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An introduction to science investigations: student teachers learning to work on process skills with children aged 4 - 11

Jenny Cumming
University of Sunderland, School of Education and Lifelong Learning, e-mail:

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002


The English National Curriculum for science has four strands. Three of these relate to subject knowledge: biology, chemistry and physics. The fourth strand, that of scientific enquiry, relates to practical skills in science. The emphasis is on the positivist model of investigations as hypothesis-testing, including the manipulation of variables. The research literature relating to the training of primary teachers (with pupils aged 4 - 11) indicates a useful section on students' developing subject knowledge in science but very little on their ability to carry out practical investigations.

Even though students must have studied some science for entry into initial teacher training, they are frequently challenged by the requirement to work on open-ended investigations with young children. Early in their course they begin to address this problem by engaging in a simple group investigation in class. Then they carry out an individual one at home, which is reported in a written assignment. They also have a short school placement, when they must observe a science lesson and also teach one themselves to a group of children.

A review of all this work allows examination of the relationship between students' entry qualifications and their performance on the module. It also provides information about students' response to the module input and the relevance of experiences provided on the school placement.


In following the English National Curriculum it is compulsory to teach primary pupils (children aged five to eleven) how to carry out science investigations (DfEE/QCA, 1999). Associated with this is the directive of the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) (1998) circular that beginning teachers have to demonstrate that they know and understand the processes of planning, carrying out and evaluating scientific investigations. Primary education students must have at least one science General Certificate in Secondary Education (GCSE) grade C or above (or its equivalent) for entry into English initial teacher training courses for children aged five to eleven. Nevertheless they are frequently challenged by the requirement to work on open-ended investigations, believing that their own skills are not up to the task.

What are investigations?

Whereas, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (Allen, 1991), the word investigate has the broad meaning "to enquire into; to study carefully", in current science education literature the word investigation has become more focused. Thus the National Curriculum for England (DfEE/QAA, 1999) identifies ten investigative skills which children should be taught in the context of "collecting evidence by making observations and measurements when trying to answer a question" (DfEE/QAA, 1999: 16). These skills involve planning a fair test, obtaining and presenting evidence, and evaluating the outcome. Furthermore, science investigations are regarded as involving more than practical activities. They incorporate the use of concepts and cognitive processes as well.

Other types of practical work

Investigations are not the only type of practical work to be found in science lessons. For example, Gott and Duggan (1995: 21) identify three others:

The purpose of investigations in the curriculum

The rationale for incorporating investigations into science lessons in the 1960s and '70s reflected the heuristic approach to learning. The pupil was trained to find things out for him/herself, based on a belief in the effectiveness of learning through action as opposed to the passive assimilation of knowledge. However, the heuristic view of learning has fallen out of favour since the realisation that pupils need input from their teachers as well as practical experiences. They cannot be expected to 'discover' complex scientific ideas for themselves without guidance (Gott and Duggan, 1995: 17).

Another purpose for investigations is seen in the constructivist view of learning, where pupils are believed to correct mistaken ideas in response to cognitive conflict (Piaget, 1969). If taught within a constructivist framework, pupils are encouraged to express their ideas about objects and events and then to test them through investigations. It is hoped that pupils will modify their misconceptions in the light of the empirical evidence produced (Jarvis et al., 2001: 10).

