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Developing primary teachers' confidence in using constructivist approaches in science: the impact on children's understanding and attainment

Joyce Porter, Neil Hall, and Peter Harwood
Centre for Science Education, Liverpool John Moores University

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 
11-13 September 2003


The impact of a long-term professional development project is analysed. Teachers worked alongside researchers in order to adopt constructivist approaches to science teaching. Data sources included field-notes, interviews and discussions with teachers, classroom observations and video recordings. The data indicate that teachers became much more confident in their subject knowledge, in managing questions and discussion, and in teaching science constructively.

Before children start formal schooling, they are naturally curious and creative in making sense of the world around them and have already formulated ideas about how certain phenomena happen and how things work. It is essential that their first experience of science in school should build on this early learning by being positive and exciting as well as providing a constructive basis to develop knowledge and understanding, since it will influence their long-term attitudes and attainment.

Extensive research into children's ideas about science concepts such as plant growth, matter, forces and electricity has been carried out and effectively summarised by Driver, Guesne and Tiberghien (1985) and Driver, Squires, Rushworth and Wood Robinson (1994). Much of this work emphasised a constructivist view of learning in which children's initial ideas, alternative frameworks or misconceptions are explored and a programme of conceptual change initiated. The Children's Learning in Science project (Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education, University of Leeds, 1987) was designed to promote constructivism in the teaching of secondary school science and provided trial materials and workshops (Children's Learning in Science project CLIS, 1990), which could be used by teachers. The project and subsequent work at Leeds on children's conceptual understanding of science promoted discussion as to how children's ideas could be moved towards accepted science concepts and informed practice by collaborative work with teachers trying the teaching approaches in their classrooms. Asoko, (1996). At the primary school level, important research on children's conceptual ideas was carried out by the SPACE project (Science Processes and Concept Exploration) in the 1990's by groups in Liverpool and King's College. (SPACE research reports, 1990, 1991, 1992); this led to the development of the Nuffield Primary Science materials (1994). However, the focus of this research was the exploration of children's ideas and the construction of activities, which would challenge their ideas and move their learning forward. The training of teachers to implement the approach was not part of the SPACE project although it was obvious that the teachers involved would start to use the ideas in their own classrooms. However, using research findings about children's ideas to design effective teaching strategies to overcome any misconceptions and to encourage teachers to use these approaches is not easy, as Asoko (2002) acknowledges.

Harlen (1996) suggests the teacher has a pivotal role in the success of any teaching and learning approach particularly that of constructivism. The teacher must establish a positive and supportive classroom environment where the children feel free to ask and answer open questions and to take part in discussions.

This paper presents evidence that encouraging teachers to adopt constructivist approaches has led to a improvement in their confidence in teaching science and has improved children's attainment. A second paper will examine, in detail, the evidence that this impacted on children's understanding in science. For this investigation, we have defined the constructivist approach as one in which teachers explore children's ideas extensively and then plan learning activities which challenge these ideas, with the aim of moving the children's understanding forward to a more accepted scientific view. Within this broad constructivist approach, strategies were integrated to promote language and social interaction as advocated by Hodson (1998) as these were both significant factors in the schools. The creation of a positive climate in the classroom so as to influence the affective domain (Woolnough, 1998) was crucial in involving and motivating the children .

Primary school teachers, who often have little knowledge of science beyond GCSE level, can only implement constructivist teaching effectively if their own subject knowledge is secure enough to recognise the scientific and unscientific nature of children's ideas, and to think creatively about the processes involved in challenging these ideas. There have been limited in-service opportunities, which encourage primary teachers to develop their conceptual understanding in science using constructivist approaches, and associated research, which investigates whether their thinking has changed as a result. One exception was the work of Kruger and Summers (1994) who adopted a constructivist approach in their subject knowledge workshops with primary teachers. Their longitudinal study examined the development of 53 primary school teachers understanding of scientific concepts over a two year period following a short burst of in-service training. They found that well designed in-service training could improve primary teachers' understanding of science concepts, but some teachers retained misconceptions and some developed new misconceptions from other teachers. Ritchie (1995) also found that some teachers were influenced by the misconceptions held by other teachers during in-service courses and modified their understanding of scientific concepts accordingly. This demonstrates the problems associated with short periods of in-service training.



