Looking ahead: the future of inquiry-based education and the National curriculum


asimina.vergou@bgci.org | 18/09/13 | London

What is the future of inquiry-based science education in the UK in light of the newly published National curriculum? September 2014 is the time when the new curriculum will take effect in the English schools and until then teachers and educators need to start planning on how to implement it.

‘How science works’ has been an important aspect of the previous revision of the national curriculum and is now renamed as ‘Working scientifically’. Two issues are emphasized in relation to how this aspect should be taught in both primary and secondary education: ‘it should not be taught as a separate strand’ and ‘it must always be taught through and clearly related to the teaching of substantive science content in the programme of study’.

These curriculum guidelines might have several implications. For example, the guidelines indicate that a teacher should not have a lesson teaching children the skills of science before they apply them in an investigation. But in practice it is not easy to ask students to conduct investigations without preparing them with the relevant skills.

In addition, the emphasis on content knowledge puts pressure on teachers to ensure that when students do practical work they will need to follow a prescribed route to a known outcome. This might jeopardize the implementation of IBSE in the Endlish classroom during the coming years. However, there is evidence from research that shows the effectiveness of IBSE in knowledge acquisition. For example Wilson et al’s study (2010) examined the effects of inquiry-based instruction on multiple, relevant learning goals (knowledge, reasoning, and argumentation) and looked at those effects across different populations. They found that ‘students in the inquiry-based group outperformed students receiving commonplace instruction on each of the knowledge, scientific reasoning, and argumentation measures’ (p. 295). Moreover, Wilson et al suggest that IBSE has been considerably effective as a way of teaching science because it encompasses a broader range of student learning goals than commonplace science teaching which, they focuses on ‘a knowledge transmission model with a much narrower set of student learning goals’ (p. 294).

Another issue in relation to the IBSE and the newly published national curriculum regards critical thinking. A core feature of IBSE is the aim to develop independent and critical thinking skills (e.g. Levy, Lameras, McKinney, & Ford (2011). Teachers who are eager to encourage students’ critical thinking in science would opt to do so through IBSE. However, critical thinking skills are absent from the discourse of the science curriculum while they are a prerequisite in other subjects such as art, history and as expected in citizenship.

On a positive note, the curriculum does specify that students should be supported to investigate their own questions. for example, KS1 Science programme of study explains that pupils ‘should be encouraged to be curious and ask questions about what they notice. They should be helped to develop their understanding of scientific ideas by using different types of scientific enquiry to answer their own questions, including observing changes over a period of time, noticing patterns, grouping and classifying things, carrying out simple comparative tests and finding things out using secondary sources of information’.

Considering that the new National Curriculum is supposed to provide more freedom to schools in terms of how they implement its requirements it will be interesting to see how much support they get from the DFE for example with additional resources and training that will enable teachers to provide high quality education to pupils.

Read the National Curriculum documents published on the Department for Education website to find out in more detail what are the future requirements regarding teaching science in the UK schools. 

Levy, P., Lameras, P., McKinney, P., & Ford, N. (2011). The features of inquiry learning: theory, research and practice. Pathway to Inquiry Based Science Teaching, (Deliverable 2.1). European Commission: CSA-SA Support Actions, Project Number 266624. Retrieved from http://www.pathwayuk.org.uk/what-is-ibse.html

Wilson, C. D., Taylor, J. A., Kowalski, S. M., & Carlson, J. (2010). The Relative Effects and Equity of Inquiry-Based and Commonplace Science Teaching on Students’ Knowledge, Reasoning, and Argumentation. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(3), 276–301.


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