Ofsted chief misses nuance in report on science education

Janet Downs's picture

Pupils who engage in enquiry-based learning in science perform at a lower level in international PISA science tests than those who had ‘teacher-directed instruction and adaptive instruction’.  That was the message from Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Speilman,  in her speech at the Association for Science Education Annual Conference 2018. 

She was right – up to a point.

The OECD, which administers the three-yearly international PISA tests, did find that enquiry-based learning had a negative association with scores in science.  But the OECD commentary didn’t end there. 

Enquiry-based teaching practices are particularly important in teaching physical and life science’, the OECD report said (p69 PISA 2015 Results Volume II*).

Top-performing pupils in particular were expected to ‘understand, explain and debate scientific ideas; design and carry out experiments and communicate findings, and connect their scientific ideas and investigations to real-life problems’.

Previous studies had shown enquiry-based instruction could ‘improve students’ learning, their attitudes towards science and their transferable skills such as critical thinking,’ the OECD said.

The analysis also found:

‘More frequent enquiry-based teaching is positively related to students holding stronger epistemic beliefs and being more likely to expect to work in a science-related occupation when they are 30…’

Where enquiry-based teaching fell down was when it was badly designed, when the laboratory material was poor, when preparation was lacking and when it didn’t ‘promote deep knowledge’.  Enquiry alone isn’t enough – it has to be expressed.

Spielman was anxious to point out that the OECD evidence – ‘just one piece of evidence’ – did not mean inspectors would begin ‘looking for a certain kind of teaching’ (although the implication is there).  The OECD finding about enquiry-based learning was ‘important’, she said, because it reminded inspectors and teachers about the necessity of ‘testing our own assumptions about what is “good” or what is “best practice”’. 

But in testing assumptions, it’s important to read the whole evidence and not just part of it.

*downloadable here 

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


agov's picture
Tue, 09/01/2018 - 14:41

You expecting Ofsted to have a deep understanding of what it's talking about?

This is an organisation whose latest annual report reveals such exciting new discoveries as "increases in test scores do not necessarily reflect a real improvement in education standards"; many underperforming schools "had higher-than-average proportions of pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities and White British pupils from low-income backgrounds", "Around four out of five had high proportions of pupils from deprived areas", and "these are schools where the demand on the leadership team is especially great"; "What pupils need is balance, and one in which a broad curriculum leads to exam success, rather than a curriculum purely serving tests"; and "inspection should not create a compliance culture".

Personally, I was impressed that they had just researched their way into the mid 20th century.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 09/01/2018 - 14:59

It's also the Ofsted which claims it allows teachers to decide how to teach but then says teachers of reading should employ systematic synthetic phonics.  This undermines teacher professionalism in the same way as hinting that direct and adaptive teaching is more effective than enquiry-based learning in science.

The emphasis on synthetic phonics has been reinforced in the Ofsted report 'Bold beginnings - The Reception curriculum...'.  It says teachers must 'make sure that the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose of the Reception Year.'

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.