest Gate Community School
Science Curriculum Rationale and Organisation
Many Years ago, I recollect reading an article from The Guardian newspaper where the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove planted an inkling belief that the exam system in England and Wales needed reforming. He criticised exam boards and told them that they need to ‘sharpen up their act’ and make GCSEs ‘tougher’. With that being said the GCSE system went through radical changes over the last few years, with changes in the science curriculum seen in 2016. So what did all these changes mean for science? It meant that the science specification had more content than it ever did before and with the introduction of some A’ Level content made it further challenging. The option to sit modular exams was withdrawn and students had to sit all exams at the end of Year 11. However practical work remained at the heart of the new GCSE and accounted for 15% of the total marks in the final exam as well as the introduction of maths in science skills accounting for 10% in biology, 20% in chemistry and 30% in physics.
With the vast number of novel changes, how does one go about developing a knowledge-rich science curriculum that enhances pupils curiosity, wonder, skills, questioning, and builds on their natural inclination to seek scientific meaning and understanding of the world? As teachers when it comes to the curriculum we are always saying that there is ‘too much content’ and we have ‘too little time’ to teach it, so often the curriculum in many schools becomes ‘overcrowded’ with a body of scientific knowledge, facts and skills that it becomes ‘fragmented’ in the purpose that it was meant to serve. With such a curriculum is it any wonder that pupils disconnect from science and see it to have very little meaning to their wider existence.
In the month of June 2018, I joined Forest Gate Community School, ranked sixth best-performing school in the country with a progress 8 score of 1.3, what a remarkable achievement for a school that is an area of high social deprivation. However, this was a school, despite its demographics, had teachers willing to go the extra mile, where pupils paid attention in lessons and as a rule of thumb have high aspirations to do well.
With that being said, it was no wonder that I found myself to be excited and eager to start my first role in leadership at FGCS and was very keen to see how the science curriculum was organised and structured. After carefully studying the current medium-term plans and route through (long term plan), I was not shocked to find that like many other schools across the country the science subjects were taught in blocks, with biology taught in the first term and physics in the final term. It was evident that the science curriculum was not planned with sequencing in mind not only for the science subjects but also with other subjects such as maths and geography where content overlapped. At this point I found myself challenging science leadership if they knew where the sequencing should have happened and where the content overlaps are? In addition, did the science department explicitly teach these skills or where they leaving this up to the other subjects? Furthermore, there was also very little evidence of revisiting previously taught content in the science MTPs and LTPs. On the other hand, summative assessments were carried out three times a year, but how effective were they in checking at students’ knowledge fluency?
With the new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework coming into effect from September 2019 with the philosophies of Intent, Implementation and Impact. It was clear that there were some implications for the science department to review the current science curriculum on offer. It was mid-April of 2019 with exam season coming into a swing that I found myself working with two of the most talented science teachers I have seen throughout my career. I was joined by Maznu Abdullah an Assistant Headteacher and Juned Uddin a Lead Practitioner at the time to work on drafting and organising a science curriculum that would be in line with the new Ofsted Inspection Framework and would allow all students an opportunity to access a knowledge-rich science curriculum.
It was important to meet on a weekly basis and thus we met every Wednesday to discuss curriculum intentions, implementation approaches and the desired impacts we wanted to see at the end of the course. Our legacy began with trying to understand the ‘ten big ideas’ in science education as described by Wynne Harlen et al (2010). Harlen describes that when students reach secondary school level, the ideas and concepts learnt in science become more abstract than those that were encountered at the primary level. This leads to problems in student understanding when these abstract ideas are not seen to be rooted in and connected to the more concrete experiences from which they should have been built on. With this in mind, our goal was to embed the 10 big ideas from the start of Year 7 all the way to Year 11 with “progression” and “rooting” at the core that would inevitably build up an understanding of the key ideas from Year 7 to Year 11.
Our next approach on organising the curriculum was to make sure that biology, chemistry and physics subjects were not being taught in blocks but taught every week to students so that they have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and cultural capital they needed to succeed. So we allocated a double lesson each week for each science subject.
We also constructed a curriculum based on Jerome Bruner (1960) principles of The Spiral Curriculum which allowed us to sequence topic across science subjects. In 1960 Bruner wrote, “We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development." So in other words, the most complex of subjects, if properly structured, sequenced and delivered could be understood by young children. The key features of Bruner’s Spiral curriculum are:
(1) The student would revisit a topic, theme or subject several times throughout their school career;
(2) The difficulty of the topic or theme increases with each revisit; and
(3) New learning has a relationship with old learning and is put in context with the old information. With a spiral curriculum where the big ideas were embedded, sequenced and revisited our science curriculum was beginning to look stronger than it ever did before. See the example of ‘cells’ below:
Revisiting of topics is further backed by Dunlosky (2013) who describes that students will retain knowledge for a longer period of time when they distribute their practice rather than when they mass it (i.e. cram it in). It is the idea to return to the most important idea and concepts and continue repeating across the year without cognitive overload. As a result, our work began on also creating memory recall starters for each subject discipline as well as maths in science starters to help students retain their long term knowledge over long periods of time. In the late 1890s, German experimental psychologist, Herman Ebbinghaus, reported the “spacing effect”. He was the first person to describe the forgetting curve, which shows how quickly memories fade after learning. Look at the red line, around 50% of learning is lost after one day. However, if students practice and rehearse it slows down the forgetting process with the distributed practice rather than massed practice. Each green line on the graph shows rehearsal where memory retention goes back to 100% but slowly decays over a steady period of time. If we wanted a curriculum to succeed it was imperative for us to have knowledge retrieval starters as well as revisiting topics in the curriculum to slow down the forgetting process and maximise long term memory.
Finally, FGCS is known for DPR (Dynamic Progress Reporting), it is the heart of our school and it is a tool for curriculum implementation. Our curriculum key objectives are captured on DPR for all science subjects and it was imperative that we reviewed the current KOs. Having reviewed the KOs we discovered that science teachers were not always able to update the KOs as it did not completely capture the whole curriculum. After much discussions we decided that we needed to make the KOs more chapter-specific within the subject disciplines and in this way teachers would be able to update whether students were emerging (E), consolidating (C), or secure (S). Furthermore, we also taught paper 1 and paper 2 content in the same year and no longer taught just paper 1 content in year 9/10 and left paper 2 content for year 10 and 11. This allowed us to balance our curriculum and also help students retain knowledge longer as previously they were forgetting their paper 1 content by the time they reached year 11. Organising the science curriculum has not been without its potholes, it has been a journey to create something that would allow students to achieve cultural capital and provide them with scientific rich knowledge so that they may access life opportunities beyond the school setting. As Babs Hoffman put it we need to “stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey”.