Children's science learning: a core skills approach

Andrew Tolmie, Zayba Ghazali-Mohammed, Susanne Morris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research has identified the core skills that predict success during primary school in reading and arithmetic, and this knowledge increasingly informs teaching. However, there has been no comparable work that pinpoints the core skills that underlie success in science.

Aims and method
The present paper attempts to redress this by examining candidate skills and considering what is known about the way in which they emerge, how they relate to each other and to other abilities, how they change with age, and how their growth may vary between topic areas.

There is growing evidence that early‐emerging tacit awareness of causal associations is initially separated from language‐based causal knowledge, which is acquired in part from everyday conversation and shows inaccuracies not evident in tacit knowledge. Mapping of descriptive and explanatory language onto causal awareness appears therefore to be a key development, which promotes unified conceptual and procedural understanding.

This account suggests that the core components of initial science learning are (1) accurate observation, (2) the ability to extract and reason explicitly about causal connections, and (3) knowledge of mechanisms that explain these connections. Observational ability is educationally inaccessible until integrated with verbal description and explanation, for instance, via collaborative group work tasks that require explicit reasoning with respect to joint observations. Descriptive ability and explanatory ability are further promoted by managed exposure to scientific vocabulary and use of scientific language. Scientific reasoning and hypothesis testing are later acquisitions that depend on this integration of systems and improved executive control.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)481-497
Number of pages17
JournalBritish Journal of Educational Psychology
Issue number3
Early online date20 May 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 May 2016


  • science learning
  • scientific thinking
  • scientific reasoning
  • science concepts
  • scientific knowledge
  • cognitive skills


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