Teaching practices that matter in Key Stage 3

During Key Stage 3 many pupils lose interest in science. Christopher Harris and Ronald Marx describe techniques that can help teachers create engaging and meaningful science experiences for these pupils

KEY STAGE 3 is a critical time for engaging children in learning science. Yet, the way science is often taught during these years leaves many pupils bored and struggling to find relevance and meaning in their science classroom experiences. Educational research shows a steep decline in science interest and achievement among KS3 pupils. A challenge facing educators is to find new ways of teaching science that are engaging, relevant, and meaningful for pupils.

What we know
● Contextualising teaching helps pupils see the relevance of science.
● Activating prior knowledge is an effective starting point for building scientific understanding.
● Supporting explanation and reasoning engages pupils in thinking deeply about science.
● Focusing on learning goals helps pupils stay on the intended learning path.
● Attending to pupil thinking is necessary for pupils to benefit from enquiry.

In this article, we describe a research-based approach to teaching KS3 science called Project-Based Science which has been shown to help address the problems of motivation and learning that pupils often encounter in science classrooms. We highlight five key teaching practices that make a difference when trying to use this approach with pupils.

New views on science teaching

We have learned much in the past 20 years about how to teach science effectively to KS3 pupils. One of the most important lessons has been to make sure that when pupils learn science, they do the work of science. Pupils are engaged and successful learners when they do research and investigate the world around them. Through that research, they learn how scientists think about the world, and they learn that science is an active quest to gain deeper understanding.

This is a far cry from memorising a list of terms, labelling a diagram, or mindlessly moving through the steps of a lab exercise when the whole class knows there is only one correct way to complete it. To be sure, it is important to engage learners in activities that are appropriate to their current knowledge and understanding. In general, KS3 pupils cannot master tasks that are appropriate for older pupils. But this does not mean that they can only memorise. They can think deeply about science if they engage in authentic, disciplined enquiry with carefully constructed support.

Project-Based Science

Project-Based Science (PBS) is a research-based approach to teaching science through enquiry. Projects are framed so that pupils investigate a driving question that guides teaching and organises their investigations. Driving questions encompass science content and connect with pupils’ interests and curiosities about the world. In PBS classrooms, teachers create a meaningful context so that pupils can explore the driving question over several weeks. Pupils collaborate with peers and with their teacher to ask and explore smaller questions that contribute to understanding the driving question. They conduct investigations, weigh evidence, write explanations, and discuss and present findings.

Practices that matter

One of the most important concepts for teachers to understand as they use PBS in their classrooms is that the value of this approach to teaching science rests on engaging their pupils in thinking deeply about their work as learners. Unless pupils think deeply about their enquiry, they will simply be following steps in activities. Just as scientists do not merely follow steps in their research, nor can KS3 pupils. They need to remember that their work is to engage in research to answer the driving question.

Many teaching practices are important in order to support PBS, but five are key: Contextualise science teaching; activate prior knowledge; support reasoning and explanation; focus on learning goals; and attend to pupil thinking.

  • Contextualise science teaching. For meaningful learning to happen, pupils need to be cognitively engaged and active in applying ideas. There are many ways to accomplish this, but we have found that creating compelling and relevant need-to-know situations for learning can be especially powerful for motivating pupils. For instance, pupils are more likely to be motivated to learn important ideas about force and motion by investigating why it is important to wear helmets when riding bicycles or skateboards, or to grasp key ideas in environmental science by investigating the quality of water and air in their communities. When immersed in such contexts, pupils can see first-hand how science can be used to solve problems that are relevant to their lives and community.
  • Activate prior knowledge. An important finding to emerge from educational research is the vital role of prior knowledge in learning. All learners, including children and scientists, use what they already know or have experienced to interpret the world around them and make sense of new information. Admittedly, pupils’ initial ideas about a science topic are often unrefined and off the mark. Research tells us that these fledgling ideas can actually serve as productive starting points for building more sophisticated science understandings. An important point for teachers to remember is that pupils require help in activating their relevant prior knowledge and using it to connect with scientific ideas.
  • Support reasoning and explanation. Another way to engage pupils in thinking deeply about science is to encourage and support reasoning and explanation. Scientists advance in their understanding not simply by describing the natural world, but by explaining it. They typically work in research teams to conduct investigations, generate and evaluate evidence, and then develop explanations of their findings. Scientists share their evidence and findings, and try to convince other members of the scientific community through their explanations. Similarly, pupils can advance in their own understanding by weighing evidence, interpreting results, evaluating claims, and sharing and critiquing explanations of their own and others.
  • Focus on learning goals. Scientific enquiry in school classrooms is typically carried out over days and weeks, rather than minutes and hours, and for this reason it can be easy for teachers and pupils to lose sight of the important ideas. When teachers organise work around learning goals and make clear the intended focus of learning for tasks, children are more likely to hone in on what they are trying to learn. This, in turn, may help pupils to better direct their learning when they are working together on enquiry tasks. Without some sense of the learning goals, pupils run the risk of missing relevant features of the phenomena under study, overlooking key science ideas, or picking up disconnected pieces of information.
  • Attend to pupil thinking. If pupils are to benefit from their science experiences, they must be skilfully guided in their participation. Teachers need to have a rich, flexible grasp of the science ideas under study, as well as an understanding of how to move pupils forward in their thinking. One of the most important ways to understand and assess what pupils are thinking is to provide opportunities for pupils to make their thinking visible. Teachers can do this by orchestrating discussions that encourage pupils to talk about their thinking. As the class focuses on making sense of a science topic, the teacher carefully listens and assesses pupil understanding while also prompting for deeper engagement with science ideas. This productive form of discussion has been shown to help pupils reflect on their own thinking and participate in collective scientific thinking with their fellow classmates and teacher.


The teaching practices we describe here have been shown to benefit pupils. Though we feature them as essential characteristics of PBS, they can also be used with other enquiry approaches to teaching. Our aim has been to highlight practices that can help teachers create engaging, relevant, and meaningful science experiences for KS3 pupils.

About the authors

Christopher Harris is a Researcher in science education at the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International in Menlo Park, California. He conducts research on teaching and learning in science classrooms and designs instructional interventions that aim to promote pupils’ achievement, interest, and motivation in science.

Ronald Marx is Professor of Educational Psychology and Dean of Education at the University of Arizona. His interdisciplinary research focuses on how classrooms can be sites for learning that is highly motivated and cognitively engaging.

Further reading

Duschl RA, Schweingruber HA, & Shouse AW (Editors) (2007), Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Krajcik JS, & Blumenfeld PC (2006), Project-Based Learning. In RK Sawyer (Editor), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 317–333). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Krajcik JS, & Czerniak CM (2007), Teaching Science in Elementary and Middle School: A Project-Based Approach (3rd edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Michaels S, Shouse AW, & Schweingruber HA (2008), Ready, Set, Science!: Putting Research to Work in K– 8 Science Classrooms. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Singer J, Marx RW, Krajcik JS, & Clay-Chambers J (2000), Constructing Extended Inquiry Projects: Curriculum Materials for Science Education Reform. Educational Psychologist, 35(3), 165–178.


June 2010