PISA Beyond the Rankings: Pupils’ Experience of Learning Science in the Classroom

Nikki Shure.

On 6 December, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the latest wave of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a two-hour test taken by 15-year-olds from over 70 countries and is used to benchmark pupils’ skills. Most of what gets reported focuses on country rankings in literacy, mathematics and science.

The fact that the 15-year-old PISA participants also fill out a detailed background questionnaire is often overlooked. They answer questions about their school and home situation, parents, teachers and plans for the future. This provides additional data and allows us to compare pupils from different countries beyond sheer performance measures.

In this post, I focus on how pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland experience learning science in the classroom and how this differs from their peers in other industrialised countries and in those countries with the highest average scores in science (those countries are: Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Estonia, Macao, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Finland, Canada, and China). I touch on findings which highlight particular strengths of the classroom experience of science education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as reported by pupils, and a few areas to improve upon.

Pupils in England have more opportunities to explain their ideas than pupils in many high-performing countries

Table 1 shows that 75 per cent of pupils in England responded positively when asked if they are ‘given opportunities to explain their ideas’ in every or most science lessons, as compared to the average across the high-performing countries of 63 per cent of pupils. This contrast becomes even starker when England is compared to some high-performing East Asian countries, for example, Japan, where less than half of pupils reported having opportunities to regularly explain their ideas. Yet there are other high-performing countries, such as Canada and Finland, where the proportion of positive responses is at approximately the same level as in England.

Table 1 Percentage of pupils who report the use of different activities and teaching practices within school science classes

England Northern Ireland Wales OECD H10 +
Pupils are given opportunities to explain their ideas 75% 65% 66% 69%* 63%*
Pupils spend time in the laboratory doing practical experiments 19% 16% 16% 21%* 17%*
Pupils are required to argue about science questions 17% 14% 18% 30%* 21%*
Pupils are asked to draw conclusions from an experiment they have conducted 49% 44% 45% 42%* 35%*
The teacher explains how a school science idea can be applied to a number of different phenomena 61% 58% 56% 59% 53%*
Pupils are allowed to design their own experiments 9% 7% 12% 16%* 13%*
There is a class debate about investigations 14% 13% 17% 26%* 17%*
The teacher clearly explains the relevance of science concepts to our lives 47% 50% 45% 50%* 47%
Pupils are asked to do an investigation to test ideas 30% 28% 28% 26%* 19%*

Source: PISA 2015 database.

Notes: Figures refer to the percentage of pupils who report that the corresponding activity or practice happens in ‘every’ or in ‘most’ of their science lessons as opposed to in ‘some’ or never. H10+ refers to the average across the 10 countries with the highest average science scores. Bold font with * indicates significant difference from England.

There may be less of a focus on debate in science classrooms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were less likely to report arguing about science questions (12-16 percentages points less than the 30 per cent OECD average) and less likely to have a class debate about science investigations (nine to 13 percentage points less than the 26 per cent OECD average). Both of these activities involve applying reasoning to scientific fact and constructing arguments. This suggests that there may be less of an atmosphere of debate in UK science classrooms relative to the average across OECD countries.

Pupils in England and Wales reported receiving more feedback from their teachers than their peers in top-performing countries

Four out of ten pupils in England reported receiving regular feedback from their teachers in ‘every’ or ‘most’ science lessons, which was more feedback than the average pupil in an OECD country. This contrast was especially true for certain kinds of feedback. Pupils in England were 10 percentage points more likely than their peers in top-performing countries to say that their teacher:

a) tells them how they are performing in their course (36 per cent versus 26 per cent),

b) advises them on their areas of strength (41 per cent versus 26 per cent), and

c) tells them where they might improve (46 per cent versus 30 per cent).

This amount of feedback is similar to what pupils in Wales reported, but more than pupils in Northern Ireland. The amount of feedback reported by pupils in England is consistent with reports from teachers on the 2013 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS).

Lower performing pupils in England and Northern Ireland reported receiving more feedback from their teachers

Figure 1 shows that pupils who scored lower on the PISA science exam were more likely to report their teachers giving them regular feedback, especially in terms of how to reach learning goals. This was not the case in Wales, where pupils did not perceive any differences in regularity of feedback based on their performance on PISA, but was the case in Northern Ireland where low ability pupils reported receiving more regular feedback in all five areas.

Figure 1 Percentage of pupils who receive regular feedback from their teachers by science proficiency level in England

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Nevertheless, low-achieving pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reported their teacher as unable to adapt the lesson to their needs

Pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who achieved below Level 2 on the PISA science test were approximately 25 percentage points less likely than their high-achieving peers to report their teacher could ‘adapt the lesson to [their] class’s needs and knowledge’ and ‘provide individual help’, and approximately 10 percentage points less likely to report that their teacher ‘changes the structure of the lesson’. A similar pattern emerges amongst other industrialised countries—and indicates that lower ability pupils may feel left behind in science lessons.

At the same time, low-level disruption was reported to be a bigger problem in England and Wales than in many high-performing countries

Low-level disruption is known to be a challenge facing UK schools, but there is little evidence as to how it compares across countries. Table 2 shows that pupils in England and Wales were twice as likely to report there is ‘noise and disorder’ in ‘every’ or ‘most’ of their science lessons as compared to the average pupil in a high performing country. Reported levels of low-level disruption were much lower in Northern Ireland (although higher in non-grammar schools than in grammar schools) and closer to the average among industrialised countries.

Looking at the high performing countries separately, ‘noise and disorder’ seems to be a lot less common in the high-performing East Asian countries (e.g. 11 per cent in Japan, 20 per cent in China) than in high-performing Western countries, with the situation in Canada (36 per cent) and Finland (38 per cent) more similar to the situation in England and Wales.

Table 2. Percentage of pupils who report low-level disruption occurring frequently during their school science classes

England Northern Ireland  

Wales

OECD H10+
Pupils don’t listen to what the teacher says 36% 32% 41% 32%* 21%*
There is noise and disorder 40% 32% 45% 33%* 22%*
The teacher has to wait a long time for pupils to quiet down 34% 25% 38% 29%* 18%*
Pupils cannot work well 21% 17% 24% 22% 15%*
Pupils don’t start working for a long time after the lesson begins 24% 20% 29% 26% 17%*

Source: PISA 2015 database.

Notes: Figures refer to the percentage of pupils who report that this form of disruption occurred in ‘every’ or in ‘most’ of their school science lessons. Bold font with * indicates significant difference from England. H10+ refers to the average across the 10 countries with the highest average science scores.

These results show that pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have a generally positive experience of interacting with their teachers during science lessons, but that there are some challenges to learning in the classroom. These points require further research, especially in terms of potential consequences. For more details and insights into these findings, see the national reports for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which I have co-authored and the international reports from the OECD.

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Posted in Education policy, International comparisons, Teaching

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