The following is a guest post from Dr Laura Colucci-Gray, University of Aberdeen. It is somewhat longer than the usual blog post, but has been posted here in full because of the nuanced way it explores the new Science benchmarks.

The newly released assessment benchmarks – as they are presented in the draft consultation document –  aim to clearly set out what learners ‘need to know and be able to do’, moving from Early to First through Fourth Level. Quoting from the draft document, the benchmarks should be used to ‘monitor progress towards achievement’ and “to provide guidance, in a single, key resource to support teachers’ professional judgement”. In line with the expectations of developing successfully learners, one of the hallmarks of the Curriculum for Excellence, students’ learning is presented here as some kind of advancement, a striding forward, towards a clear goal.

I must recognize that such statements make an impact on me, as a reader, for their neatness and apparent simplicity. Three aspects appear to be of greatest importance:

  1. Specified outcomes, or benchmarks, which operate as a proxy for the learning process;
  2. Progression, implying the existence of a gradient or spectrum along which learning gains can be evidenced;
  3. Teachers’ professional judgement, perhaps the most human and possibly less predictable aspect of all, but which is firmly situated at the end of the learning process, after both outcomes (1) and progression (2) have been clearly and truly specified.

I wish to take a closer look at the validity and feasibility of such a plan, its potentially contested relationships with the overall aims of the Scottish Curriculum, and the implications this may have for science education.

The Scottish Curriculum as it was first analysed in the lucid work of Priestley and Hume (2010) is fundamentally a hybrid model, seeking to combine socio-political and economic drivers[1]. In many respects, it seems to wish to combine earlier attempts, by making the science curriculum more relevant for students, seeking to engage them as ‘active contributors’ – while developing their basic literacy and skills of scientifically informed citizens. Yet, the design and guidelines for implementation have already generated concerns and criticism from science education researchers in Scotland. Bryce and Day (2013) argued for further clarity, alluding to the inevitable risks of the hybrid condition producing confoundment of purposes and professional confusion[2]. A hybrid condition brings in itself a form of dualism: which way to turn? Towards critical competencies one way, or towards skills and knowledge for work another way? It is hard not to recognize that a curriculum built around the design of ‘learning experiences’ which are supposed to lead towards specified ‘outcomes’ contains an in-built direction of travel relentlessly moving from the variability of people’s experience to the singularity of results, from diversity to sameness and from openness to closure. So, let’s take a closer look at what happens during such progression, and what might be the expected ‘learning gains, when the learning outcomes are turned into benchmarks.

Progression as simplification

I noted that in the letter signed by the learned societies, a concern was being expressed about the level of detail at which the outcomes – for particular subjects – were being described. One of such subjects is the Planet Earth. As newly formed human beings, we join the biodiversity and the web of interdependences amongst living and non-living things on the Planet. Such concept is first captured in the benchmarks for the Early level science, as follows:

I have observed living things in the environment over time and am becoming aware of how they depend on each other.

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·         Explores and sorts objects as living, non-living or once living.

·         Describes characteristics of livings things and how they depend on each other, for example young dependent on parents.




Relationships of dependence are foregrounded to refer to a broader set of caring, feeding, exchanging actions, within supportive or unsupportive relationships. Then when we reach level 1, the language almost suddenly changes, becoming directive and specific, moving from ‘explores and describes’ to ‘explain and uses’.


I can explore examples of food chains and show an appreciation of how animals and plants depend on each other for food.

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●      Explains that the sun is the main source of energy.

●      Explains that energy can be taken in by green plants to provide the major source of food for all living things.

●      Uses the terms ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ correctly.

●      Uses vocabulary correctly including ‘predator’, ‘hunter’, ‘prey’ and ‘hunted’.

●      Uses and constructs a simple food chain showing energy flow.


This learning outcome at Level 1 is supposed to be clear and simple, building progressively from the previous one at early level. In this passage, we note that the emphasis on the broader set of relational dependencies and interdependencies of the early level has been reduced to the more recognisable concept of ‘food chain’, whereby relationships are instrumental to materials exchanges and living organisms are given the stultified roles of producers and consumers. What is more, an additional layer of meaning is supposedly being provided by the introduction of the ecological concepts, as a means to extend on the production and consumption model. So, in the second bullet point before last, producers and consumers are now turning into prey and predators. Not only, the prey-predator model applies to a very specific category of beings, the carnivore animals, but in the effort to simplify content, scientific ideas are being distorted to suit a particular view of the world. Mechanistic models of the biosphere – exemplified by the consumption chain – seem to be preferred, although these ideas have been long overtaken by modern biology. Current thinking favours metaphors such as the web, the tree, the hand along with relational models of symbiosis, mutualism and cooperation.

Progression as determinism

Another example is from Fourth level science where at the level of the generic skills, to develop scientifically literate citizens, we find:

  • Demonstrates understanding of the impact of science on society.
  • Discusses the moral and ethical implications of some scientific developments.

Later, in the more specific outcomes, we cannot fail to notice a certain determinism in fact-finding related for example to agricultural production:

  • Uses information about essential plant nutrients to design a fertiliser;
  • States possible impacts of the use of fertilisers, for example, eutrophication and algal blooms.

The use of fertilisers is controversial; eutrophication and algal blooms are not simply the effects of fertilisers in the water but the consequences of mass food production for commercial purposes. At no point such contestation is hinted at or even supposed. While we cannot make assumptions without hearing directly from the authors of the document, it is the language of the specific outcomes which is of concern here. Words are used carefully to delineate factual knowledge but shy away from any critical appraisal of the surrounding cultural and social context.