A third purpose for investigations is the belief that they will help develop scientific literacy. By engaging in processes similar to those of professional scientists pupils will be better able to understand how science knowledge is created and to take part in debate about scientific issues. However, Jenkins (1996) suggests that the idea that first-hand experience of investigations will develop pupils' understanding of the nature of science is problematic and contentious, while Donelly (2001: 181) notes that "the phrase 'the nature of science', unless carefully qualified, suggests that science can be characterised in some unitary and integrated way". Jenkins argues that "as a component of school science education, it is marked by a variety of broad interpretations, some of which are mutually contradictory, and by a diversity of rationales" (Jenkins 1996: 145). For example, on one hand the description of investigations presented in the English National Curriculum implies that scientists work according to a simple formula, while on the other hand by the final Key Stage pupils should be taught how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence. Even if there were a simple way of describing the processes undertaken by professional scientists, there is no guarantee that they could be replicated by school pupils. Therefore, according to Donelly (2001: 182) much of the work of curriculum developers in the United States, Canada and the UK "elides the distinction between individual/pupil understandings and that displayed by professional scientists". The very notion that learning about the nature of science will result in pupils being more able to engage in decision-making about scientific issues is contested by Eisenhart, Finkel and Marion (1996: 268), who "disagree with the implicit assumption that teaching students key concepts and scientific methods of inquiry will necessarily lead to socially responsible use or to a larger and more diverse citizenry who participate in discussion and debate of scientific issues".

Despite the reservations just described, scientific literacy is seen as a desirable goal. "Science education literature and organisations clearly present that the nature of science is a major, if not the major, goal in science education" (Alters, 1997: 46). This is because "All citizens have a responsibility as well as a right to develop their capacity for making judgements ... and this entails serious engagement with the practices of formal science" (Quicke, 20001: 126).

The place of investigations in the initial teacher training curriculum

Teacher trainers in England have been required to meet the directive of the DfEE (1998) circular, where the inclusion of investigations is justified in terms of scientific literacy: "knowledge and understanding of science and of the ways scientists work can help pupils understand the basis for decisions in an increasingly technological world" (DfEE, 1998: 68). Students must "demonstrate that they know and understand the processes of planning, carrying out and evaluating scientific investigations" (DfEE, 1998 78) as part of their knowledge and understanding of science. As part of their training in effective teaching and assessment methods, students must also be taught "how to decide whether the use of investigative, exploratory or other practical work is the most effective way of meeting [a learning] objective" (DfEE, 1998: 72).

However, the demand for an understanding of the nature of science in the circular is overshadowed by the requirement for a large amount of factual knowledge which must be audited. Burton and Machin (1999: 274) questioned staff from thirty-two teacher training institutions and found that over half admitted to increasing the number of taught hours of subject knowledge, hence reducing teaching time in other areas in response to this directive.

Previous research relating to investigations in initial teacher training

Previous research has addressed three aspects of initial teacher training relevant to students' knowledge and understanding of investigations:


Student conceptions of the nature of science,


Teacher mentors' confidence in supporting students in their teaching of investigations,


Developing students' knowledge and understanding through the experience of carrying out an investigation.

i) Student conceptions of the nature of science

Gustafson and Rowell (1995: 589) note that just as children bring prior knowledge with them into the classroom, so do student teachers. Such knowledge interacts with the new ideas presented to learners, sometimes in unexpected ways. These authors administered an initial questionnaire to twenty-seven pre-service teachers engaged in a four-year, Bachelor of Education programme for primary teaching (children aged five to eleven) in Alberta. All but one considered that children learn science through hands-on physical manipulation and thirteen presented science as knowledge and explanations gained through a process of enquiry. However, although by the end of the programme students were more inclined to identify a number of different ways in which children learn science, they demonstrated little change in their views about the nature of science itself. Believing that knowledge about the material world pre-existed the scientists who 'discovered' it, they had little appreciation of knowledge as a human construct.

In Skamp's (2001) detailed longitudinal study, twelve post-graduate Canadian students were engaged in a two-year, initial teacher training course in Ontario. He found that the number of students believing that a good primary science teacher involves pupils in hands-on activities increased from six to ten. However, only three advocated investigations by the end of the course.

ii) Teacher mentors' confidence in supporting students in their teaching of investigations

Student teachers in initial training have two avenues for professional development. These are higher education departments dedicated to teacher training and school placements. In England, a partnership is expected between the two. For example, a four-year undergraduate course based at a teacher training establishment must include school placements amounting to thirty-two weeks in all. Each school must have a dedicated teacher mentor, trained by the higher education establishment, who is expected to supervise and help students on placement.