The aim of this research was to investigate how the implementation of a social constructivist approach to science teaching, through a programme of professional development, the main features of which were regular topic based workshops and extensive classroom support, impacted on teachers' classroom practice and whether this improved the understanding and attainment of the classes involved.

This study aimed to address some of the implications raised by Kruger and Summers (1994), they recognised that developing primary teachers' understanding of science is often a long and difficult process and it requires support as teachers attempt to use their newly acquired knowledge and approaches in teaching. The project was carried out over a period of two years, and a member of the research team of six, consisting of experienced teachers, science advisers and higher education researchers, acted as "staff development specialists" (Joyce and Showers, 1988). The researchers had a high level of competence in science teaching, they were comfortable with the theory of social constructivism, they were able to provide demonstration lessons, and help teachers sustain its use in the classroom.

The project involved a sample of 20 primary schools in a socially deprived area of the North West of England. The schools were selected because they were enthusiastic about the opportunity to improve the quality of science teaching in their schools and they were already working as an effective cluster together with their local partner secondary schools, a further aim of the project being to promote phase liaison. The primary schools were linked to their partner secondary schools and joint twilight sessions were held once a half term; these focussed on a particular subject area, for example, forces. All primary and secondary teachers worked together to explore subject pedagogical knowledge, investigative work and their approaches to teaching and learning. (Bishop and Denley, 2003). However, the key focus of the project involved class teachers working alongside members of the research team on a regular basis (typically, one half day a week over the two year period):

i) Phase 1 of the research involved the researcher working with 1 year 5 or year 6 class in order to explore the impact of the project on the children's attainment in Key Stage 2 SATs tests.

ii) Phase 2 involved the researcher and the teacher from the school working with other colleagues in the school in order to disseminate new practice.

Field notes were recorded in two contexts:

1. Every two weeks, the researcher observed a one-hour science lesson using a schedule developed from that used by Wragg. (1993). The schedule focussed on the nature and quality of questions used in the classroom and the discourse between pupils and teacher and the pupils themselves.

2. Unstructured interviews to discuss the observed lesson and to plan for the next lesson.

This pattern of data collection was extended for two schools, where there were significant weaknesses in science teaching identified by their recent OFSTED reports and lower than average Key Stage 2 SATs results compared to other schools in the area with similar socio-economic indicators. In these two schools, structured interviews with teachers and video recordings of lessons were used to examine in detail the developments in the science teaching.

The main purpose of the interviews was to ascertain teacher's background subject knowledge, to explore how the relationship with the researcher developed, to detail the techniques they now use to promote discussion and the outline of a typical lesson, and the impact on their confidence in teaching science and on their pupils' learning.

The video recordings were transcribed and analysed by individual researchers within the team to identify elements of good practice, in respect of:

1. the climate of the classroom

2. the use of appropriate activities to explore children's ideas and stimulate discussion

3. the development of questioning and discussion to develop children's ideas and consider the evidence

4. giving children the opportunity to apply their ideas in different contexts.

The research team then discussed each episode to agree a common interpretation consistent with the evidence.


In classical experimental design, two similar age classes from the same school are chosen, one is subject to intervention and one is not: pre and post tests are administered and the performance of the two groups are compared. It was not possible to use this design here as the primary schools were small and only had one class in each age range. Comparing similar age classes between project schools and with other non-project schools proved problematic since there would be a complete lack of randomisation and little confidence that the classes compared would be equivalent. In view of this, it was decided to analyse the project classes' facility values with national facility values. Such a comparison would involve examining SATs data, and for each item in the test comparing the project classes with the national average in terms of the percentage of pupils who answered the item correctly. Such a comparison was undertaken.


  1. Creating a positive classroom climate

Before the project, many of the teachers operated a transmission style of teaching:

"As a year 6 teacher, my primary concern when teaching science, was to ensure that the children had enough information, across a range of topics, to be able to tackle a variety of Key Stage 2 SATs questions. This was achieved simply by "chalk and talk teaching", where I gave the children the information they required and they learnt it in rote fashion."

