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Engaging school students in Science



Are teachers adequately prepared to teach students how to reason and generate ideas in the field of science? Deakin University’s Russell Tytler explores the gaps in the curriculum.

Over the past decade there has been growing concern about the levels of engagement with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects by Australian students (Chubb).

The fact that Australia has been slipping down the rankings in international testing such as PISA and TIMSS (Thomson, 2016) has given bite to these concerns, alongside figures showing decreasing participation in post-compulsory physical Science and Mathematics (Marginson et al., 2014). There is also a projected shortfall of the STEM skills needed to create and maintain wealth in a modern society. The concerns are therefore a real-world problem.

There are however cogent reasons, beyond the economics, for being concerned about students becoming disengaged with Mathematics and Science. They are major systems of thought that underpin many of the skills and understandings needed to function as literate citizens in contemporary society.

The problem-solving capabilities, critical reasoning and questioning that underpin the pursuit of understanding the natural world are of value not just in scientific research and development, but in many occupations and in everyday life.

The recent National Assessment Program Science literacy results for Australian Year 6 students (ACARA, 2017) showed on the one hand a majority of students are interested in studying Science and learning new things, but on the other hand there has been a pattern of stagnation in inquiry skills since 2006. It comes despite considerable policy emphasis and resource support over the last two decades. So what can we do better to engage students in quality Science thinking?


At a system level, primary Science has always suffered, along with other curriculum areas, as a poor cousin to literacy and numeracy as fundamental concerns.

This has meant that time devoted to Science has traditionally been well below that recommended (Crook & Wilson, 2015). It has meant that often, Science has been ‘integrated out’ of the curriculum. A lack of teacher enthusiasm for Science is commonly held to be due to a lack of confidence and competence, with few primary teachers having strong Science backgrounds or a “feeling” for Science. Personally I think this argument is simplistic.

I think teachers make choices about classroom content based on what ideas and skills are important for children and what they can offer by way of support for reasoning and learning, and without a feeling for Science, they tend to focus elsewhere. They need to see, and feel the excitement and payoffs of Science in children’s lives.

So how can we support teachers to recognise the value of Science for children’s developing thinking, and the richness of learning associated with the subject? There is evidence that primary science teachers focus on exploratory activities that work (Appleton, 2002), such as in the Primary Connections 5E inquiry model, but tend to stop short of orchestrating the deeper levels of reasoning and understanding that really engage children with the literacies of Science.

This involves experimenting, modelling, discussion, and explanatory writing (Skamp & Peers, 2012).

Engagement is often taken to indicate busy absorption in an activity. I argue that what we need is engagement with the quality thinking that represents the specific forms of reasoning in Science – the asking of new questions, the search for explanation, the argument from evidence, and the creation and mastery of representations and models that make sense of the world. We want children to experience the deeper satisfaction that comes from engagement with ideas.


Teachers need adequate resources and substantial support to foster engagement in the subject. This means modelling classroom pedagogies that engage students in substantial investigation, discussion and representation.

Over a number of projects we have found students have the appropriate tools to learn when there is a Science leader/enthusiast in the school, trained to support teachers to plan and implement coherent learning sequences. Recently, the Victorian Department of Education and Training Victoria has been running an initiative with Science (and Mathematics) specialists, providing training and time to lead Science in their schools (Campbell & Chittleborough, 2014).

Research into the actions of these specialists in establishing Science as a school priority shows that the pathway to success is not straightforward, with schools harnessing a range of strategies to bring teachers on board. For many schools, the adoption of Primary Connections curriculum resources provided the impetus for planning a more comprehensive program. For some, this was a first step following which they injected their own contexts and sequences into the curriculum. Often the specialist began by taking Science lessons, then gradually withdrawing to a modelling and planning support role. Some schools built a renewed Science program around special projects, such as the monitoring and modification of local wetlands, or around special events such as family Science nights, or competitions. For some, links with local scientists or industries provided the necessary support, as well as the role-modelling of scientific processes (Tytler, Symington & Smith, 2011; Cripps Clark, Tytler, & Symington, 2014; Tytler et al., 2015).
Schools that established sustainable practices invariably had strong support from the leadership team. As a result, many schools are self-proclaimed STEM schools, with leadership driving the development of a vision that encompasses strong professional learning support for teachers to develop students’ scientific literacy. Parents can also play a role in enhancing the Science program. Those who work across the various STEM sectors can offer expertise for both teachers and students.