This partnership model can work well in secondary schools, where teachers are subject specialists. However, the role of the mentor is more problematic in primary schools because teachers are expected to address all the subjects of the curriculum. This is especially so with regard to science. According to Jarvis and her colleagues, "despite their own limited training in science, some teacher mentors are being required to take on more responsibility for helping trainees teach science effectively" (Jarvis et al., 2001: 7). These workers conducted research in two teacher training establishments in central England. They studied teacher mentor confidence in teaching aspects of primary science. Of sixty-four mentors they found that only fifty-two per cent were confident or very confident in teaching investigative science. The implication is that higher education institutions must provide students with the necessary input.

iii) Developing students' knowledge and understanding through the experience of carrying out an investigation

Throughout their school careers, students will have witnessed a didactic orientation to science instruction. Therefore, "students of teaching see science as a process of discovering what is out there, not as a human process of inventing explanations that work. Likewise, they see learning as a process of acquiring knowledge through discovery", argues Abell (2001: 1096).

In a science methods course for future primary teachers in Indiana, USA, students were encouraged to examine their own science learning as they undertook a six week investigation of the phases of the moon. While keeping a moon journal, noting its shape and position, they moved toward a more scientifically accurate understanding of moon phases and at the same time built their own theories about science teaching and learning. Students also enhanced their own understanding of the nature of science. After the first week, Abell asked students to begin to organise their data and find patterns. She encouraged them to talk to other members of their group about the changes in shape and location of the moon. Then students were expected to make and test predictions. She asked small groups to present the result of their discussions to the larger classroom for consideration in the hope that they would recognise that disagreements may arise during evaluation of the data or theory, but are eventually resolved. Students were asked to invent explanations, saying when they went beyond what they had observed. "Thus we tried to help students see that science was not only empirical, but also relied on the interpretation of evidence and creation of explanations" (Abell, 2001: 1102).

At the end of the unit, participants were asked in what ways they thought the moon investigation represented what science is or the things scientists do. Abell explains that many students made a direct link between the activities of the moon investigation and the activities of scientists. Students were expected to understand that observations are guided by the ideas that scientists bring to an investigation and that although disconfirming observational evidence may lead to theory change, often it is ignored. However, "by the end of the moon investigation students described science as an empirically based activity that involves making predictions, yet most of them seemed to disregard the inventive aspect of science" (Abell, 2001: 1103).

In this review one study (Abell, 2001), provides an account of how primary student teachers might develop their own knowledge and understanding by undertaking an investigation of their own. Of course this does not imply that other teacher training institutions neglect such work. In fact it would be surprising to find an English institution which omits to help trainees carry out investigations. Nevertheless, as yet it has not been reported as the subject of a research project. Even the moon project omits the manipulation of variables and the collection of numerical data, as this would be impossible. Therefore the training of students to carry out such investigations represents an area as yet under-researched.

The study

The work presented here is part of a larger study located in a 'new' university (previously a polytechnic) in the North of England. The focus is on two groups of students training to become primary teachers who were following the same module. They were in their first year, either of a four year undergraduate course or of a two year Post Graduate Certificate in Education.

All primary student teachers at the university take three science modules, which together are designed to help them to meet the requirements of the DfEE (1998) circular for pedagogical knowledge and understanding, effective teaching and assessment methods and knowledge and understanding of science. Each module involves ten three-hour tutor-led sessions incorporating a mixture of theory and practical activities as well as directed personal study and a school placement. A three-hour session is devoted to investigations in each of the three science education modules of the course. Early in the first module, students engage in a simple group investigation in class. Then they have to carry out an individual one at home, to be reported and discussed in a written assignment, which is submitted in the ninth week of the course. After this, they experience a short school placement, when they must observe a science lesson and also teach one themselves to a group of children. However, it is not a requirement that the science lessons observed and taught be investigations. In the final session of the module the marked assignment is returned to the students and all this work is reviewed. It takes place some twelve weeks after the one on investigations.