The teacher would ask one or two of the children to put forward their ideas, but generally he used closed questions, which were expected to generate the correct factual response. Teachers admitted that they used this approach because they lacked confidence in their own scientific knowledge and were afraid of opening up class discussions, which might reveal their shortcomings.

During and after the project, teachers demonstrated that they had changed the climate in their classrooms: they encouraged all children to make predictions and join in discussions, as in the following extract. The children had filtered off sand from a salt/sand mixture and had then left the salt solutions in various points of the room for several days

T: I want you to tell me what you think has happened to the beakers with the salt dissolved in water which we left round the room. Kayley, what would you expect to happen, (then, to the class) this is what you think there are no rights or wrongs, it's what you think would happen

Kayley: It would have evaporated

T: What's it, the salt

Kayley: Miss, the water

T: Who agrees with Kayley, that that's what will happen (show of hands). Are you not sure, Sarah?

Sarah: I think it will evaporate, Miss

The teacher has reminded the class that she expects them all to contribute to the discussion, there are no "right or wrong" answers. Over a period of time, the teacher has established a non -threatening learning environment in the classroom, an essential feature of the constructivist approach if children are going to reveal their own ideas in front of the teacher and the peers (Bentley and Watts, 1985). A year 6 teacher describes how she created such an atmosphere in her classroom:

"We established a climate where all were expected to contribute, it wasn't OK to sit back and we employed strategies the children enjoyed. All contributions were welcomed.... all contributions.... and that was understood, it took time but that's the way of working, the ethos of the classroom anyway.... And the questions I used, whilst being open, were also differentiated in terms of where people were. Ideas were never dismissed."

She has provided an atmosphere of warmth and trust, which has removed the necessity for pupils to give "the right answer" and created a climate conducive to hypotheses making, to testing hypotheses against the available evidence, to supporting scientific discussion and aiding conceptual development.

Through open discussion the teacher goes from pupil to pupil to probe their scientific ideas and to move the conversation forward. This is illustrated by the next extract, which is part of the same discussion.

T: Where has the water gone?

Tony: It's gone into the other beaker (points to another groups' beaker)

T: So where has the water out of the other beaker gone, have you lost some, lads?

Teacher checks with the other group's results: You've lost 20mls so where's their water gone Tony (Tony shakes his head) T: OK, that's fine, Tony

In this supportive atmosphere, even the weaker pupils such as Tony feel able to express their ideas. Tony has revealed, surprisingly, that he thinks the water has moved from his beaker into another group's beaker. His alternative idea demonstrates the difficulty children have in understanding the process of evaporation: previous research has shown that children have even suggested holes or cracks in beakers/trough to explain where the water has gone (Russell and Watt, 1990). The teacher tries to help Tony consider the evidence, if his group's water has gone into the other beaker, why has the level of water in the other beaker also gone down?

Before involvement in the project, the teacher would have considered this idea as simply wrong, or even bizarre, but she makes no judgemental comments and accepts what Tony has said. After further comments from the whole class, she comes back to Tony and includes him in further discussion.

  1. Providing activities for exploration and involvement to find out children's ideas

Before their involvement in the project, some teachers found it difficult to devise ideas for teaching activities, they often relied on material from a published resource, reflecting their lack of knowledge and confidence (Asoko, 1999) but did not realise why the activity was important, how it fitted in with the overall learning objectives for a unit of work or how it could be used to develop children's understanding. Teachers are now able to present children with experiences which find out and challenge their existing ideas, illustrated by the following extract: the children had been able to observe shiny and dull materials and classify these. A significant number were unable to make the connection between the shiny materials and reflection of light. The children were taken in small groups to examine three identical cardboard cats (one white, one black and one covered with aluminium foil) in a completely dark store cupboard.

T: Will you be able to see the cats if we close the door and put the light out?

Jane: Yes, we will be able to see the shiny cat.

T: (to group): Do you agree?

Group: Yes, miss.

T: Why will you be able to see the shiny cat?

Tony: The light from our eyes will help us to see the shiny cat best.

Leanne: It is shiny

Tom: It gives out light

T: Does that mean light comes from your eyes, then what?

