New reports unpack practices to boost science education

Published on Tuesday, 22 June 2021
Last updated on Monday, 21 June 2021

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New reports published by the Education Research Office (ERO) highlight key practices where young children are effectively engaged in science but find that there’s ‘more work to do’ to boost educational outcomes.

“The release of these new science reports is timely as recent national and international research shows that New Zealand students are not achieving as well in science as we would like," says Ruth Shinoda, Head of ERO’s Education Evaluation Centre.

"Across all age groups we found that being deliberate about how we teach science is incredibly important. Educators need to plan to teach science in a way that ensures children grow their science skills, understand science fundamentals and have a strong knowledge base that creates a passion for science.

"We know that deliberate planning for opportunities to develop children’s understanding of science, can make a big difference, particularly in the early years."

The new reports investigated science teaching from early childhood up to Year 11 and for early years educators the relevant reports are:

Both reports recognise the value of early year’s education in developing a child’s sense of discovery and delight in science. As children are naturally curious, this motivates them to explore, learn and try new things, it is a fundamental scientific attitude. Research has also found rich, early experiences can influence children’s attitudes to science education as they get older.

To build foundations for learning in science early years educators are encouraged to take advantage of teaching and learning opportunities in children’s everyday activities. Science matters because it helps children make sense of the things, places and people in their world through interactions, play, investigation, testing and refining of ideas. Important issues in their future such as climate change, healthy living and innovation all depend on science.

Science education develops children’s ability to confidently contribute to society, an aspiration described in Te Whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa.

Science in the Early Years: Early Childhood and Years 1-4

This report included 147 early childhood services and built on previous studies, and ERO’s understanding of what makes for successful science teaching and learning. Three key components in their evaluation included: leadership; intentional teaching; and responsive curriculum.

Key statistical findings showed:

  • 43 per cent of services were rated as leading science in the ‘well’ or ‘very well’ category
  • 49 per cent of services were rated as doing ‘well’ or ‘very well’ at weaving science through teaching and learning
  • 60 per cent of services were rated as doing ‘well’ or ‘very well’ at including science learning – with a dominant focus on the natural world, the environment, and sustainability.

The elements of good practice outlined in the study included having a leader for science, providing interesting contexts for children’s learning, and recognising children’s prior knowledge.

Areas for improvement included:

  • Kaiako/teachers could plan for children’s learning and progress in science, rather than for discrete science activities
  • Many kaiako/teachers could make better use of assessment to describe and understand children’s learning and inform next steps for their learning
  • Service and school leaders could also consider how well science learning programs support children to progress in science.

The report includes questions to help leaders reflect on the science learning provided in their service.

Shining a Light on Science: Good Practice in Early Childhood Education

This companion report to Science in the Early Years describes principles of good practice for science teaching and learning and gives example of these principles of practice.

There are five sections in this report, which consider science in early childhood through a range of perspectives. These include:

  • Leadership that encourages collaboration and improvement, for example by sharing professional readings and guidance with kaiako to build their understanding of science in a play-based curriculum
  • Kaiako who are deliberate in their approach to supporting children, for example by building on children’s interests, and encouraging them to design experiments, and deepen their thinking
  • Bicultural practice, for example by supporting children to reflect the values of kaitiakitanga, rangatiratanga, and manaakitanga as they explored the world around them
  • Learner-focused partnerships with parents, whānau, and the community, for example by giving parents and whānau ideas for how to further support their children’s scientific interests at home.

Under each section, case studies illustrate science teaching and learning in the early childhood context.

As children’s science interests deepen from focusing on the activity to engaging more in an inquiry or project-based focus, the report presents suggestions on how science teaching and learning can be extended, and complexity added over time.

How to use the Good Practice report

The examples of good practice show how science teaching and learning can build on children’s motivation to explore, experiment, and learn. They shine a light on how science teaching and learning can be successfully integrated through a child-centered, play-based curriculum.

The Good Practice report shows that across the case studies there are common points contributing to good practice in science. These include leaders who:

  • Identify what learning is valued, supporting kaiako to promote that learning, and monitor that it is happening
  • Are knowledgeable and/or enthusiastic about science
  • Successfully lead evaluation for improvement

And kaiako who:

  • Actively encourage parent and whānau relationships focused on their child’s learning
  • Are responsive to children’s interests and, through intentional teaching practice, extend children’s learning
  • Notice children’s interests, recognise the significance, and respond to the learning opportunity
  • Provide a curriculum that has a breadth and depth of learning experiences that support and challenge learning
  • Offer a curriculum that increasingly includes te reo, tikanga and mātauranga Māori
  • Respond to children’s questions and assist them to articulate and extend ideas
  • Draw on community expertise and resources to enrich the curriculum.

The report also provides guidance for improving practice through internal evaluation. ERO has developed a theoretical example of internal evaluation relating to science to demonstrate how a service might use evaluation to improve the quality of science teaching and learning in their curriculum.

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