The review session provides an opportunity to gather data for the research. Two main areas of interest are identified. The first is the students' developing ability to plan, carry out and evaluate investigations and their opportunity to learn about them on school placement. The second is students' understanding of the nature of science and their ability to relate this to debate about scientific issues. Two professional concerns are identified as well. The first is the relationship between students' entry qualifications and their subsequent performance on measures of their understanding of investigations. The second is the contribution of the module to students' developing confidence in carrying out the processes identified in the schools' curriculum (DfEE/QAA, 1999) required for a successful investigation. It is expected that the findings will inform the teaching of the second and third science modules. Therefore the questions for this study are:


Is there a relationship between students' entry qualifications in science and their mark for the assignment on investigations?


Is there a relationship between students' entry qualifications in science and their knowledge test score?


Did their school experience (observation and teaching) provide the opportunity to observe and practice the skills in teaching investigations?


Do students regard their personal experiences to have contributed to their confidence in working with children on their investigations?


Has the first science module resulted in greater confidence in carrying out the processes involved in investigations?


Do students regard themselves able to transfer their knowledge of investigations to the different context of scientific research as reported in the media, that is, do they regard themselves as more scientifically literate?

Data already held by the researcher are:

Further data were collected through a questionnaire (Appendix I). It was administered to the students as part of the review of their learning, during the final session of the module. The session began by returning to students their investigation-based assignments and allowing them to consider their tutor's advice. Then they discussed their school-based experience. It was at this point that they were encouraged to consider their own learning. The questionnaire was designed in part to help them to do this.

As the research involved collating data about individual students, the questionnaires could not be anonymous. Students were given the opportunity to opt out of the research by omitting their name from the questionnaire.

All one hundred and thirty-three undergraduates and twenty-two post graduates on the primary education course were asked to complete the questionnaire.

Generalisation of the findings to other institutions may be limited by consideration of the nature of student intake. In particular, it is known that this university has a wider access policy than many others. One indication of this is the origin of students. Whereas higher education institutions as a whole in the UK admitted eighty-five per cent of students from state schools in 1999, this university admitted ninety-five per cent. Also, whereas higher education institutions as a whole admitted twenty-five per cent of students of working class origin, this university admitted thirty-five per cent. This is in part a reflection of the high proportion of local students and those over the age of twenty-one at the beginning of their undergraduate studies. Therefore, two additional questions were included at the beginning of the questionnaire, designed to determine whether the student lived at home or in lodgings and whether s/he was over twenty-one years of age at the beginning of undergraduate studies. Details of the students' general qualifications on entry (e.g. number of points gained in Advanced Level examinations) were not available for this study.


The findings relate to the one hundred and six undergraduates and eighteen postgraduates who returned signed questionnaires. This constitutes eighty per cent of those students who completed the module.

1. The assignment marks

All the students passed this assignment, their marks exhibiting a normal distribution between the pass mark and a distinction. Statistical associations were sought between the marks and groups of students. This was done by means of the Chi-squared test. GCSE or equivalent grades, an 'A' level pass in a science subject, satisfactory completion of an Access course (for mature students) a science degree on entry and living at home were all tested in this way. Contrary to expectations only one, very weak, statistically significant association could be found. This was that a good pass at GCSE or equivalent had only an association at the .05 level with a good assignment mark.

c 2 = 8.38, df = 2, p<.05.

2. The relationship between entry qualifications and test score

The test scores showed a normal distribution. No significant associations could be found between the scores and groups of students.

3. School experience

The topics of the lessons observed and taught were varied, including aspects of all three of those identified in the National Curriculum. The most commonly observed topics were classifying and sorting materials, the states of matter, forces and electrical circuits. The most commonly taught topics were food and healthy eating, classifying and sorting materials, testing the properties of materials, and forces. Further details are provided in Appendix II.

