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What's in the books?

by Ben Littlewood

Progress in science books is demonstrated by evidence of an understanding of science across a wide spectrum of topics and concepts, applying the skills of Working Scientifically in each, writing in depth about science, applying terminology accurately and describing and explaining concepts with scientific eloquence. Knowledge would be seen as a foundation to deeper thinking via regular application in novel contexts and links with other topic areas, and it would all be topped off with a mathematical flourish.

“The books don’t lie” said the inspector, with a sage-like confidence of a man who doesn’t have his opinions questioned very often. I nodded, lacking his certainty, as he offered his perspective, as a former English teacher, on what constitutes an Ofsted certified ‘good’ science book. Now, possessed as I am with a metaphorical time machine, the Hindsight T2300 since you ask, I can set the record straight. The books don’t lie, true, but you only see the truth if you know what to look for. And what we look for is very much the consequence of individual subject perspectives. A good science book is good because of the science. So, what does that good science look like?

First, some context. As part of the new draft framework, Ofsted are considering placing greater importance on work scrutiny when judging progress in subjects. In principle, I’ve always championed this, as the book is the literal record of what happens in lessons. Not all of what happens, of course, but looking in books is the only mechanism we have to peer into the past and see what students have been doing in lessons over time. Working alongside the recent emphasis on curriculum, one ought to be able to form subject specific conclusions about what we ought to see in books as evidence of progress. If the curriculum model is a sound description of the progression in a subject, and the books reproduce that in ‘real time’, then we have de facto evidence of progress. Therefore, similarly to lesson observations, we must be mindful of the subject specific requirements before leaping to any judgement. So, I offer the following as a guide to scrutineers, specialist and non-specialist alike, about what to look for in a science book.

Progress in science is not defined by cumulatively getting better at the same skill. Scientific knowledge and its application is specific to a given topic context. Therefore, progress must be seen as an acquisition of the totality of scientific thought as defined in the curriculum for a given age group. In this sense, progress can be claimed to be seen if students are doing things in books, requiring cognitive effort on their part, which reflect the spread of topics and concepts appropriate for the year group. Therefore, any judgement of progress in books must be taken alongside the curriculum. If the curriculum is a sound representation of ideal progress in science, and the books faithfully represent that picture, then the books represent progress.

Most importantly, we must remember that progress in science is an incremental accumulation of different scientific ideas. As absurd as it sounds, I have worked in and with schools who have taken an approach to progress that follows the logic of, “she got a grade 4 in Cells in Autumn, so therefore she should be at a 4.5 in Forces in Spring”. This representation of progress simply does not apply to science. Offering an analogy for any non-scientists reading this, this is like telling a good cricketer that, to show progress, they must get better at trampolining. The skillsets for each may correlate across the population, but it’s not a given in any individual, or class. Going further, progress in sport can only really be seen if we can track a rolling average of performance across the different disciplines, and indeed, within individual skills within a discipline. Even then, it’s not a given. After all, if we want Harry Kane to be a better footballer, it makes little sense for him to focus on his goalkeeping. So, when scanning books over time, we should see a range of work, across topics, as being indicative of progress. What won’t indicate a lack of progress is an absence of improvement in the quality of work from one topic to the next.

The one area where generic skills are found in science, and hence we may see improvement over time, is in the Working Scientifically (WS) skills, such as investigative planning and data analysis. It’s reasonable, for example, for students to get better at drawing line graphs over time, or in describing trends in data. These are transferable skills that should improve with good teaching. Therefore, student books over time should show repeated examples of applying WS skills (eg identifying key variables, or sources of error, describing patterns in data) in a range of topic contexts in order to demonstrate progress. That said, what we see may not always be incremental improvement, however, as a repetition of the same skill in a multitude of contexts also constitutes a form of progress. For example, identifying control variables requires applying the principle of identifying variables to control which can affect the dependent variable. This, by definition, is context dependent. For example, students can only identify control variables for a photosynthesis investigation if they have knowledge of factors affecting photosynthesis, but this will not help them in identifying control variables for an investigation of specific heat capacity. But a student who can select control variables in both has a more developed set of WS skills than one who can only do it in one (incidentally, they’ve also made more progress in terms of the science content as well, and is a good example of why WS must always be taught in the context of science content from biology, chemistry or physics). So, alongside the science content, progress in science also involves regular application of WS skills across the range of science topic contexts. There is an argument that WS should form part of every lesson, even if it is only a small part. This is why.

