4 Challenges of Teaching Science in Primary School


STEM is the key to the future, and the future is in the hands of our children…which can put a lot of pressure on primary teachers to get their heads and minds across the S in STEM.

Kirren, a primary teacher new to science, captures the experience perfectly:

“No way, I’m not doing this. So I’d zip out to uni and get all these very simple experiments, like with a tin can or anything that wouldn’t take long to set up or would get a point, like with atmospheric pressure across. A balloon in a bottle, stuff like that. And I said to the kids, quite honestly, I’ve never done these experiments before, so you and I are going to be learning together, and if it doesn’t work, well does it matter, and they went no. At least we’ve both learnt something out of it. So, they were quite good.” – Kirren, science-terrified Primary Teacher

From the Journal of Science Teacher Education, 1999

Thousands of primary science teachers like Kirren are faced with four big challenges: defining science, their own understanding of science, their students understanding of science, and finding the time to make science happen in the classroom.

Challenge 1: Defining Science

Try to define science. Don’t use Google, the dictionary, or your favourite curriculum-referencing website.

It’s not easy— teachers can have very different conception of what science is. In a study by Angela Fitzgerald and Kathy Smith (2016) a group of teachers were asked ‘What is science? – here’s what they said:

Everything and everywhere;

  • Understanding our world;
  • Forming opinions based on evidence;
  • The study of how and why things work;
  • The interactions between living things; and
  • Inquiring, questioning and investigating the world around us.

They’re not wrong – but imagine how different science would be taught in each of these classrooms.

Many teachers define science using the traditional scientific method:

Ask a question (why do balloons pop?)

Form a hypothesis (because they hold air)

Make a prediction (if I fill a balloon with air, it will pop)

Test or experiment (I’ve filled a balloon with air and pierced it with a pin)

Analyse (What happened to the balloon?)

This is one way to define how science can work in some fields and contexts, yet it is far from the only way to define science or model scientific inquiry in the classroom.[/fusion_text][fusion_text]

Challenge 2: Not being a ‘science expert’!

Many primary teachers haven’t received extra training in teaching science, leading to low confidence in teaching, and less effective science lessons.

Luckily, you don’t have to be a lab coat wearing, test-tube twirling scientist to teach it. By using engaging questions, strong lesson plans, and frameworks that connect science to the real world, you can create a thirst for inquiry, exploration, and a passion for the scientific method.

Challenge 3: What your learners ‘know’

In the popular (and unintentionally hilarious) study entitled, ‘Children’s Misconceptions in Primary Science: A Survey of Teachers‘ views’, young learners suggested that ‘stones grow’ and that ‘tall people are older than shorter people’. It’s a simple, beautiful, and logical naivety that makes young learners a gift to work with…but may also make teaching abstract concepts a challenge.

Teaching science relies on understanding what your learners know in other content areas. For example, students need to be able to read and write well to document their findings, as well as have a good grounding in mathematics to do analyses.

There’s further roadblocks to consider, like:

– clarifying student misconceptions (why stones do not grow)

– proposing abstract concepts (like the forces of ‘push’ and ‘pull’)

– ensuring students’ knowledge in other areas can help them with their science inquiry[/fusion_text][fusion_text]

Challenge 4: There’s never enough time

Every educational body demands different requirements are met in-class – but outside of the classroom, there’s preparation time to consider:

Finding resources: 1 – 3 hours

Making lesson plan: 1 hour

Setting up class for science lesson: 30 min

Class Discussion/Teaching: 20 minutes

Students experiment: 45 min-1 hr hour

Packing away lesson: 30 min

Evaluating outcomes: 1 hour

That’s a lot of time to get prepared for a lesson that might not go according to play – just ask our friend Kirren.[/fusion_text][fusion_text]

Solutions: What primary teachers can do!

There are some simple steps you can take to start building solid science learning in your primary class:

      1. Begin with a solid lesson plan that engages students from the get-go!
      2. Familiarise yourself with the 5E Model of Science – Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate – read more about the 5E Model of Science
      3. Think about how you can connect your science lessons to the real world and make learning relevant to your students’ interests (remember your NOS)!
      4. Create a scientific learning environment in the class – we’ve written some great tips on how you can encourage learners to get into the scientific headspace, like making a Wonder Table, getting hands-on, and surrounding your class with science.


Science that Matters: Exploring Science Learning and Teaching in Primary Schools – Australian Journal of Teacher Education

5 Challenges for Science in Australian Primary Schools – The Conversation

Origins of, and changes in preservice teachers’ science teaching self efficacy – QUT ePrints

Children’s Misconceptions in Primary Science: a survey of teachers’ views – Research in Science & Technological Education

The Continuing Decline of Science and Mathematics Enrolments in Australian Schools – QUT ePrints

Staff in Australia’s Schools 2013: Main Report on the Survey – ACER

Meeting the Reading Challenges of Science Textbooks in the Primary Grades – International Literacy Association

Beginning elementary school teachers and the effective teaching of science – Journal of Science Teacher Education

How Do Beginning Primary School Teachers Cope with Science? Toward an Understanding of Science Teaching Practice – Research in Science Education


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