Developing Higher Order Scientific Enquiry Skills

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A portion of this document is presented below. The full document can be downloaded Developing Higher Order Scientific Enquiry Skills.pdf

Developing higher-order scientific enquiry skills Cymry Ifanc Young Wales

Developing higher-order scientific enquiry skills 1 Foreword

Good enquiry skills are key for all learners. Those learners who analyse and probe deeply into the meaning of information or data, presented through a variety of media, can engage more effectively with the subject content and gain great satisfaction from their work and achievement. This applies in all subjects, but none more so than in science. Estyn's inspection evidence indicates that too few Welsh pupils are achieving the highest standards. Results of national and international assessments - GCSE and PISA in particular - identify scope for more able learners in Wales to have stronger scientific enquiry skills.

This guidance is intended to support science teachers working with able learners in Key Stage 3, to help them achieve better results at the end of Year 9 and at GCSE and beyond. The materials have been developed in collaboration with subject specialists in schools and local authorities. Feedback from science teachers and local authority advisers confirms that this focused guidance is both timely and appropriate. I am delighted to commend this booklet to all schools and local authorities and to confirm our support for higher-order skills as part of the wider focus on effective schools.

David Hawker Director General, Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills

=Introduction =

What characterises higher-order scientific enquiry skills?

Learners take responsibility for their own learning and, where appropriate, demonstrate a range of the following:


  • recognise that science is based on evidenced theories rather than facts
  • justify the methods and strategies that are going to be used in the enquiry
  • use concepts such as reliability, accuracy of measuring, validity of data/information when justifying a planned method
  • make multiple links between what is already known and/or independent research in order to plan
  • take account of any possible problems with their plan in order to refine it
  • justify their predictions, which can be quantitative, by using abstract scientific ideas, including linking models, theories and systems
  • determine success criteria in complex, abstract tasks


  • communicate effectively, choosing an appropriate medium, selecting only relevant points of interest and taking full account of the audience
  • measure systematically with accuracy
  • justify any amendments they make to their methodology understand the purposes of, and utilise, a wide range of learning/thinking strategies
  • use calculations to demonstrate or explore findings, and in doing so confidently and accurately rearrange equations
  • analyse and evaluate findings, looking to see if they present any further issues or modifications to the process they have used
  • apply the conventions of reliability and validity to their findings explore any uncertainties or anomalies using scientific reasoning evaluate findings in terms of levels of bias, reliability and validity
  • critically evaluate findings in terms of their prior scientific knowledge and understanding
  • apply abstract, linked scientific knowledge in a way that demonstrates understanding


  • evaluate success criteria in complex, abstract tasks
  • link the learning to abstract ideas in order to make further predictions
  • evaluate the learning/thinking strategies used
  • refine learning/thinking strategies for further use
  • develop alternative learning/thinking strategies
  • critically reflect on their learning and develop their own next steps.

What are the features of quality enquiries?

Curriculum 2008 is learner-centred and skills-focused. It gives opportunities for schools to provide a relevant and motivating educational experience for learners. Scientific enquiry is at the heart of developing such experiences. The use of scientific enquiries to challenge learners' current understanding and for them to better their skills and knowledge will lead to more resilient and reflective learners. The use of scientific enquiries that will challenge learners to progress their learning is essential to raising expectations and, ultimately, achievement. Below are a number of factors that need to be taken into account when planning for scientific enquiries forall learners.

Learner-centred learning

In order to set appropriate enquiries, it is important to know learners' prior skills, knowledge and understanding. Knowing where learners are in a continuum will enable teachers and learners to better negotiate where learners need to go next and how best to get there. The level descriptions offer such a learning continuum for teachers. However, level descriptions are holistic descriptions of position, considering a wide range of evidence over a period of time. Therefore most learners' negotiated 'next steps' will be small steps within a level description as exemplified in this guidance rather than taken from the next description. Learners do not need knowledge of the level descriptions to negotiate next steps. To be most effective, next steps should be based on qualitative statements alone, rather than being combined with grades and/or marks. Teachers' knowledge of the learner and the level descriptions should focus planning of appropriate enquiries to enable learners to progress.

Classroom management

Learners work best when they can share ideas and articulate their thoughts. Establishing effective collaboration in the classroom is key to successful learning. Through working in random pairs and small groups, learners learn from each other, raising their expectations and achievements. Teachers are able to listen in to conversations, and ask leading questions as in the enquiry 'What's the best way to minimise global warming?', in order to ascertain progress or otherwise. Learners need to agree on, and be frequently reminded of, the basic rules for interaction2. They also need to feel that the classroom is a safe and reflective environment in which to take risks with their ideas.

Context of Enquiries

Enquiry types

Enquiries can take many different forms, as stated in Science in the National Curriculum for Wales, and reflected in the associated guidance, Science: Guidance for Key Stages 2 and 3 (both Welsh Assembly Government, 2008).