The type of lesson observed by students was most commonly one of observation and exploration (41%) rather than an investigation involving a fair test (22%). Other lessons observed involved the illustration of a concept (16%) or learning a skill such as how to use a thermometer or a Newton meter (5%). Some lessons did not involve practical work at all (16%), being discussion, sorting pictures or writing up experiments.

The type of lessons taught by students showed a similar distribution. The most common was one of observation and exploration (41%) rather than an investigation involving a fair test (22%). Other lessons taught involved learning a skill of measurement (4%) or another type of lesson, such as sorting pictures or analysing food labels (10%).

4. Contribution of the module to students' confidence in the investigation process

The total possible score for confidence to carry out the different processes of an investigation was thirty-two. At the beginning of the session on investigations the students' average confidence score was twenty-one. This rose to twenty-eight by the end of the session. However, three months later, at the end of the module, this average confidence score had fallen to twenty-five.

5. The contribution of personal experiences to working with children

The majority of students (91%) considered that their personal experiences contributed to their confidence in working with children on investigations.

6. Scientific literacy

Only forty-five per cent of students considered their experience of carrying out investigations helped them evaluate research reported in the media.


The lack of association between qualifications on entry and other factors among groups of students and their marks for the assignment is surprising. Even the achievement of two or three science passes with good grades resulted in only a weak association with a good mark for the assignment. To be sure, factors other than success at school science, such as motivation and appropriate time-planning, may have had a bearing on students' work on investigations. However, if experience in producing assignments were a factor, then it would be expected that the post-graduate students would have gained the best marks.

Perhaps even more surprising is the lack of association between students' GCSE grades and their score on the knowledge test. It might have been assumed that even if good grades in school science had not prepared a student particularly well for investigations it would surely have had a significant association with factual knowledge.

Due to the access policy described above, caution should be exercised when attempting to generalise these findings to other higher education institutions. However, it is reassuring that students who have remained at home for their studies and those mature students who have entered through Access courses do not appear to have been disadvantaged.

It was not possible to demand that students observe and teach a science lesson involving an investigation. However, they were urged to teach one that involved the children in practical work. With very few exceptions they were able to do this.

It is to be expected that the initial surge of confidence in investigations should be expressed at the end of the session which provided experience and explanation of them. Similarly, it is to be expected that some of that confidence should have fallen away three months later. However, there is a gain in confidence to be seen overall by the end of the module. It is certainly gratifying that nearly all the students considered that their experiences contributed to their confidence in working with children on investigations.

It is of concern that less than half of the students considered their experience of investigations had improved their own scientific literacy. The message here seems to be that a project such as the study of the moon described by Abell (2001) would be beneficial. Unfortunately, the time-consuming demands made by government initiatives makes it unlikely that future courses will be able to accommodate such work.

The progress of these students will be followed through further science education modules as the study progresses.

Correspondence: University of Sunderland, School of Education and Lifelong Learning, Hammerton Hall, Gray Road, Sunderland SR2 8JB, UK.


Abell, S. (2001) 'That's What Scientists Have to Do: Preservice Elementary Teachers' Conceptions of the Nature of Science During a Moon Investigation' International Journal of Science Education 23(11)1095-1109.

Allen, R. E. (1991) (ed.) The Concise Oxford Dictionary Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Alters, B. J. (1997) 'Whose Nature of Science?' Journal of Research in Science Teaching 34(1): 39-55.

Burton, N. and Machin, J. (1999) 'Predicting the Impact of the DfEE Circular 4/98 for Primary Science Initial Teacher Education in England and Wales' Journal of Further and Higher Education 23(2): 269-275.

Department for Education and Employment (1998) Teaching: High Status, High Standards Circular 4/98: Requirements for Courses of Initial Teacher Training London: DfEE.

Department for Education and Employment/Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (1999) The National Curriculum for England: Science London: DfEE/QCA.

Donelly, J. (2001) 'Contested Terrain or Unified Project? 'The Nature of Science" in the National Curriculum for England and Wales' International Journal of Science Education 23(2): 181-195.

