What does outstanding teaching and learning look like in science?

In the second article of a short series on science, Ian Warwick and Matt Dickenson explore the differences between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ using the Ofsted criteria

In previous articles we have argued that many schools seem to see ‘outstanding’ as ‘good +’, with colleagues expected to add more to their practice each time they think about it, and with phrases like ‘continuous improvement planning’ meaning ‘continuous addition’. But we have seen that outstanding practice is often arrived at from a different direction or starting point to good. In this and the rest of the series we will be exploring how this different perspective can be of use to colleagues in defining, describing and exploring what outstanding practice looks like in science lessons.

In addition to the generic criteria, the science subject survey presents the following features of good and outstanding teaching and learning:

Criteria for good and outstanding

Good Outstanding
In addition to the criteria for satisfactory, teachers have a clear understanding of the value of their subject which they communicate effectively to pupils. In addition to the criteria for good science teaching, teachers communicate high expectations, enthusiasm and passion about science to pupils.
Teachers use a range of relevant contexts to exemplify the value of science and its impact on society. These examples engage pupils’ interest and hone their understanding of research and the application of scientific skills. They ensure pupils engage well in practical work. They expect pupils to operate as scientists, engaging fully in practical work using science skills, knowledge and understanding to inform their work.
Teachers have a confident level of specialist expertise which they use well in planning and teaching their subject.

Teachers have a high level of competence and expertise both in terms of their specialist knowledge as necessary and their understanding of effective learning in science.

Their confidence extends to all areas of science taught, not just their specialist subject. This stimulates pupils’ inquisitiveness.

They respond well to students’ questions, using effective dialogue that stimulates further discussion. Their responses to students’ questions are both accurate and effective at stimulating further thought.
They have a clear understanding of progression in science skills, knowledge and understanding and how the ‘big ideas’ of science can be understood with increasingly demanding details and concepts. Teachers have a very clear understanding of how science is learned best, using the scientific phenomena itself as the core focus of lessons.
In particular, pupils have many opportunities to show and apply their knowledge, skills and understanding of science, and give extended explanations. They provide a wide range of activities that require pupils to operate as scientists. This includes scientific investigation and practical work, research using a range of resources, evaluation, discussion, and giving and receiving high quality presentations.
As a result, they use an appropriate range of resources and teaching strategies to promote good learning across all aspects of the subject. Teachers use a very wide range of innovative and imaginative resources and teaching strategies to stimulate pupils’ active participation in their learning and secure outstanding progress across all aspects of the subject.

We need to highlight the fact that the descriptors themselves seem to tell us that ‘more is more’. Outstanding is described ‘in addition to the criteria for good’. It is our contention that this image is largely unhelpful.

Communicating a passion for science

Good Outstanding
In addition to the criteria for satisfactory, teachers have a clear understanding of the value of their subject which they communicate effectively to pupils. In addition to the criteria for good science teaching, teachers communicate high expectations, enthusiasm and passion about science to pupils.

Popular culture – or least what passes for it, in the form of talent shows, interviews with sports stars and celebrities – has given ‘passion’ a bad name. We either talk about passion too readily or with a peculiar reluctance to admit genuine fascination and engagement with something.

A good science teacher here shows a ‘clear understanding of the value of the subject’, which is communicated – aka ‘transmitted’ – to the pupils. It is unwritten but obvious that good science teaching also requires high expectations, so what is different about outstanding in this case?

Part of the answer may lie in the knowledge and skills debate. As a good science teacher, I can give able pupils high achievement through the encouragement of mimicry, enabling them to understand what I understand, think what I think. I can spoon or drip-feed knowledge and in the process provide pupils with the building blocks for their own knowledge. I can provide them with opportunities to experiment and experience all aspects of the scientific method and through this I can deliver that clear understanding. And I can reasonably expect them to discover quite a bit for themselves in the process. Probably.

Creating excitement for learning

But outstanding teaching and learning is vastly and self-evidently different. What is perhaps most immediately obvious in an outstanding lesson is the positive attitude that pupils have to learning. But ‘positive’ is a weak word, which why ‘passion’ is so important in this case. Outstanding science teachers create opportunities for pupils to be excited about science, to explore the big ideas of the subject and to apply significant individual creativity to the learning. The teacher will provoke questions, provide challenging and interesting contexts which enable students to apply their skills to test and develop knowledge and conceptual understanding, and to operate ‘with exceptional independence’ as scientists.

In subsequent articles we will explore how this passion and independence might arise from what the remaining criteria may have to say about the difference between good and outstanding teaching and learning.

Read the previous article in this series Cultivating outstanding achievement in science

Author details

Ian Warwick is the founder and senior director of London Gifted & Talented and previously taught in inner-city comprehensives for 20 years. LG&T have worked with more than 3,000 schools and 8,000 teachers across London. Ian now also works...

Matt Dickenson is a freelance education consultant. He specialises in developing outstanding teaching and learning, differentiation, challenge and academic literacy.