Subject knowledge in science teaching

It can be really difficult discerning causes from symptoms in medicine. You have sores that won’t heal so are prescribed antibiotics, when in fact you are diabetic.

The same dilemma faces anyone involved in lesson observations. You observe a lesson and identify that questioning was not used well, or pace was slow or perhaps there were too many activities and not enough learning. You discuss the lesson together and identify an action step around scripting questions before you teach a lesson. But, this kind of feedback is probably misguided as we have identified the symptom and not the cause.

Science teachers are constantly teaching outside of their specialism. Chemistry graduates are teaching biology, biology graduates teaching physics and so forth. To make matters worse, our degrees are often highly specialised i.e. biomedicine or genetics have very little relevance to the school science we are teaching. This means that beginning science teachers are having to teach themselves the very same concepts that they are teaching their students – all within a very short timeframe, and often with the same misconceptions. Consequently, lesson planning and delivery can suffer as a result of weak subject or content knowledge.

I remember teaching A Level Chemistry for the first time. The lessons were planned but at a superficial level. I was overly generous with praise in the lesson in the hope it would deflect from my slightly flimsy understanding of kinetics. I wasn’t confident in asking probing questions in the fear of being asked a harder one! And the lessons did not flow as I was unable to make fruitful links between disparate pieces of content. If you had given me feedback around questioning, you would have missed the point. I didn’t ask questions because I didn’t know what questions to ask.

The solution – time to get radical!

With the new science GCSEs in full spring there is a real need for science teachers to have good subject knowledge for some quite tricky concepts So, how can we develop our subject knowledge for school science quickly, deeply and in a sustainable way? Firstly, some of this is a teacher training issue. We need to prepare and support science teachers in developing subject knowledge to a good level, at least around key big ideas, before they enter the classroom. You can’t learn how to teach at the same time as learning what to teach; well you can, but it will just burn you out and leave you frustrated. Secondly, we need to think much more radically about teachers’ timetables. It just doesn’t make sense for an inexperienced teacher to be teaching years 7,8,9,10 and A Level. Let’s instead use a model where teachers become experts and teach just two year groups at a time, and get really good at doing that. Yes, there will be a cost in that teachers will not have a complete understanding of progression over 7-13. But the advantages are much greater; teachers will be enabled to be successful as they will have a much smaller domain to master and will have the opportunity to practice the same lesson multiple times. And as we all know – practice makes perfect. OK, good practice makes perfect, but it’s a start!

Developing your own science subject knowledge

  1. Buy a CGP revision guide!
  2. Complete exam papers – see AQA or Edexcel website if in the UK
  3. Complete diagnostic multiple choice questions 
  4. Visit the ASE Subject knoweldge page
  5. Read some books – start with Rosalind Driver 


Further reading

Ingersoll, R. (2002). Out of field teaching, educational inequality, and the organisation of schools: An exploratory analysis. Retrieved from sites/default/files/researchreport/796_outoffield-ri-01-2002.pdf

Grossman, P. L., Wilson, S. M. and Shulman, L. S. (1989) Teachers of substance: subject matter knowledge for teaching. In M. C. Reynolds (ed.), Knowledge Base for the Beginning Teacher (New York: Pergamon), 23–36

Kind, V., 2014. A Degree Is Not Enough: A quantitative study of aspects of pre-service science teachers’ chemistry content knowledge. International Journal of Science Education, 36(8), pp.1313-1345

  1. Why all students should learn science
  2. Next steps for beginning science teachers
  3. Initial science teacher training resources 
  4. How to plan effective science lessons: the EPIBA approach
  5. Essential reads for beginning science teachers
  6. Developing subject knowledge 
  7. A timeline of science education in England
  8. Useful websites for science teachers