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Leadership Matters

The Importance of Partnership, Support, and Sustained Professional Development

Professional learning findings from the United Kingdom’s Science Ninjas project

Science and Children—Fall 2023 (Volume 60, Issue 7)

By Jason Harding, Maria Pack, Chris Harrison, and Lucy Wood

Despite numerous European Union STEM enquiry projects supporting teachers in bringing about the radical change in pedagogy from a deductive to an enquiry approach (Rocard et al. 2007), over the last two decades, the teaching and learning of enquiry and scientific processes has been highlighted time and again as an underserved part of science education (Wallace and Kang 2004; Capps and Crawford 2013; Harrison 2014). This article reports on a current project that seeks to address some of the barriers and needs that arise when primary teachers set about improving science enquiry learning. It highlights the need to involve a critical friend in the developmental process to allow exchange of ideas and experiences and sufficient questioning and challenge to foster professional learning. This is because it is only when teachers are able to see the changes they make to their teaching through the eyes of others that they can more fully evaluate how their actions and decisions have supported learning.

Scientific enquiry and practical work form a key part of the teaching of science at the primary level, so it is important that teachers are clear about its purpose in science learning. Substantive knowledge can and should be developed while pupils carry out scientific enquiry, and it is important that this knowledge is identified by teachers and its development is made clear to pupils. Scientific enquiry also provides a specific context for pupils to learn the skills of working scientifically and build their understanding of how evidence is used to inform the development of science knowledge (Ofsted 2021). Our aim, therefore, was to find out if developing an understanding of the place, point, and purpose of practical skills, within the contexts of different practical activities, would help teachers (and children) recognise and engage more readily with scientific enquiry (Harding and Pack 2022).

Starting in 2018, a team from the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services (CLEAPSS) and King’s College, London, embarked on a research project to gather evidence of the ways teachers planned and implemented practical activities during primary science lessons. The project, called Science Ninjas, involved a group of primary schools (n = 10) and involved science lead teachers in meeting once a term for professional development on science practical activities. We gathered data from the group teacher meetings, where teachers shared what they were trying in their classrooms and we helped them explore new activities or new ways of doing activities. We collected further evidence by visiting schools, watching lessons, and speaking to children, teachers, science leaders, and school senior leaders. This involved scrutinizing practical lesson planning, discussing how activities unravelled on the day, and assessing the consequent pupil outcomes.

At the start, while teachers were enthusiastic, they were not confident in selecting and planning practical activities, and this led to many of the practical lessons seen being unfocused and disorganised and often poor pupil outcomes. Features that characterised most of the lessons seen were:

  • Learning objectives (LO) that the teachers and children did not understand, which bore little resemblance to the activity they were doing.
  • Little-to-no data or observations being made or recorded by the children.
  • No evidence that the activities led to a learning outcome.
  • A focus on completing a practical activity rather than developing or strengthening skills or highlighting an aspect of enquiry.

Of concern was that when asked about such lessons, the teachers did not identify these as being issues. From our perspective, it seemed that the teachers chose which activities to do but had difficulty in anticipating what they needed to do to focus on science learning in the lesson and what they needed to look for to see learning was taking place. In other words, science practical activities were something to do but not necessarily to learn from. Comments they made were usually along the lines of:

  • The children were better behaved than expected.
  • The children enjoyed themselves.
  • Next lesson we are moving on to … new concept/topic mentioned.

An important part of our research became finding out what support and resources teachers might need to plan and deliver more effective practical science lessons. The premise being that by supporting teachers to plan the use of a few key practical skills, they would deliver more meaningful practical lessons, begin to recognise evidence of learning, and build a more extensive and nuanced view of the science learning benefits from practical activities. Talking to teachers revealed that most had not read the Science National Curriculum (NC; see Online Resources) and were unable to explain what the Working Scientifically (WS) statements (Figure 1) meant (Bianchi, Whittaker, and Poole 2021).

Figure 1

Working Scientifically statements

During years 1 and 2, pupils should be taught to use the following practical scientific methods, processes, and skills through the teaching of the programme of study content:

  • asking simple questions and recognising that they can be answered in different ways
  • observing closely, using simple equipment
  • performing simple tests
  • identifying and classifying
  • using their observations and ideas to suggest answers to questions
  • gathering and recording data to help in answering questions

During years 3 and 4, pupils should be taught to use the following practical scientific methods, processes and skills through the teaching of the programme of study content:

  • asking relevant questions and using different types of scientific enquiries to answer them
  • setting up simple practical enquiries, comparative and fair tests
  • making systematic and careful observations and, where appropriate, taking accurate measurements using standard units, using a range of equipment, including thermometers and data loggers
  • gathering, recording, classifying and presenting data in a variety of ways to help in answering questions
  • recording findings using simple scientific language, drawings, labelled diagrams, keys, bar charts, and tables
  • reporting on findings from enquiries, including oral and written explanations, displays or presentations of results and conclusions
  • using results to draw simple conclusions, make predictions for new values, suggest improvements and raise further questions
  • identifying differences, similarities or changes related to simple scientific ideas and processes
  • using straightforward scientific evidence to answer questions or to support their findings.