Another area that many have mistakenly assumed is a skill students accumulate over time is in their science writing. It is true, that students making progress do get better at writing about science, but I’ve long argued that this is context dependent. As before, an ability to write about physics isn’t evidence one can write about biology. But over time, as students acquire more knowledge, we ought to see an improvement in their general scientific eloquence. That said, such judgements are likely to occur over years, not weeks, and it’s a rare work scrutiny that looks at a student’s books across a key stage. Regardless, when we look in the books, there should be regular examples, over time, of extended response writing about scientific ideas. On this context, extended response is, at the least, a paragraph. Single sentences, closed responses, or simple gap fills would not, in my view, constitute evidence of improving a student’s ability to articulate science in the absence of any other, longer written work. Examples of the types of writing commonly expected would be: descriptions of scientific concepts (eg particle arrangements in states of matter); explanations of observed phenomena (eg speciation); comparative writing (eg plant v animal cell structure); evaluative writing (eg identifying and classifying sources of error and suggesting improvements to experimental procedure).

In all cases of written work there should be an emphasise in teacher feedback or self-assessment on the precision of scientific language (eg use of mass/volume, not ‘amount’), including, but not limited to, the correct use of key terminology from specifications and the curriculum. I would suggest that the quality of writing, insofar as it represents student thinking, is probably the most reliable indication of learning. Students, like all of us, can write clearly about the things they understand, and are more clumsy in their language about that which they do not. “I know what it is, but I can’t put it into words” is the classic lament of the student who does not, in fact, know what it is. To write, therefore, is to know.

Amidst all the recent hoo-ha over ‘knowledge rich’ curricula, I’ve always allowed myself a wry smile. In science, knowledge is king (or queen is you prefer a more modern monarch analogy). Teaching science without knowledge at its core is like baking a cake without flour and eggs, presumably possible if we change the definition of cake, but ultimately unsatisfactory. However, excellence in science teaching doesn’t stop there, the essential icing on this cake is in the application of that knowledge. Therefore, in books, in addition to the recall of knowledge, we should see opportunities to apply it. This includes applying scientific ideas to explain phenomena in novel contexts, as well as applying concepts to explain observations. As we progress through the curriculum (KS4 mostly), this also includes increasing use of synoptic questions to link different concepts to explain phenomena. Application becomes, therefore, the way we see knowledge used by students, and as they develop their understanding, the way it is linked to other areas of the curriculum. This is how science becomes an interlocking whole in the minds of our students and not a discrete set of unrelated topics and ideas.

Finally, there should be evidence over time of students applying maths skills appropriate for their age group, in scientific contexts. This may include changing the subject of formulae algebraically, (without recourse to the hated formula triangles), calculating a mean to a required number of significant figures, or the use of standard form in microscopy. Wherever the science is quantified, there is a chance to develop students mathematical ability in the context of science. While biologists may argue with the contention that maths is the language of science (it’s death and sex, obvs), it’s certainly an intrinsic aspect of its vocabulary, and hence its use should be prevalent in the books across time.

So, we can see, in the idealised student book, progress would be demonstrated by evidence of an understanding of science across a wide spectrum of topics and concepts, applying the skills of Working Scientifically in each. There would be evidence of writing in depth about science, applying terminology accurately and describing and explaining concepts with scientific eloquence. Knowledge would be seen as a foundation to deeper thinking via regular application in novel contexts and links with other topic areas, and it would all be topped off with a mathematical flourish.

In defining progress in this way, those judging outcomes in books have a challenge to succinctly summarise the overall impression while simultaneously acknowledging the inherently subjective and multi faceted aspects that are particular to a given subject. Rather than attempting to distill this into a good/bad dichotomy of progress, I would argue that any judgement is best described formatively according to these areas, and with reference to the curriculum of the subject. It means that defining progress in books should move away from narrow summative descriptions and towards a broader, more nuanced concept of how the defined knowledge and skills of the subject are demonstrated in the books. When defining it like this, progress becomes a less tangible concept, which can be in uncomfortable for school leaders keen on certainty of judgement, but is arguably a more accurate description of reality. Much like science, in fact.


Ben Littlewood is the Senior Science Advisor for United Learning. This post was first published on his blog, The Residue of Thought.

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