I have argued that the lack of progress in student engagement with deeper Science learning relates to a culture in primary schools where Science has not traditionally been a priority, and insufficient time and energy has been devoted to the subject. To turn this around, teachers need support from colleagues who are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and committed to a strong Science program. Leadership support is essential. So what approaches to teaching and learning are needed?

For the past few decades, scientific literacy has been promoted as the most important facet of Science education. It marks a shift from the previous focus of teaching budding Science professionals, to a concern instead for the education of citizens to participate in, understand and make decisions about Science in their lives (Fensham, 1985). The focus has included understanding how Science works to establish knowledge, what scientists do, as well as the knowledge of key concepts.

There have been criticism of some versions of scientific literacy that emphasise interpretation of science in the media or to inform health decisions – rather than ‘doing’ science. But ‘doing’ has always had a strong place in the curriculum.

Recently, there has been a renewed emphasis in Australia and elsewhere on Science, with other subjects, serving a general capabilities agenda, including critical and creative thinking and collaborative reasoning.

It has been argued that Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects have an important role to play in this area, and this underpins the push for the inclusion of engineering/technology design and digital literacies in an authentic-problem-focused STEM curriculum (English, 2016).

In a recent article co-authored in The Conversation (Tytler & Prain, 2017), I argued that the National Assessment Program Science literacy should be expanded to include these critical and creative reasoning elements, to encourage the involvement of students in meaningful problem-solving and imaginative reasoning that reflects the way scientists create knowledge.


In our own research, we have developed a guided inquiry approach to Science that reflects contemporary understandings of the way that scientists collaboratively invent and refine multi-modal representational systems (ie figures, diagrams, visual resources) (Latour, 1999; Nersessian, 2008) to build and apply new knowledge. In this approach (Tytler, Prain, Hubber & Waldrip, 2013), students are strategically challenged to draw, construct models, role play or generate animations to explain phenomena, and then under the guidance of the teacher to discuss and refine these.

We have found that student engagement with the tasks and with ideas is enhanced, teachers attest that class discussion is enriched, and test results show considerable knowledge gains (Tytler & Hubber, 2016).

Underpinning our work is a view of student learning as an induction into the multimodal disciplinary literacies of Science – the ways of speaking, writing and representing that characterise scientific reasoning (Tytler, Prain & Hubber, in press).
As an example, we recently worked with Grade 5/6 teachers at Wenona School, in North Sydney, to develop approaches to teaching about material properties and electricity. Investigative approaches through a range of variables were modelled before students designed tests to compare consumer products.

Food colouring reportIn Figure 1 on the left, students reported on an experiment to investigate the effect of temperature on the spread of food colouring. The class had discussed particle ideas and brainstormed views about the mechanism of dissolving, and about the structure of the report. Notice the emphasis on explanation and modelling through visual representation. This is distinct from traditional ‘aim, method, results, conclusion’ which do not encourage imaginative speculation or generation of explanatory ideas.

A further example of the approach involved a Year 5/6 unit on animals in the school ground where students investigated invertebrate classification, structure and function and adaptation. Teachers structured the tasks to challenge students to develop representations of animal diversity, habitat and adaptive behaviours.

Students became absorbed in explorations of invertebrates, becoming an expert in classification and in behaviour, and often independently explored animals outside of class time. One activity involved students modelling the movement of a chosen animal.

Academics from the US, Richard Lehrer and Leona Schauble, have been demonstrating significant learning advantage in primary school Science and Mathematics through children inventing representational systems in a guided classroom environment. An example of their work is a unit on fast plants in which children became absorbed in tracking patterns of growth through representing it visually, and then mathematically.


In designing units of work that engage students with the reasoning and idea generation characteristic of Science, I argue that these ‘representational challenges’ are true to the knowledge generation processes of scientists, and the multimodal literacies underpinning scientific thinking. Imaginative work in STEM does not only reside with technology design, but needs to be expressed through the way we challenge students to explore phenomena and generate and negotiate explanations.
Engaging students in authentic instances of thinking and working scientifically may involve them working on real-life problems such as exploring and protecting local environments, evaluating consumer products, working with school gardens, or designing go-carts in an engineering competition.

It can just as well, however, involve them becoming engrossed in exploring intrinsically interesting phenomena and generating representational explanatory systems.

The key is to structure and harness children’s ideas towards genuinely imaginative ends, rather than presenting pre-determined conclusions. Teacher knowledge and expert guidance is key.


Russell Tytler is Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Science Education at Deakin University. His research covers student learning and reasoning in Science, and   extends to pedagogy and teacher and school change. He researches and writes on student engagement with Science  and Mathematics, school-community partnerships and STEM curriculum policy.