What PISA 2015 says about how to teach science

Given that Ireland has just gone through a review of STEM teaching, it is interesting to have a look at what PISA has to say. A very quick glance through Vol II of their report reveals the following. My comments are in bold;  text in italics represents quotes from the report.

My conclusion is this: if we want our students to learn science well, then we need to recruit good teachers and the teacher has to be a lot more than a ‘guide on the side’. They need to actually teach. However, adding in some ‘engaging’ activities, like a bit of enquiry-based learning, probably helps to generate some actual enthusiasm for science.


Who performs well in science?

Australia, Canada, Ireland, Slovenia, Portugal, Singapore and the UK are high performers in science. Their 15 year-olds hold strong beliefs about the value of science enquiry, and larger-than-average proportions of students in these countries expect to work in a science-related occupation later on.”

The value of extra-curricular activities

Schools that offer science competitions score 36% higher in science. Their students are 55% more likely to pursue science-related careers. For schools that have science clubs, the numbers are 21 and 30% respectively.

It’s really all about the teacher

PISA results show that when teachers frequently explain and demonstrate scientific ideas, and discuss students’ questions (known collectively as teacher-directed instruction), students score higher in science, they have stronger beliefs in the value of scientific enquiry (what are known as epistemic beliefs) and are more likely to expect to work in a science-related occupation later on. Adapting to students’ needs, such as by providing individual help to struggling students or changing the structure of a lesson on a topic that most students find difficult to understand is also related to higher scores in science and stronger epistemic beliefs.”

Students don’t learn so well when taught using enquiry-based methods but seem to develop some enthusiasm for science when enquiry methods are employed

Perhaps surprisingly, in almost no education system  do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to hands-on enquiry-based instruction  score higher in science. After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profiles, in 56 economies and countries, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction  is associated with lower scores in science. However, across OECD countries, more frequent enquiry-based teaching is positively related to students holding stronger epistemic beliefs and being more likely to expect to work in a science related occupation when they are 30.

[My Note: it would appear that both teacher-led instruction and enquiry-based learning correlate with stronger epistemic beliefs. This is consistent with the next point about time, i.e. any exposure to science is good!]

Time is important

High performance in science is strongly related to the time students devote to learning science and how their teachers teach science.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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