During years 5 and 6, pupils should be taught to use the following practical scientific methods, processes and skills through the teaching of the programme of study content:

  • planning different types of scientific enquiries to answer questions, including recognising and controlling variables where necessary
  • taking measurements, using a range of scientific equipment, with increasing accuracy and precision, taking repeat readings when appropriate
  • recording data and results of increasing complexity using scientific diagrams and labels, classification keys, tables, scatter graphs, bar and line graphs
  • using test results to make predictions to set up further comparative and fair tests
  • reporting and presenting findings from enquiries, including conclusions, causal relationships and explanations of and degree of trust in results, in oral and written forms such as displays and other presentations
  • identifying scientific evidence that has been used to support or refute ideas or arguments.

Our Professional Learning Approach

Trialling new ways of working rarely leads to establishing new practices unless teachers are given support. This is because changing habits requires teachers to have a concrete vision of the intended change, and this includes both how they organise and deliver their instruction and the likely response of their learners to these new practices. Joyce and Showers’ meta-analysis of nearly 200 studies (2002) highlighted that one essential ingredient in this process was coaching within the school and classrooms where the teachers worked. Coaching is a friendly, supportive, and nonjudgemental process and functions best in environments that are conducive to professional enquiry, learning, and change (Glackin et al. 2017). While time frames may be set by teacher meetings and specific days for school visits by the coaches, the change process that occurs for each teacher is pertinent to that teacher and the environment they function in, and so requires professional learning approaches that are flexible, ensure trust, and are open to change. In such circumstances, it is often difficult to envision where difficulties might lie in developing new practices. This requires coaches to be adaptable to the evidence being critiqued. Which, in turn, helps ensure that the teachers are willing to share their thinking and engage in—and benefit from—the collaborative experience of reflecting on practice.

From the start, we realised that the pace and content of the training programme needed to be aligned with the evidence we were collecting of developing practice, while at the same time ensuring teachers were well supported to try new ideas in their classroom. We used a coaching model (outlined below) for the science leaders (who were called Ninja Leaders [NLs]) and their Senior Leadership Team (SLT) line managers (the Senior Ninja Leaders [SNLs]) consisting of four elements:

  • Annual training – A one day, face-to-face, hands-on, training event attended by the NLs/SNLs. The day focused on a couple of key issues and included time and support for SNLs/NLs to formulate their action plan.
  • Termly network meetings – virtual events where the NLs/SNLs showcased teacher planning and pupil outcomes that exemplified what practical science looked like in their school.
  • One-to-one meetings – which followed up on the work shown at the network meetings. These provided the NLs/SNLs with an opportunity to ask more in-depth questions and talk through achievements and concerns pertinent to their schools as well as seeking advice on next steps.
  • School visits – Full-day visits during which the whole school was doing practical science. They provided the NLs, SNLs, head teachers, and us with an insight into what science practical activities are like across a range of classrooms in our schools, the impact the program was having, and what else needed to be done (see Figure 2).
Figure 2
Ninja CPD program.

Ninja CPD program.

What Have We Learned?

We know that teachers learn from their classroom experiences and experimenting with new practices in their classrooms. They also learn from attending professional development meetings where they can be introduced to new ideas and alternative practices, where they are encouraged to discuss possibilities for their classrooms and get advice as they collaborate with others (Harrison 2013; Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, and Fung 2007). However, because change is complex, trialling new ways of working rarely leads to establishing new practices unless teachers are given support. This is because changing habits requires teachers to have a concrete vision of the intended change and this includes both how they organise and deliver their instruction and the likely response of their learners to these new practices. We also need to remember that teachers who are engaged in professional learning are simultaneously maintaining their teaching workload, and that many of their existing assumptions about effective practice are being challenged. It is therefore not surprising that progress takes considerable time and might be viewed as slow.

It was clear that the schools and most teachers genuinely wanted to improve their science lessons. We concluded that the teachers struggled in planning a practical science lesson because of one or more of the following aspects:

  • They did not recognise which science learning opportunities were possible within the practical activity. They thought that doing the activity was learning the concept.
  • They did not recognise that their lesson LOs could NOT be achieved through the activity they chose or that the ones they selected demonstrated that they did not know why the children were doing the activity.
  • They did not know how to select or design an activity that supported learning related to an NC statement.
  • They did not know that practical skills need to be explicitly taught.
  • They did not know that collecting data during a practical activity is crucially important, or that without data you cannot answer a question or draw a conclusion from an activity.
  • They did not know that investigations need a conclusion, or that conclusions often demonstrate the learning gained from the doing.

What Did We Do?

Through discussion and reflection on the practical activities that teachers used in their lessons, we helped NLs/SNLs focus on experiences where the learning outcomes did not match with their initial intentions. This enabled them to rethink activities to either refocus their intent or to use that activity more productively for science learning. We then worked with them to develop a planning form that highlighted the important elements that most practical lessons need (see Figure 3).

Figure 3
Planning process document.

Planning process document.

