Carole Kenrick is an Ogden Primary Consultant and Scientist in Residence at Gillespie Primary School (London), who recently started her PhD in primary science at UCL’s Institute of Education. This summer, Carole and her fellow Ogden Consultant James de Winter attended the ESERA conference in Dublin, where science education researchers from around the world gathered to share and discuss their research. Carole tells us more about this thought-provoking trip, and how it’s informed her plans for the coming year:
My main areas of interest are aspirations, identity and equity – how can we as teachers encourage a broad range of children, of all backgrounds and including girls, to see physics as something that they are good at and that they might continue to study in the future?
So I jumped at the chance to attend the week-long ESERA conference, where I could hear in person from many of the researchers whose papers I’ve been reading in the past few years. With up to 17 different sessions running at any one time, I needed to be strategic about which to attend. I chose sessions that fitted into three strands:
1. Gender, identity and equity (the focus of my PhD)
2. Teacher CPD (a big part of my work for the Ogden Trust)
3. Putting policy into practice (how to make sure my PhD makes a difference!)
With four different research papers presented in every 90 minute session, it was a fantastic way to gain an overview of the latest research – and it also led me to notice patterns emerging. Three papers in particular struck me, united by a common theme:
Lucy Yeomans is a member of the ASPIRES research team, now based at the UCL Institute of Education. The ASPIRES longitudinal study, surveying pupils’ attitudes towards science, has led the researchers to develop the concept of ‘science capital’ to help explain why some groups are much more likely than others to want to become scientists. Yeomans’ research zoomed in specifically on the attitudes of white working class pupils towards science as they moved from primary and through secondary school. She noticed a worrying trend: that a number of pupils, who had enjoyed and identified with science at primary, discarded that identity as they got older. They explained that science was a childish activity, something ‘fun’, but that they were too grown up for it now.
In a study that adds another dimension alongside Yeomans’ findings, Katherine Wade-Jaimes observed pupils in an American high school, looking to see what pupils perceived as being a ‘good scientist’. Their beliefs, based on their classroom experience, that science is a simply a body of knowledge to be learnt, and their views of science as silent individual work carried out by ‘stereotypical’ goggle-and-lab-coat-wearing, explosion-creating figures, amounted to a very skewed perspective.
Finally, in a preliminary study carried out by Insa Stamer, pupils were asked to suggest what they thought scientists do in their jobs; their responses were compared with what scientists say that they actually do. I was expecting a gap, but the results surprised even me. The pupils vastly underestimated the extent to which scientists need to work in teams, communicate to different audiences and most of all be creative.
These three studies reflect different aspects of the same problem: the vast majority of children and young people do not understand what it means to be a scientist. They don’t know that all kinds of different people can become scientists; about the variety of jobs that people with science qualifications can do (within and beyond science); how much they could earn or what scientists do in their working lives (or sometimes even that scientists have lives beyond work!). And so, it’s no wonder that the majority of young people struggle to imagine themselves as a scientist – to aspire to something, you need to know what it looks like.
In the coming year, I will have the privilege of planning and delivering training for primary teachers across London and Surrey, as well as supporting them with their science curriculum and enrichment. I can’t wait to share what I’ve learnt over the summer with them, and put my learning into practice in my own school.
Summaries of the research referred to by Carole can be found below: