Making science fun

Professor Deb McGregor and Principal Lecturer Helen Wilson

Promoting creativity and challenge through primary science teaching

Professor Deb McGregor and Principal Lecturer Helen Wilson are excited about the potential for encouraging children’s creative thinking through their primary science lessons. Now, thanks to their joint work, pupils as young as 5 years old are engaging in open-ended science activities that encourage them to think beyond just learning scientific facts.

As a result of Helen and Deb’s collaboration, Thinking, Doing, Talking Science methodologies have been widely adopted by UK primary schools, as well as boosting science provision for some secondary school pupils in Year 7. They have also directly informed approaches to science teaching adopted by leading national and international institutions, including the Wellcome Trust and Science Oxford.

“That was good. You have to think. That makes science fun!”

Year 6 girl

Making science fun

Primary school classroom

Helen and Deb’s work builds on Helen’s 2002 research for the Primary Science Teaching Trust, which identified a need for a more creative approach to science teaching to encourage deepened thinking to answer big questions, doing to solve practical problems, and talking to engage with scientific ideas.

Working together with Bridget Holligan from Science Oxford, Helen and Deb have developed a range of Thinking, Doing, Talking Science (TDTS) tools and techniques, linked to the National Curriculum.

Their ‘discussion prompts’, including ‘Bright Ideas Time’, ‘Big Questions’, ‘Odd One Out’, ‘What If?’ and ‘Positive Minus Interesting’, are now routinely used in classrooms all over the UK, after trials showed they had potential to accelerate pupils’ attainment by up to five months. Results were particularly encouraging among girls and for pupils with low prior attainment.

Teachers praise the effectiveness of this approach, describing how adopting TDTS strategies boosts their own confidence whilst increasing their pupils’ thinking about science by engaging in thought-provoking practicals and discussions which make science fun.

Widespread impact

To date, Thinking, Doing, Talking Science is estimated to have reached more than 22,000 pupils in 390 schools, thanks to teacher in-service training and resource development funded by the Education Endowment Foundation. Further studies are looking at how a ‘train the trainer’ approach could effectively allow for national roll-out of its methodologies to UK primary schools. Endorsement from the Primary Science Teaching Trust has augmented dissemination across the country.

The TDTS ethos has been credited by the Director of Education and Engagement at Science Oxford as profoundly influencing her work, and contributing towards her being awarded the 2020 Beetlestone Award for excellence in UK STEM education. The Science Oxford Centre – the first indoor-outdoor primary-science-focused centre in the UK – includes spaces and hands-on exhibits that directly adopt the TDTS approach.

Other organisations to see the potential of TDTS include the Wellcome Trust, which adopted and adapted many of its key strategies in developing content for Explorify, its free, online repository of age-related science activities. Almost 19,000 schools worldwide have accessed the platform, including around half of all UK primary schools.

Musical notes mixed with science icons with the words Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics spelling steam

“Before TDTS, a lot of our science involved a demo at the front of the class and a worksheet to follow up. We now have everyone involved in science and there is a real buzz of excitement when the children know there is a science lesson coming.”

Science lead, St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School, Colchester

Ongoing influence

Evidence of the effectiveness of the Thinking, Doing, Talking Science approach was presented at conventions held to inform the development of the Arts Council’s 2020-2030 strategy Let’s Create which has in turn informed the National Curriculum Science Group’s work to develop the future primary Curriculum.

Its methodologies continue to be far-reaching: Helen is now advising on the design of public health interventions through Informed Health Choices, Her research and insights have helped to inform the development and evaluation of educational resources for children and their parents in Norway, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya, enabling them to make evidence-based choices about health treatments.