Tony: It bounces off the shiny cat and comes back into our eyes.

The children's ideas show that from their experiences, they know that if you close your eyes the light stops, a simplistic notion of seeing which is consistent with many children's misconceptions or alternative frameworks. Although the children had successfully completed a number of activities on light sources and shiny/dull surfaces, they were unable to apply their knowledge to a new situation.

Teachers are now choosing activities and putting them in contexts which are appropriate for engaging pupils in genuine discourse (Watts, 2002)

  1. Creating opportunities for children to discuss and reflect on the evidence.

Initially, many teachers felt that they must limit the time available for classroom discussion because of the need to cover all aspects of the National Curriculum in preparation for key stage 2 tests, " I felt pressurised in terms of content and delivery and I didn't always give the children time." As the project progressed, they recognised that as children become older, "their ideas may be constructed by social and educational interactions as well as their own thinking" (Harlen, 2000, p24). They created opportunities for children and teachers to share ideas and to reflect on these, as in the following extract:

Children have been working on reversible changes, dissolving salt in water and evaporating off the water, and discussing other reversible changes such as melting, freezing, boiling and condensing. The teacher is about to challenge their ideas by burning toast.

T: What did you say would happen to a solid when it was heated?

Terry: It'll melt.

T: Now, I am going to make some toast to go with my cup of tea this morning. So, I will put this solid into the toaster and wait for it to melt.

Liam: It'll burn.

T: Terry, do you still apply that principle?

Terry: Not with all solids

T: But you said that solids will melt if you heat them to form a liquid - I know that is not exactly what you meant .... Would you like to change your conclusions or predict what will happen to the toast? Terry: The heat will make it go hard.

(The teacher then asks other children for their ideas)

Children: It will change colour. It will get smaller: It will get crispy

(The toast is allowed to burn)

T: Let us think it scientifically, has there been a change?

Children: Yes

T: Has it changed from a solid to a liquid?

Children: No

T: Has it changed at all, how has it changed?

Dale: Shape, it's gone smaller

T: I haven't got any evidence of that. I'd need evidence - you would have to suggest how I could find out it's gone smaller?

(Dale says to measure it before and after)

Kevin: Colour

T: Colour has changed, why has the colour changed and what's that horrible smell

Kevin: You burnt it

T: Put that in science terms, what does I burnt it, mean?

Steve: You've heated it too much

T: The bread has been heated and something new has been produced.

Terry: Miss, its changed it to a different solid.

T: Do you know what it is that has been produced?

Carl: Toast

T: Toast OK. The bread is burnt on top; something new has been produced (discussion about the properties have changed due to the new material being formed)

T: Can I just tell you that this is carbon that's been produced on the bread? That's the black stuff; the burnt bread produces a new material called Carbon.

The pupil, Terry, over generalised in his initial statement, so the teacher used this to make the point that scientific ideas need to be precise. Initially the teacher listened to Terry's answer about all solids melting, linked it to the next activity, making toast and used the next question to challenge his hypothesis.

She then used the incident to highlight the introduction of a second type of change, an irreversible change. Reversible changes are not always possible, so the teacher needs this counter example to take the learning process further.

The teacher has reinforced the children's understanding of reversible changes, and now has challenged them with an example does not fit with the previous examples of water and chocolate, generating cognitive conflict. The teacher needs to have an input here because that is needed to help them with their discussion about irreversible changes. They cannot hypothesise what the science is because they are entering a new area of science, that is their current scientific knowledge is limited and needs to be extended here by the teacher; they have a limited framework, since they cannot express the new ideas in terms of their existing knowledge about change. This is an example of where the teacher does have to be the provider of knowledge, but it is presented in stages so she scaffolds the children's thinking until they become secure with the new idea.

Teachers now report, " I give the children real time to think about things, to share their own concepts, their own understanding so the children always have the opportunity to say what do we do now... what do we think will happen ... to comment on what they observe"

These examples demonstrate that the teacher is aware of the essential role of language in science, the "talk of science" provides the conceptual tools for "thinking about science" (Leach and Scott , 2000). In listening to the responses put forward by other members of the class and to the teacher, each individual learner starts to relate the talk to their existing ideas, their previous experiences and reflect on their thinking.