The planning form has proven to be popular; it reminds the teachers about what to include when planning and to think about the strategies and resources they will use to make their practical lessons successful. During coaching, we actively demonstrated how we have used the form to help plan an activity.

The difficulties that teachers faced when planning effective practical lessons exposed another issue. Despite (some) having reasonable schemes of learning (SOL) and access to credible supporting resources, the lessons taught often led to poor pupil outcomes. Many of our schools were content to use other teachers’ lesson plans and bought-in resources to do the planning for them. However, it was clear that blindly following another person’s lesson plan/scheme/resource meant they, and the children, still were not always clear about why they were doing the activity. So alongside showing the NLs/SNLs how to plan a practical lesson, we also worked with the teachers on how to use off-the-shelf resources as a part of the planning process. Altering their action plans so that the planning issue became their improvement priority considerably helped refocus science practical work in their schools.

Working with the schools on developing practical science activities that promote science learning has been a sobering experience. Watching the leaders struggle to make very basic improvements to practical lessons has meant that we have had to rethink our initial plans and have reigned in our aspirations, reduced our expectations, and increased the amount of support given several times over. It also reminded us that sustained improvement takes time, persistence, and lots of good will.

Reflections on Our Approach

The research we have undertaken and the experience of working with our Ninja schools has led us to believe that professional learning is a conceptual journey travelled by both the NLs/SNLs and us, the teacher educators and researchers. They and we have a destination in mind, but the landscape which we move across has no clear path and is filled with events which we can only tackle together, as they present themselves.

Professional journeys are littered with mishaps and unforeseen events that require the help of others to redirect those teachers who have difficulties in taking ideas forward within their own classrooms and schools.

Once out of sight, some teachers find they’ve inadvertently wandered into a metaphorical crater from which they cannot get out, until others notice the problems these teachers are experiencing and offer help or pull them out.

At times, teachers took different routes and did not realise the paths they were on until they met with others and discussed their experiences. This enabled teacher autonomy in the choices they made while, at the same time, providing guidance and feedback on ways that were productive and ways that were problematic. Overall, it helped teachers forge a learning journey where the pitfalls became more apparent and the ongoing targets clearer for NLs/SNLs.

Many of our schools were content to use other teachers’ lesson plans and bought-in resources to do the planning for them. However, it was clear that blindly following another person’s lesson plan/scheme/resource meant they, and the children, still were not always clear about why they were doing the activity.

Sometimes some parts of the learning journey needed revisiting or approaching in a different way and NLs/SNLs needed support in taking the decision to go back and start over on a different path.

Sometimes the science leaders watched how their peers were traversing the landscape and followed their good example. While this might create a time lag in the development process, it also helped as it provided a picture of what successful practise looked like that struggling teachers could use to help them frame their ways of working, and help them find their own path and map progress.

Our experience on the Ninja project indicates that to get more meaningful practical science lessons happening regularly in classrooms, the professional learning program needs to be supported way beyond the start up; it has to be followed up and further supported. What we have come to realise is that to get better practical science happening, you have got to change hearts and minds and have a shared commitment to improving the teaching.

What’s Improved?

Now, the schools more readily use the NC to check they are teaching the correct content. They understand that each statement is made up of different elements, which need to be taught separately and sequentially over several lessons, and these include practical activities that support parts of the overall science concept.

For practical lessons the teachers now write child-friendly LOs that are framed for the activity being undertaken; this is sometimes in the form of a question, such as “Which material is best to make a costume for the school play?” Sometimes it’s about the phenomena being observed, such as “How do we know if something has melted?” The schools all explicitly teach science practical skills (using equipment, observation, measuring, recording), recognising that such skills vary and progress with different activities, and they reward children for correctly using them in their practical activities.

The NLs/SNLs have a much better understanding of the elements that are likely to be needed when planning a practical lesson and know how to look for evidence of pupil outcomes during lessons and in books. They are better at, and more confident about, giving their staff feedback and supporting them to improve their practice.

What’s Next?

We feel that the NLs/SNLs have basic practical lesson planning in place for science practical activities and they, and we, need to get back to our core aim—to help them engage more effectively with scientific enquiry. In the majority of science practical activities on the Ninja project, teachers have made the most of the decisions about the science questions being asked, the methods to collect data and evidence, and how this relates to science learning. To take a more enquiry-based approach requires the pupils to take a more active role in one or more aspects of this process. Our learning over the project so far makes us realise that we need to sustain our coaching approach and we have a plan for how to help the teachers make a start on this next phase. NLs/SNLs and teachers have begun to take more responsibility for moving things forward in their schools and guiding improvement, but like the rest of the project, so far, we will see how it goes and adjust our practices, support, and expectations based on the experiences and progress our ninja teachers make with this.

Online Resources

Science National Curriculum

Jason Harding ( is section leader for primary at the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services (CLEAPSS) and a teacher educator. Maria Pack is lead primary consultant at CLEAPSS and a practicing teacher in South London. Chris Harrison is professor of science education at King’s College London, Waterloo. Lucy Wood is director of chemistry Post Graduate Certificate of Education at King’s College London.


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