GCSE success means 3 essential curriculum dimensions

GCSE success means 3 essential curriculum dimensions

Why teach Working Scientifically? Ofsted

It’s official! A one-dimensional content curriculum is not good enough. Ofsted inspectors expect a second dimension Working Scientifically, or scientific enquiry (Ofsted, 2021). Students need to be taught the 'why' and the 'how' as well as the 'what'.

Why teach Working Scientifically? GCSE

If you look at the GCSE assessment criteria, you’ll see that 50% of the marks are for scientific enquiry. Not only that, it’s hard to achieve some of the AO2 ‘Apply’ and AO3 ‘Analyse’ marks unless you have a good understanding of how science works. Just look at what’s required to solve this question.


Here, at least for me, are the main steps in the thinking process (called ‘cognitive task analysis').

  1. OK, this tree has an unusual behaviour, it loses its leaves for nine months in the summer. This is the observation I’m supposed to explain [Working Scientifically]
  2. On the graph, I can see a clear pattern in the rainfall - it is low in the summer. Ah, so that must have something to do with the explanation. [Working Scientifically]
  3. I can deduce that little rain means the plant won’t take in much water. [Working Scientifically + knowledge]
  4. I also know that plants lose water from their leaves. So, losing its leaves means less water loss. [Knowledge]
  5. I know that plants need water for photosynthesis. [Knowledge]
  6. OK, now I can see a hypothesis to explain the observation - the plant loses its leaves because it needs to keep its water for photosynthesis, when it’s not getting much from the soil. [Working Scientifically +knowledge]

Notice that 4 of the stops involve Working Scientifically. This is why the question is so hard - students have to coordinate knowledge and scientific thinking.

And that takes experience, of starting with phenomena, and learning how to develop an explanation. In other words, Working Scientifically needs a 5-year strategy. 

Why teach Working Scientifically? Budding scientists

Don't let anyone tell you that teaching scientific thinking while learning content creates cognitive load. Students are quite capable of participating in an enquiry process, provided they are given guidance:  

“Experiments demonstrate the extent to which children behave like budding scientists who reason like good statisticians, eliminating the least likely hypotheses and search for the hidden causes of various phenomena”. (Dahaene, 2020)

Indeed one modern view of learning is that the brain builds models of reality, constantly makes predictions and tests them against reality, and then updates them if they're wrong. Doesn't that sound like how science works?

Avoid the trap: it’s just practical work

Ofsted note that Working Scientifically is a weakness in many science schemes. They fall into one of two traps. The first is to believe that it’s enough just to do good practical work. That’s wrong because the research says that Working Scientifically is actually made up of concepts and skills that require teaching.

Some popular commercial schemes fall into this trap. Here’s a typical example:

Students do a friction investigation like this. And the questions practise lots of different skills. But the first skill ‘making a prediction’ is not explained, so there’s no teaching going on.

And there are so many other skills, it’s difficult to see how students will get enough focus attention to learn much.  

Avoid the trap: it’s just skills

The second trap is to treat Working Scientifically as a separate strand - a set of skills you use when you do experiments, but not when you learn theory. First, it misrepresents how scientists work. Second, if you teach concepts without talking about phenomena, evidence and theory, students are likely to see them as fixed facts, rather than explanations, which makes them less likely to be applied. 

A different mindset: situated cognition

It takes a different mindset to teach content and Working Scientifically in tandem. Thankfully there’s a learning theory which can help. It’s called ‘situated cognition’. Basically it means we learn the activity, and the context as well as the content.

If we teach concepts through information transmission, student will learn that science is handed down as a set of cut-and-dried facts, not to be questioned.

But if we involve them in Working Scientifically, which you are modelling, students will come to develop expertise in the process of explaining phenomena as they build ideas with other students.

Situated cognition leads to the teaching model of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989), where you are the expert scientific thinker, who is gradually inducting students into the practice and culture of doing science.

Why teach 21st Century skills?

There's actually a third dimension to an good science curriculum. Perhaps not so much in Ofsted thinking at the moment, but it is certainly supported by research.

These are what are often called ‘21st century skills’, and include creativity, interpersonal, and self-learning skills.

Why do we need to include these in our curriculum? Firstly, most schools have a mission to create learners for the future who can actually think for themselves, and continue to learn throughout their lives. But how are students ever going to master these skills, if we just spoon feed them with content?

Second, the research is quite clear that these factors, often called ‘non-cognitive’ because they’re not directly measured by tests, account for around 50% of students’ achievement (Garcia, 2016).

Third, is motivation. It’s easily forgotten, but motivation affects how deeply people process the material, and you can increase it by adding autonomy, mastery and purpose (Pink, 2011). This is much easier with a 3-dimensional curriculum, where the activities allow students some choice, and inject a real-world purpose.

A 3D curriculum through ‘Backwards design’

How do you achieve 3-dimensional learning in your curriculum? By using a process called ‘backwards design’ (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Since our goal is understanding, we start by clarifying exactly what we want students to understand about the key concept. Then we work backwards, and add in each dimension.

The best way to explain this is through an example. Watch the video from our webinar and see how we turn a 1-dimensional topic into a 3-dimensional phenomenon-based inquiry.


What next?

The next post in the series focusses on how to organise your curriculum around learning progressions, to foster big idea understanding.



  • Ofsted, Research review series: science. (2021, April 29). GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-science
  • Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. In Educational Researcher (Vol. 18, Issue 1, pp. 32–42). 
  • Garcia, E. (2016). The need to address non-cognitive skills in the education policy agenda. In Non-cognitive skills and factors in educational attainment (pp. 31–64).
  • Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Penguin.
  • Dehaene, S. (2020). How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine... for Now. Penguin.
  • Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. ASCD. 




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