Big and powerful ideas of science

What’s the point of an education in science?

Over the years there have been no shortage of aims for science education. From creating future scientists, through to creating consumers of science and everything in between (Osborne, 2007). Who then gets to decide on what the aims should be? Well, perhaps no one does. Instead, the aims of science education should come from the discipline itself.

Science is a discipline dedicated to explaining the natural world: why men have nipples, why solid water floats on liquid water and why metals feel cold, but aren’t. An education in science is about giving all students access to these powerful ideas (Young, 2014) so that they can inquire and reason about the world in a way that is personally meaningful and yet dramatically different from their everyday way of thinking.

Which scientific ideas then are the most important for students to acquire?

Big and powerful ideas

Big and powerful ideas of science are my attempt to phrase subject-specific goals for biology, chemistry and physics education. Many of these ideas have been taken from or inspired by Harlen (2010) and describe the major understandings that students should acquire by the time they leave school.

These are powerful ideas in that they comprise specialist knowledge that takes students beyond their everyday way of thinking, allowing them to explain a range of phenomena.

These powerful ideas are outlined below in draft (beta) form. They are being shared at this stage in case they are useful for anyone thinking about curriculum design in light of the new Ofsted framework. Thank you to everyone who has already given feedback on these ideas – please keep it coming using the comments box below.

Big and powerful ideas of biology beta

  1. Life is organised on a cellular basis that has a finite life span^
  2. Organisms compete with, or depend on, other organisms for the same basic materials and energy that cycle throughout ecosystems^
  3. All organisms use the same genetic material that is passed down from one generation to another^
  4. The diversity of organisms, living and extinct, is the result of evolution by natural selection^

Big and powerful ideas of chemistry beta

  1. All substances in the Universe are made from atoms held together by electrostatic forces of attraction^
  2. The physical properties of a substance depend on how particles are arranged and joined together
  3. Chemists use equations and formulae to represent how atoms and electrons are exchanged during chemical reactions
  4. Chemical reactions occur when bonds are broken and new bonds are made and the reaction increases the disorder of the Universe

Big and powerful ideas of physics beta

  1. Changing the speed or direction of an object requires an unbalanced force to be acting on it^
  2. Every particle in our Universe attracts every other particle with a gravitational force
  3. The total amount of energy in the Universe is always the same but can be transferred from one energy store to another during an event*
  4. Charged particles create electric fields, and when these particles move they produce magnetic fields

 Big and powerful ideas about science beta

  1. Science is about finding the cause or causes of phenomena in the natural world using a diversity of methods and instruments^
  2. Scientific explanations, theories and models are those that best fit the evidence available at a particular time*
  3. Applications of science often have ethical, social, economic and political implications*

* Taken from or inspired by ^ Harlen (2010)

Building a curriculum towards big ideas

Check out this page for ideas on how to use these ideas to build a curriculum.

Further reading

  • Harlen, W. (Ed.). (2010). Principles and big ideas of science education. Association for Science Education. Retrieved from
  • Osborne, J. (2007). Science Education for the Twenty First Century. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 3(3), 173-184. Retrieved from here.
  • Young, M. (2014). The curriculum and the entitlement to knowledge. Retrieved from here.


  1. Building a curriculum towards big ideas
  2. Big ideas
  3. Big and powerful ideas of science
  4. Knowledge in the curriculum
  5. Coherence in the curriculum

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