Last night on Twitter I reached out to hear people’s thoughts on how to go about writing a KS3 science curriculum bearing cognitive science in mind (1). I got some really interesting responses from people who are a) more knowledgeable than I am and b) more experienced than I am. I wanted to get down some tentative thoughts here, not because I think they will be exhaustive at all, but because it helps me to frame the debate. All of the things I am going to mention below could be the subjects of longer blogs (and maybe one day will be).

The Problem With KS3 Curricula

  1. Since the SATs were abolished, in many places there has been limited emphasis on KS3 science. In an era of high stakes accountability this is understandable
  2. The proliferation of KS3 bought-in schemes of work has enabled teachers to take the back seat when it comes to science curriculum planning
  3. In conjunction with 1.2 there are now thousands of different KS3 science resources floating around, all related to different schemes of work and different curricula, with different emphases. This has led to a very laissez faire approach to what is actually taught
  4. KS3 assessments tend to be very poor (in the four or so schemes of work I have used) and do not focus on the actual science that a student needs to know and focus a lot more on the scientific process. This means they are not a reliable or valid indicator of what the student actually knows. Add to this that some of the questions are just appallingly worded and based on an obsolete level-descriptor model.
  5. A lot of science teachers I speak to from across the country are struggling to deliver the new GCSE syllabus: it is more voluminous and conceptually demanding than any of the past. It is imperative that KS3 prepares students appropriately.
  6. Building on that, it is incredibly distressing to me that students appear to reach KS4 and have highly sparse background knowledge. This could be a function of both curriculum and teaching but is necessary to be addressed.

The Big Ideas of Science: What’s the Big Idea?

A number of people referenced this ASE document which details the Big Ideas of Science and says that all teaching should be in reference to them. There’s a lot of language in there that doesn’t really suit me (2) but I wanted to unpick a bit of the debate surrounding them last night (and today).

  1. What is the purpose of the Big Idea?
    1. The Big Idea could be there to kind of tie everything together so we don’t have a list of “disconnected facts”
    2. Is this a “thing in and of itself”? I.e. it should not be thought of in reference to its utility to some other goal (e.g. helping students to learn and systematise knowledge) but is important in its own right.
    3. Are these more of a planning tool than a teaching tool?
    4. It also could be there as we think this is something fundamental to understanding new science when presented to us, so we can fit it into a pre-organised and arranged system. Which leads me on to…
  2. Are these the same as “schema”?
    1. If they are, then that has implications for how we go about teaching them. As i have written before, the lack of reference to cognitive science in academic educational science writing is incredibly frustrating to me.
  3. Can you teach Big Ideas without reference to its “application”?
    1. I had a great discussion with Helen Rogerson and Helen Harden about this. Take for example statement BI “all the material in the universe is made of very small particles.” Presumably an “application” of that would be statement A “atoms are very small particles, which are, in turn, made of even smaller particles”In what order to you teach these BI and A? Do you start with BI and then give examples like A? Is it possible to understand BI without examples? But then what if you just teach A and then BI? Have you properly shown students that science is a coherent system with overarching principles?

      Would a compromise approach be to start with a lot of examples and then halfway through your course start introducing big ideas and then continually reference them?

  4. Who decides what these Big Ideas are?
    1. I haven’t read the document cover to cover but it gives a fairly extensive justification of each of the ideas
    2. Unfortunately in their panel, actual classroom teachers are massively under-represented with only a couple of the “senior” members ever having spent time in a classroom. No current teachers. This shouldn’t necessarily take away from the substance of the report but still irks me.
    3. Some of the principles seem a little, “unweighty.” Take for example “objects can affect other objects at a distance.” Yes, that’s true, but it’s hardly on par with the conservation of matter, which is not included in the list. It seems like someone took a list of topics like magnetism, gravity and radiation, figured out that they all involve objects affecting other objects at a distance, and categorised them based on that.
  5. Is there any systematic evidence to suggest that students who are taught using the big ideas are more effective scientists? If not then why should we pay them any heed?

Building a curriculum for knowledge

Something I suggested was to write a list of 600 questions that you want students to be able to answer by the end of KS3. You can then build your scheme around those questions, constantly referring to them and using knowledge organisers or some other method to engage in spaced and interleaved retrieval practice.

The obvious question is how do you decide the questions? This could be mediated by:

  1. Core knowledge that people need to access society (Hirschian approach?)
  2. Core knowledge that people need to make informed scientific decisions (e.g. vaccines, climate change etc.)
  3. Core knowledge that students need to succeed in KS4 (and make the KS4 teacher’s life easier)
  4. Things that are “awesome” and “wonderful”

There’s also the possibility of throwing the “how science works” stuff into the mix. My feelings on that are pretty strong, but will have to be a blog for another time.


Common misconceptions need to be realised and thought about in planning. This is a very tricky area and I’m currently researching more about how misconceptions arise (in evolutionary psychological terms) and if they can be overwritten or if the best we can hope for is suppression.

History of science

George Pidgeon pointed out that the history of science is important too in terms of the way our ideas have developed. In my opinion this is important for a number of reasons:

  1. It gives students a coherent narrative. Perhaps could even replace the “Big Ideas”
  2. Can preempt misconceptions: for every daft idea you hear in the classroom, there will be a towering figure from the history of science who believed it was true
  3. Gives a more nuanced view of “scientific enquiry” than the usual “let’s plan a practical!” approach

Ease of delivery/preparation

There is also the rather pedestrian concern of actual delivery. Any curriculum would need to be deliverable by all teachers and properly resourced and assessed (though assessment is decidedly less pedestrian).

Compromise position

In short, there is much to think about. I don’t yet know what my dream KS3 curriculum would be, but this is a good starting point. Presumably there would have to be a compromise at some point – you can never please everyone!



(1) The background to this is that our department’s KS3 coordinator is leaving and this provides a great opportunity to go back to the drawing board. My recent thinking on this pays some debt to Michael Fordham’s piece. I am also aware that there is a gibongous amount of literature on curriculum design. I’m just a teacher though, so I have raised issues here as I see them.

(2) the Ten Principles of Science Education section is highly objectionable