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Perspectives: Is scientific inquiry mere pedagogy or real science?

25 Jan, 2012
Sue Horner

Sue Horner

What is the role of inquiry-based learning in an inspiring science education? And what are its boundaries and limitations? In the last of our Perspectives essays, former Director of Curriculum Sue Horner outlines the difficulties in developing clear policy that can be easily interpreted and implemented.

A central challenge in writing a National Curriculum is one of definitions: what do we want the core content to be and how can this be best explained to a range of users? This is in addition to the challenge – common to all education policy – of offering a legislative framework that raises standards. For it to be respected, the framework needs to be intellectually cogent, realistic and practical to implement, and to attract sufficient support from the scientific and teaching communities.

One of the conventions of the National Curriculum is that it specifies the matter to be taught but not how it should be taught. The supposition that any subject can be ‘pedagogically blind’ is simplistic for two reasons. First, learning is constructed through pedagogy and the nature of a subject is conveyed by how it is taught. Second, the way the curriculum is written has implications for the classroom: the importance of scientific inquiry is inferred from how it is represented in the National Curriculum. The 2007 curriculum (1) emphasises ‘scientific thinking’, ‘practical and enquiry skills’ and ‘critical understanding’, and these rightly have clear implications for pedagogy. 

Scientific inquiry in the science curriculum

The National Curriculum seeks to capture the essence and scope of the study of science in school. Integral to that is the nature of inquiry and its relationship to scientific knowledge, derived through experimentation and observation. Students therefore need to understand not only scientific ideas but also how they are constructed.

Inquiry is essential to the development of scientific ideas and essential for understanding the world. This means that inquiry is more fundamental to real science than other pedagogies or classroom activities. It has always been hard to represent the integration of content and process in the curriculum.

The challenge for teachers is to select teaching methods that promote students’ understanding of how scientific knowledge is constructed. This gives greater significance to the pedagogies used in science, as they affect learning in more fundamental ways than those in other subjects may.

The curriculum is a framework that, before being implemented, needs interpretation by intermediaries – such as continuing professional development providers, awarding bodies, textbook writers and teachers. Of course, different intermediaries, with their own views of the subject, may emphasise the aspects they favour  There is a tendency for different groups to argue for content but not process.

What is defined in law is intended to provide a shared understanding of science. It also has to serve many purposes, for teaching and assessment, and a recent criticism of the science curriculum (2) is that lack of detail has led to inadequate guidance for these different purposes. Judgements, however, do have to be made about what is the irreducible core of science. This has been a constant struggle, especially because ‘new’ areas of knowledge will continue to appear, leading to a temptation to specify too much content. Alternatively, rigorous inquiry could be at the core – enabling students to tackle a subset of knowledge in depth and to develop skills that will enable them to understand science more broadly.

What is progression in science and how can it be assessed?

Progression in inquiry means, for example, students making more rigorous observations, taking account of more experimental variables, analysing more complex evidence and ensuring that conclusions are more scientifically valid. Poor articulation of this progression can lead to repetition rather then progress.

Assumptions about progress are most exposed in assessment. To support learning, assessments should recognize the complexity of a subject, but current qualifications mostly assess knowledge through written examinations and skills through set practical experiments. These methods of assessment do not therefore reflect the integration of knowledge and inquiry upon which science relies.

Recent critical events in assessment have exposed some of the problems:

  • GCSEs have recently had to be rewritten as, according to Ofqual, there was too great a reliance on multiple-choice questions. (3) They seemed to focus on recall of information; by age 16 this was not considered sufficiently challenging since it reveals nothing about the thinking required to explain processes, ideas and the significance of evidence.
  • Key Stage 2 science tests came under fire because it was thought that a reasonably knowledgeable pupil who had studied no science at all could answer some of the questions based on ‘common sense’. There were also concerns that tests were too susceptible to cramming information. Again, as with GCSE examinations, remembering the facts or making simple deductions was considered inadequate.

A completely different model of assessment underpinned the criteria in Assessing Pupils’ Progress (APP). (4) Instead of specifying knowledge separately and recognising process, the assessment criteria focus on effectiveness in aspects of inquiry, including ‘thinking scientifically’, ‘communicating and collaborating in science’, ‘using investigative approaches’ and ‘working critically with evidence’. This is the best attempt so far to describe progression in these skills. The apparent lack of content in APP initially caused anxiety, but it soon became evident that students could only progress if they used and developed their scientific knowledge. In fact, APP provided a framework within which knowledge was activated and teachers collected more varied and richer evidence of what their students actually knew. This, then, was a way of integrating knowledge and inquiry in assessment.

Techniques for assessment need to be sufficiently sophisticated to support a complex view of learning in science. If scientific inquiry is inextricably linked to knowledge and understanding, then assessment needs to find ways to test this. If not, inadequate assessments will continue to inhibit teaching and learning.

Inquiry and the whole curriculum

The processes of inquiry are not solely the purview of science, with common ground clearly evident in 11 of the 12 subjects in the 2007 National Curriculum (the exception being modern foreign languages). No skills or processes can be learned in a vacuum and, although the kinds of question and the methods of investigation may vary between subjects, students are being asked to undertake similar thinking. Students benefit when connections enable them to develop and apply skills across subjects, since they are not relearning but applying and adjusting their learning to a different context.

The importance of these skills is underlined in the QCA’s Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS), (5) which see ‘independent enquirer’ skills as essential to success in life, learning and work. Even though these are non-statutory, many schools see them as important for their students, and employers are keen for applicants to demonstrate these skills. Pupils, too, have voiced their preference for active, participatory and collaborative learning, as evidence from NFER6 and CUREE7 shows. So, scientific inquiry not only animates learning in science but also contributes to the development of the wider skills needed by all learners.

The National Curriculum seeks to set out what we, the nation, want our young people to know, understand and be able to do. The 2007 version sought to include the necessary knowledge and skills for those who will become scientists or take up science-related work, as well as providing a basis for all students to make sense of the world. Integrating scientific ideas and knowledge with rigorous inquiry methods can promote this, and policy can support this approach. What policy can’t do is ensure that everyone agrees and that all the intermediaries interpret the curriculum in the same way.

With the National Curriculum now potentially moving into a new phase, it is the responsibility of all those with a stake in science teaching to use their judgement and autonomy to make sure inquiry is fully integrated into science learning.

Sue Horner

Dr Sue Horner is Former Director of Curriculum of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. She has worked in national policy roles on curriculum and assessment for 18 years, during which her priority was to find ways to take forward thinking and practice in teaching and learning. She also works in the arts and is on the Board of several national charities.

The original version of this essay appears in the newest issue of our Perspectives on Education series, in which four authors explore these questions from their perspectives as a teacher, an international education expert, a policy maker and a researcher. We’ll be publishing each essay here on the blog, but you can download the full publication for free on the Wellcome Trust website. 


  1. The National Curriculum statutory requirements for key stages 3 and 4. QCA, DCSF; 2007.
  2. Oates T. Could Do Better: Using international comparisons to refine the national curriculum in England. Cambridge Assessment; 2010.
  3. The new GCSE science examinations: Findings from the monitoring of the new GCSE science specifications: 2007 to 2008. Ofqual; 2009.
  4. Department for Children, Schools and Families. Assessing Pupils’ Progress. 2009 [accessed October 2011].
  5. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills. 2008.
  6. Lord P, Jones M. Pupils’ Experiences and Perspectives of the National Curriculum and Assessment. Final report for the research review. National Foundation for Educational Research; 2006.
  7. Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education. Building the Evidence Base. Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency; 2010.
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