Enquiry skills

Definitions, examples and symbols of different types of science skills

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Whichever curriculum your school follows, pupils should have the opportunity to carry out practical investigations in science that help them to develop their scientific skills. These skills are sometimes referred to as a cycle or 'PLAN, DO, REVIEW'. Teachers in English primary schools may know these skills as 'working scientifically' skills.

Here we introduce seven science skills which children develop from ages 4 to 11 years:

  • asking questions
  • making predictions
  • setting up tests
  • observing and measuring
  • recording data
  • interpreting and communicating results
  • evaluating

Definitions & Examples

Asking Questions

Questions children may ask:

What features do animals living at the North Pole have? Children might use books, websites or watch videos to find out (research).

Do all flowers have five petals? Children may suggest carrying out a survey of flowers in the school grounds (pattern seeking).

Which shoes have most grip? Children could investigate the forces needed to pull shoes across different surfaces (a comparative test).

When is the bulb brightest? Children could investigate the effect of changing the number of batteries or the thickness / length of the wire in their circuit (fair tests).

Making predictions

Predictions that children may make:

I think that the biggest egg will hatch first. You could have an egg hatching kit in the classroom for chicks (observation over time).

I think that some objects can be hard and soft. Children could identify classroom objects as hard and/or soft and place into labelled hoops (Identifying, grouping and classifying). Will the hoops need to overlap because some objects are hard and soft?

I think this is the strongest magnet. Children could measure the greatest distance that different types of magnet attract a paperclip (fair test).

I think the puddle on the in the sun will evaporate sooner than the puddle in the shade. Children may investigate by measuring the perimeter of the puddle or taking photographs during the day (observation over time and a comparative test).

Setting up tests

Planning an investigation with children often starts with a question and then discussion about the method and equipment needed. Sometimes it is appropriate to provide the equipment and let the children decide their method independently. Sometimes you might have a class discussion to plan how the children will carry out the investigation but leave the children to select the equipment they need.

What changes do you notice across the four seasons? Children may decide to observe one tree across the year and ask to photograph it using a camera or tablet (observation over time).

How do rocks vary? Children may use hand lenses or microscopes to help them identify whether they have grains, crystals or fossils in them (identifying, grouping and classifying).

How will you separate this mixture of sand, stones and salt? You may provide a range of sieves, spoons, filter paper and funnels so that the children can explore how to do this most effectively (problem solving).

Observing and measuring

Children will use a variety of equipment for observing and measuring:

Using different senses - you may use 'feely' bags or smelling pots to encourage young children to use their sense of touch and smell to identify different objects (identifying, grouping and classifying).

Measuring with rulers - children might investigate what happens to a seed or bulb as they grow into mature plants and measure the length of the stem (observation over time).

Using a thermometer - children might investigate the effect of temperature on the time it takes sugar to dissolve (fair test).

Using data loggers - children could record sound made by a ticking clock as the distance from the source increases (pattern seeking).

Recording data

Children may record data is several ways:

Using drawings or annotated diagrams - children investigating the effect of light, water and temperature on plant growth might draw diagrams of the plants every few days (observation over time).

Using tables - children investigating materials that conduct electricity might record their findings in a table (comparative test).

Using graphs - children investigating whether people with the longest legs run fastest could plot a scatter graph and draw a 'line of best fit' to see whether there is a direct relationship (pattern seeking).

interpreting and communicating data

Pupils may record their findings in oral or written forms.

Note: It is not necessary for primary age children to produce a written scientific report (e.g. method, results, conclusions) every time they carry out an investigation. We suggest that teachers and pupils could focus on recording just one enquiry skill during each practical lesson. For example, pupils could record their data in a table or write a short paragraph to say what they found out.

Children may communicate their results in many ways:

Orally - young children could explain to the class which items sink and float after they have each tested some objects (identifying, grouping and classifying).

Drama - children describe pollination of flowers by insects after watching some film clips (research)

Power point - older children could present a power point to their peers after finding out about the life cycle of a chosen animal (research).

Diagrams - children could create a classification key to identify mini beasts or plants after carrying out a survey in their local environment (identifying, grouping and classifying)

Poster/leaflet - children could suggest which drinks would be best for your teeth after investigating the effect of different liquids on egg shells (observation over time & fair test).

Sticky note/paragraph - children could write a short paragraph to explain how to make the best string telephone after testing various pots and threads (pattern seeking).

Evaluating

Pupils may evaluate their practical investigations orally or in written forms:

Informal discussion between pupil and teacher - a pupil may explain that the rocket mouse did not travel far because the bottle was small (comparative test).

Class discussion - pupils may agree that they did not find many mini beasts when they went out to survey the school grounds because it was a cold/wet day (identifying, grouping and classifying).

Written paragraph - a child may explain an anomalous result on a graph. For example, when investigating the effect of different shapes on water resistance (fair test), 'We found it difficult to start the stop watch exactly at the time the shape touched the surface of the liquid so the times are not very accurate.'

All types of science enquiry skills can be recorded by the teacher in a floorbook. You will find examples of children's enquiry skills recorded in a floorbook here.

Symbols

PSTT has designed the following symbols (for consistency in their own resources) that could be displayed in your classroom to help the children identify and recall the particular science skills they are using in their science investigations.

These symbols are ©Primary Science Teaching Trust 2019 but may be freely used by teachers in schools for educational purposes, subject to the source being credited.

You should not:

  • Re-scale or warp, shear or otherwise alter or distort the proportions of any original artwork
  • Add any visual effects to the symbols (e.g. shadows)
  • Alter the colours
  • change the symbol's orientation
  • Add any text to the symbol
  • Add gradations

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Enquiry Skills [35.04kB]

Poster displaying symbols and definitions of all types of enquiry

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Asking questions [48.33kB]

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Making predictions [43.93kB]

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Setting up tests [42.64kB]

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Observing and measuring [42.18kB]

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Recording data [37.87kB]

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Interpreting and communicating results [44.31kB]

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Evaluating [53.60kB]

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