All enquiry types can be used to develop higher-order scientific enquiry skills. However, as learners progress, the enquiries they carry out will become more complex and as such are combinations of the different enquiry types. Most of the enquiries in this guidance exemplify this. Enquiries that involve Using and applying models require the application of abstract scientific ideas, and as such are more relevant for learners working at the higher levels. Therefore, many of the examples of learners' work in this guidance demonstrate using and applying models.


The Range

In order for learners to demonstrate characteristics of the highest national curriculum levels, they usually need to link knowledge and understanding from across areas of the Range. Therefore, questions posed for enquiry should allow for this to happen naturally. Enquiries related to respiration and combustion (as in Ben's profile in Science: Guidance for Key Stages 2 and 3, for example) allow learners to demonstrate an understanding of: IO2: how food is used by the body as fuel during respiration TSE3: the differences between chemical changes HTW2: the conservation of energy (See page 16 for explanation of references.)

A seemingly simple enquiry such as 'How do respiration and combustion compare?' can challenge learners and lead to the demonstration of a wide range of level characteristics from Level 5 to Exceptional Performance.

Task demand

All learners need challenging tasks to engage and motivate them to succeed. The Skills framework for 3 to 19-year-olds in Wales (Welsh Assembly Government, 2008) states that the challenge of tasks increases as they move from:

  • concrete to abstract
  • simple to complex
  • personal to the 'big picture' familiar to unfamiliar.
  • Using open-ended 'big' questions as contexts for enquiries is likely to engage more learners and improve their achievements. Examples in this guidance such as 'What's the best way to minimise global warming?' or 'How could the space shuttle stop quicker?' give opportunities for learners to refine and use their skills, knowledge and understanding and therefore demonstrate higher level characteristics.

When using open-ended 'big' questions, learners will need to plan carefully and initially will need support to tread a successful path through the enquiry. Teachers can facilitate this by asking probing questions, such as in the enquiry 'Are single-celled organisms plants or animals? Explain.' Here the teacher leads Ali into reviewing his original findings to improve his work. In addition, learners will need to use thinking tools3 to organise their thoughts and ideas so that the planning, organisation and reflection processes are clear and meaningful. This is exemplified in 'What's the best way to minimise global warming?', where George designs and later modifies a graphic organiser, and in 'Are single-celled organisms plants or animals? Explain.', where Ali uses a teacher-modified PMI diagram*. Also, in 'An ice problem?' Sam uses several tools, such as stepping stones* for metacognition, as well as others such as skimming, scanning and diamond ranking*.

Reflecting on learning

This is a new element of the level descriptions for the science national curriculum Order 2008. It encourages a focus on how learning is taking place, in addition to what has been learned. Focusing on the process of learning, and allowing time in lessons for reflection leads to faster and more sustained progression. The planning and management of enquiries should allow learners the time that they need to 'think about their thinking' rather than rushing too quickly to arrive at outcomes. Initially, learners may require teachers to pose reflective questions. Learners working at the highest levels will be more likely to pose such questions and insist on the time they need both to explore the process of learning as well as to push the boundaries of the enquiry. Learners will need a repertoire of thinking strategies and tools to draw upon when they encounter new situations. They also need an agreed shared vocabulary so that they can have 'learning conversations' between themselves and with their teachers. Science always requires significant thought to plan, improve methods, analyse findings and explain anomalies. For such reflection to be valuable, it needs to occur throughout the learning experience, and not just towards the end of the task, lesson or module. Learners need to focus on the process of learning, how they are going to do it, how they are doing it and eventually how they have done it. This is exemplified in 'An ice problem' where Sam uses metacognitive stepping stones* to deconstruct his learning and make it visible.

Transferring learning

Learners need to be able to transfer skills, knowledge and understanding from one lesson to another and from one subject to another. Through asking questions such as How do you know that? and Where did you get that idea from? teachers will lead learners to articulate their thought processes and make these initial transfers. Towards the end of an enquiry, questions such as Where else could you use that idea/skill/strategy? or How could you adapt the tool/strategy you used to be used elsewhere? will enable learners to firmly root their understanding in other contexts. Once these transfers have been made, the deeper understanding reached will lead to improved learner performance. In 'An ice problem?', the teacher leads the learners into the initial tasks by asking them to record what they did and how they did it. In this enquiry, this gives a platform for the teacher to ask questions as described above. The conversation that the teacher then has with Sam regarding his choice of tools enables Sam to be even more explicit about why he might have used an alternative strategy. Learners working at the highest levels might well transfer skills, knowledge and understanding consistently but without necessarily articulating their ideas. Allowing the time for these articulations and ensuring a reflective environment will better enable these learners to consolidate their learning. Equally, it will open up their thought processes to other class members and so help to raise the expectations of the whole class.