Despite all the eminently sensible caveats offered by Sam Freedman, PISA provides a fascinating lens through which to view the world of education. The most interesting of the PISA documents I’ve had a chance to look at today is Policies and Practices for Successful Schools. It’s a long document and a great many policies and practices are addressed, but the most interesting to me is the section on how science is taught (pp 65-77).

As the report says, “How science is taught at school can make a big difference for students.” In order to work out what sorts of activities regularly occur across the countries taking part in PISA 2015, students were asked about the frequency of four main approaches to teaching: teacher directed instruction, perceived feedback, adaptive instruction and enquiry-based instruction and asked whether they ‘never or almost never happened’, happened in ‘some lessons’, ‘many lessons’, or in ‘every or almost every lesson’.

Let’s have a look at these four areas in turn.

Teacher directed instruction

The report states that this was the most frequently reported of all instructional strategies perhaps because it’s seen as “less time consuming” and “easier to implement”. The report defines the goals of teacher directed instruction as “to provide a well structured, clear and informative lesson on a topic and usually includes the following components:

  • The teacher explains scientific ideas
  • The teacher discusses our questions
  • The teacher demonstrates an idea
  • A whole class discussion takes place with the teacher

Fascinatingly, the report finds that “using teacher directed instruction more frequently is associated with higher science achievement” and students in all countries were more likely to “hold stringer epistemic beliefs” and had higher expectations of “pursuing a scientific career”. This suggests that using teacher directed instruction is more likely not only to increase students’ performance in examinations but also give them a better understanding of how science works and make them more enthusiastic about being scientists. By far the most positively correlated of the our aspects of teacher directed instruction was explaining scientific ideas, with whole class discussions being slightly negatively correlated. In other words, it seems that the more time the teacher spends explaining and the less time students spend in discussion, the better.


Perceived feedback from science teachers

We all know that providing feedback is positively associated with students’ performance, but more important perhaps is how students perceive the feedback they’re given. It may seem surprising that the report finds that “more perceived feedback is also associated with poorer performance in science”, but this is in line with findings from cognitive science. I’ve written about why it makes better sense to reduce the feedback teachers give here. Weirdly, the report also finds that where students report higher perceptions of receiving feedback they’re more likely to want to pursue science related careers.

This area of instruction broke down into five categories all of which were reported in roughly equal numbers:

  • The teacher tells me tells me how I am performing in the course
  • The teacher gives me feedback on my strengths in this class
  • The teacher tells me in which areas I can still improve
  • The teacher tells me how I can improve my performance
  • The teacher advises me on how to reach my learning goals

Adaptive instruction

This seems broadly similar to the way most teachers in the UK think about differentiation and breaks down into the following three areas:

  • The teacher adapts the lesson to my class’s needs and knowledge
  • The teacher provides individual help when a student has difficulties understanding a topic or task
  • The teacher changes the structure of a lesson on a topic most students find difficult to understand

Although relatively few students (16%) thought their teachers adapted instruction in most lessons, this instructional strategy is positively correlated with better performance, science beliefs and expectations of working in science related fields.

Enquiry-based instruction

The report defines enquiry-based instruction as “about engaging students in experimentation and hands-on activities, and also about challenging students and encouraging them to develop a conceptual understanding of scientific ideas.”

This was by far the largest area, breaking down into nine categories:

  • Students are given opportunities to explain their ideas
  • Students spend time in the laboratory doing practical experiments
  • Students are required to argue about science questions
  • Students are asked to draw conclusions from an experiment they have conducted
  • The teacher explains how a science idea can be applied to a number of different phenomena
  • Students are allowed to design their own experiments
  • There is a class debate about investigations
  • The teacher clearly explains the relevance of science concepts to our lives
  • Students are asked to do an investigation to test ideas

The big news is that “greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is negatively associated with performance”.

Perhaps surprisingly, in no education system do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to enquiry based instruction (when they are encouraged to experiment and engage in hands-on activities) score higher in science. After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, in 56 countries and economies, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is associated with lower scores in science.

As Greg Ashman has explained here, this probably shouldn’t be all that surprising. That said, enquiry does seem to positively correlate with epistemic beliefs and the desire to work in science, although not as much as teacher directed instruction.


Interestingly, when we look at the breakdown of the different areas of enquiry-based instruction, the only one which performs strongly is “The teacher explains how a science idea can be applied to a number of different phenomena”. As far as I understand it, a teacher explanation sounds more likely to be an aspect of teacher directed instruction than enquiry which might explain why it does relatively well.

So, although any conclusions should be cautious, it does seem that if you want to get the best results out of students in science, you ought to minimise enquiry-based methods and embrace teacher direction. My own recommendation that some experimentation and lab work is desirable as it’s what makes science lessons unique, but we should understand that this is probably not the best way for students to learn.

Can we draw any conclusions about teaching subjects other than science? Well, that depends on how different you believe science teaching to be. I’d suggest that the aspects of teacher directed instruction can be fairly easily applied to many other subjects, but of course that might not be true for some subjects.