Eisenhart, M., Finkel, E. and Marion, S. F. (1996) 'Creating the Conditions for Scientific Literacy: A Re-Examination' American Educational Research Journal 33(2): 261-296.

Gott, R. and Duggan, S. (1995) Investigative Work in the Science Curriculum Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Gustafson, B. J. and Rowell, P. M. (1995) 'Elementary Preservice Teachers: Constructing Conceptions About Learning Science, Teaching Science and the Nature of Science' International Journal of Science Education 17(5): 589-605.

Jarvis, T., McKeon, F. Coates, D. and Vause, J. (2001) 'Beyond Generic Mentoring: Helping Trainee Teachers to Teach Primary Science' Research in Science and Technological Education 19(1): 5-23.

Jenkins, E. W. (1996) 'The 'Nature of Science' as a Curriculum Component' Journal of Curriculum Studies 28(2): 137-150.

Piaget, J. (1969) 'Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child' in P. Light, S. Sheldon and M. Woodhead (1991) (eds.) Learning to Think London and New York: Open University.

Skamp, K. (2001) 'A Longitudinal Study of the Influences of Primary and Secondary school, University and Practicum on Student Teachers' Images of Effective Primary Science Practice' International Journal of Science Education 23(3): 227-245.

Woodward, W. (2001) 'Ex-Polytechnics Failing to Recruit State School Students' The Guardian Newspaper19.12.2002: 10.

Appendix I: Investigation Questionnaire



Where you are given a choice, please circle the correct answer to the following questions:

1. Were you aged 21 or over when you started your degree course? Yes/No

2. Do you live at home (as opposed to student hall or lodgings)? Yes/No

3. Did you enjoy carrying out your science investigation? Yes/No

4. About how long did it take?

5. Here is a similar checklist to the one you completed in Session 2. Complete it in the light of your experience, rating yourself on a scale of 4 (very confident) to 1 (not confident):

I am confident to:


find out relevant scientific theory in preparation for an investigation


construct questions to which I can find an answer using a variety of practical methods


distinguish between an hypothesis, a prediction and a guess


identify the three types of variable involved in an investigation


design safe experiments using appropriate apparatus


use suitable measuring equipment to obtain accurate data


decide when it is appropriate to take repeated measures


display results in appropriate charts and line graphs


analyse and interpret evidence


evaluate the outcomes of an investigation in terms of the evidence obtained and the original hypothesis


6. What were the main difficulties you encountered with your own investigation?


7. On your school placement you were asked to teach a practical science lesson you had planned yourself. Which of the following types of practical work do you think best describe it?

a) Fair testing

c) Illustration of a concept

b) Observation & exploration

d) Skill development (e.g. measuring)

e) Another type of lesson


8. You were also asked to observe a science lesson. Which of the following types of practical work do you think best describe it?

a) Fair testing

c) Illustration of a concept

b) Observation & exploration

d) Skill development (e.g. measuring)

e) Another type of lesson


9. Has your personal experience so far made you more confident to work with children on their investigations? Yes/No


10. What do you think is the most challenging aspect of doing this sort of work with children?


11. In Semester 2 you will have another session on investigations. What aspect(s) would you like to go through in more detail next time?


12. Do you think your own experience of carrying out investigations has helped you to evaluate research reported in the media? Yes/No


Appendix II School experiences




Food groups &/or healthy eating



Care of teeth



Effect of exercise e.g. on pulse



Human similarities & differences, body parts



Animals - sort pictures



The senses



Structure of plants



Growth of plants



Seed dispersal



The weather



Classifying and sorting materials



Separating materials



Changing materials



Testing materials (e.g. waterproofness)



States of matter



Evaporation &/or water cycle



Measuring temperature



Earth & space



Experiencing &/or measuring forces



Light & shadows






Electrical circuits



Uses of electricity & safety






Floating & sinking



Write up experiment



This document was added to the Education-line database on 16 January 2003