  1. Provide opportunities for children to use new ideas in other situations.

In her recent book, Harlen (2000, p13) has described children's learning in science: "start from the 'small' ideas and build upwards so that at each point the ideas are understood in terms of real experience". Primary science can then begin to enable children to make links between their experiences and build bigger ideas. Now that teachers are encouraging children to discuss and reflect on their experiences and evidence, this is beginning to happen.

Pupil, without prompting, demonstrates an advance in his conceptual understanding, from the processes being discussed re evaporation of salt/water mixtures, to the water cycle

T: Yes Terry

Terry: Miss you know when the sea evaporates miss the water vapour goes into the air and the higher it gets the colder it gets, it forms clouds and. and the salt, it can't evaporate so it stays down in the sea and when there is too much... water vapour it'll turn back into water and form a cloud so it rains.

Praise from teacher for Terry linking knowledge of water cycle to investigation in the classroom.

The pupil relates the class work to the world of science outside the classroom, and also transfers knowledge from one scientific topic to another.

This application to another topic or to a situation outside the classroom demonstrates a good understanding of the scientific constructs underpinning the topic under discussion. In discussing the water cycle what happens to the salt in the sea is not normally considered but Terry has inferred this from his investigation and has restructured his knowledge to contain a wider and more coherent set of ideas. The teacher congratulates the pupil on making this link, and in doing so reinforces an important goal and sets a high expectation for all pupils in the class. Encouraging the children to question, debate and relate ideas is developing their conceptual understanding.

  1. Summary of teachers' questioning practice

Analysis of the videotapes showed that the teachers were very positive in using tone of voice, interest and a range of strategies to enable all children to participate in discussions relating to various scientific phenomena. Teachers were encouraging children to take part in the social aspects of discussion: they made children think by asking them open questions and encouraged them to listen and respond to each other's views.

The annotation of the transcripts showed that teachers were also promoting cognitive aspects of discussion encouraging children to think about scientific ideas, to reflect on the evidence and challenge their hypotheses consistent with sound constructivist teaching.


Some specific items taken from National Key Stage 2 tests are shown in Table 1. (Appendix). For each item, the national facility value is given, as are the percentages of pupils achieving success in this item in two of the project's schools. A description of the item is provided, as is an explanation for the scores obtained in the two schools. These items have been chosen to reflect differences between the national scores, scores in School A and scores in School B. For example, in B6c (test B, item 6, part c) a child is using a homemade device to measure mass. The question was about gravity, with 22% of pupils obtaining the correct answer nationally. In the project schools 20% of pupils from School B were correct (about average), but 54% of pupils were correct in School A. The discussion cell in the table explains these differences.

There was little consistency in differences between the national scores and the schools' scores, or one school's scores and another, in the case of those questions, which were recall-based. It must be borne in mind though that the project schools had much lower CAT scores than the national average, so pupils in these schools are doing well even to equal that national average. However, in questions requiring application, and particularly in questions requiring interpretation of more than one set of data, the project schools perform well above the national average.


This paper has described the evidence gathered and educational outcomes of a project designed to promote excellence in primary science. Teachers have developed their range of teaching strategies in science. They have moved from a transmission pedagogy of teaching dominated by content, closed questioning, limited discussion and practical experiences to a constructivist pedagogy which explores and builds on children's existing ideas and frameworks using challenging practical experiences, open questioning and discussion. Teachers now teach science with confidence. The programme of professional development with the long-term classroom support of a science 'expert' was instrumental in the process of change.

It has been shown that, as a result of the change in teaching pedagogy, pupils have increased their knowledge of science, achieving at levels above what one would expect given the distribution of their CAT scores. A detailed comparison of pupils' performance in Key Stage 2 tests against national performance showed that in many test items, the pupils from the project schools scored higher marks than the national average. The pupils did not achieve better marks because of rigorous coaching before the tests but because of the way they were taught. A more detailed analysis of the responses to certain questions showed that the pupils performed markedly better to those questions requiring more than factual answers, questions which required thinking to analyse and interpret the data.

It is important to consider how teachers can be offered this type of support, when there is now little local authority INSET in primary science. Surely, it places demands on the key role of the science co-ordinator, assuming their science background is strong, in having time to monitor and develop the subject and conceptual knowledge of colleagues. In these schools, time was made available so many of the teachers originally involved worked with other teachers and extended the approaches throughout their school.


The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Astra-Zeneca Science Teaching Trust, who provided funding for the project, "Promoting Excellence in Primary Science".











A photograph showed Saida weighing masses using a home-made forcemeter made with an elastic band.

This was a recall question: What is it that causes the force of gravity on the objects that Saida is weighing?

The answer to the question is the earth, but many pupils were likely to be confused as to what they had to write in this question. School B covered the topic in a typical style, but School A had emphasised a cause-effect linkage during the teaching process.





A photograph showed the growth rings on a tree, with children told that roots take in moisture and nutrients.

This was a recall question: describe one other thing that the roots do for the trees.

This is a typical pattern of scores, they are roughly equal across the three groups. This demonstrated that those pupils who have placed the fact in their memory remembered recall questions. There was no analysis or scientific behaviour required.





A narrative about children who watched a video about blackbirds and their young, then making a diary from this. Part of the diary was given in the question.

This was a recall question: pupils had to tick three things that all animals did from the choices sing, feed, lay eggs, grow, fly, reproduce.

These questions contain distracters, but successful pupils recalled the correct facts from memory.













A photograph showed a child investigating materials with a magnet.

This was a recall question: Pupils had to complete a table identifying whether newspaper, wax and copper pipe were magnetic, transparent, conducted electricity or waterproof.

The scores here demonstrated the way in which pupils' scores on recall questions reflected individual differences in learners, and differences in the way topics were taught in schools and the rigour of their revision regimes.





A photograph showed a plant labelled flower, leaf, stem, and root.

This was a recall question: Where in the plant were water and nutrients absorbed from the soil.

These scores again illustrated the random nature of recall items.





Pupils examined a child's drawing of a girl with her shadow. The drawing contained some mistakes.

This was a recall question: How was the shadow formed?

Schools A and B did well in these types of questions because they had developed understanding through experience and investigation. Typically a constructivist approach was used, where pupils made predictions, looked at the evidence and then explained what they saw. They are secure in their knowledge.





A photograph showed two children. Kerry holds a set of kitchen scales sideways and Jason pushes against them. Jason's push was 80N.

This was an application question: What was the size of Kerry's push?

The method of teaching forces in this project was to emphasise understanding, so as to minimise the importance of context. Pupils' scores from both schools demonstrated effective understanding of forces, with pupils able to apply their knowledge to a new range of situations, as in this question.





A photograph showed children hitting a drum. The children turned the screws on the side of the drum to make the skin less tight.

This was an application question: What effect did this have on the pitch of the sound the drum makes when Nuala hits it?

Questions like this are phrased as 'reverse items': as one variable increases (turning the screw) the other decreases (the pitch). Pupils have to avoid guessing and have to use scientific principles to work out the answer. These scores indicated that the project pupils understood these reverse items well beyond their national peers.


Table 1 Explaining differences in levels of success in SATs items:

School values compared with national facility values

*fv: facility value (percentage of pupils correct nationally;
A: a school; B: a second school.





Ice cubes are melted to investigate which room is the warmest. A bar chart of the melting times for each room was given.

This was an interpreting question: how did the temperature of a room effect the time taken for an ice cube to melt?

This was a question type specially targeted in the project schools to develop pupils' ability to express their knowledge. The children have to be able to interpret two sets of data and then make a comparative statement. The mark here was given for any indication that they have noticed a trend. The marks were similar across the three groups.





Ice cubes are melted to investigate which room was the warmest. A bar chart of the melting times for each room was given.

This was an interpreting question: how did the temperature of a room affects the time taken for an ice cube to melt?

This was the second half of a linked question. This part requires a comparative statement, one that links cause with effect. The performance here was much higher in Schools A and B because they know they have to link two sets of data and make a scientific statement in a particular way. They have a framework in which to express their knowledge and understanding.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 28 October 2003