Progression as Anthropocentrism

As science develops within a cultural, historical and social context, the language of its expression carries connotations about the ways in which human societies – at different point in history – have looked at the bio-physical world. As was mentioned earlier, in relation to the history of curriculum innovation in science education, also the teaching of science needs to be framed within the cultural and value narratives of the time.

The extract below – from Third Level Science – is focussing on viruses and microbes. We recognise almost immediately the underlying violent frame – carried by words such as ‘defence, barriers and the breaching of barriers’. A particularly westernised view of the world, which locates human beings – and their bodies – in direct and adversarial contrast with the living world upon which they depend is forcefully transferred through the power structures of the curriculum.

I have explored how the body defends itself against disease and can describe how vaccines can provide protection.

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●      Explains how microbes, for example, bacteria and viruses, can cause disease and infection.

●      Describes the barriers to infection as a first line of defence, for example, skin, mucus and stomach acids.

●      States how the immune system protects the body against disease if the first line of defence is breached, for example, white blood cells and production of antibodies.

●      Explores and explains how vaccinations can protect individuals and populations from disease.

Arguably, one might suggest that the factual phrasing of learning outcomes precludes the possibility to disclose alternative cultural frameworks. Here I refer to the heritage of pupils holding alternative views of the living world, such as the more animistic or religious views. As we know from many years of research in science education, learning progression in science comes from the opportunity to navigate alternative understandings and to recognise how scientific concepts are defined through ongoing dialogue, within a community of researchers and learners. Science education pedagogies should thus focus more on the elicitation of such alternative understandings, as opposed to the fast delivery of the ‘right answer’. That said, looking at the next example from First level:


By investigating forces on toys and other objects, I can predict the effect on the shape or motion of objects.

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●     Uses vocabulary to describe forces, for example, pushing, pulling, stretching, squashing and twisting.

●     Demonstrates understanding of how a force can make an object change speed, direction or shape.

●     Investigates balanced forces and can explain that if a push and pull are equal then there is no change in movement.

●     Investigates how shape is linked to motion and stability.


… the benchmark document is strict and ‘forceful’ in the prescription of how children are supposed to talk in physics, even at the basic level of describing the motion of objects in front of them. The words that are being used are also forceful in themselves – pushing; squashing… – not dissimilar from the metaphors of power highlighted above. And finally, forces – second bullet point above – can make an object change shape… forces are being anthropomorphised, extracted from the wider, bio- physical system of interactions and interdependencies… if another view of the world was adopted, one which would focus on a variety of experiences and alternative value-frameworks, one which would let students to play and explore, through bodies, hearts and minds, we would might have been able to see other words coming through in relation to forces: supporting, coming together, balancing or attracting…


So, returning to three key aspects emphasised by the document, I would like to share some of the concerns which have now emerged.


1&2. Turning outcomes into benchmarks and using benchmarks as proxy for learning; By setting out the learning process as a movement from experiences to outcomes and from outcomes to benchmarks, I observed progressive reduction, narrowing of linguistic frames and selective use of value-frameworks. As opposed to the meaning of progressive as reformist or broad-minded, like the CfE wished to be known to the world, I see stultification and closure to dialogue. Institutionalised reductionism is built-in within a machine for knowledge delivery. The progression is perceived more like an inexorable and unavoidable rush, forward-tracking learning to inevitable conclusions.

(I am reminded at this point of the popular film Cassandra Crossing, with Sophia Loren, back in the Seventies… has anybody seen it? The train carrying a sick spy with a contagious illness is made to rush blindly towards an old, crumbling bridge, while Sophia Loren is attending to the illness-stricken passengers, kept in the back carriage, in the desperate attempt to prove the authorities they can recover from the bug…)


  1. Teachers’ professional judgement. Within the simplified picture of the benchmarks document we are then expected to find the voices or judgement of the teachers, who are instrumental in the certification of learning. Yet within a scenario of progressive reduction, what are the teachers expected to do? Is there any room for them to exert their professional judgement? When all they are asked to do is to lead the pupils towards specific ‘benchmarks’ which are simplified and stripped of any personal signification, what is the teacher’s role meant to be? I am perplexed. Are the teachers like the passionate and professionally trained Sophia Loren who is working her socks off at the back of the train to treat the ill passengers… or more like the old-fashioned tram-controllers, stamping the tickets of the people who come on board? Neither metaphor seems to satisfy here…


So where to next? Addressing the trajectory….

Science, like all other subjects, is a body of knowledge which has been accumulated over time but which has also progressively changed over time. Behind science as a set of disciplinary knowledge there are people – the scientists – as well as policy-makers, citizens and tax-payers, including the merchants and the merchandise. Indeed, since the last energy transition from coal to oil, we have witnessed an explosion of knowledge thanks to the power of technology and computing machines. Consequently, science has changed dramatically from being the craft of a single individual to the interconnected activities of interdisciplinary teams operating within an extended web of public and private funding. Such transformations have two important implications. As science is increasingly emmeshed with political and economic agendas, the public is called to interrogate the allocation of funding and the ethical dimension of new ventures. New terms such as post-normal science, citizen science and even DIY science, are pointing to hybrid forms of knowledge sharing and knowledge forming calling for inclusion of different voices, participation, democratisation of science and critical appraisal.  Secondly, if the participation of the public is harnessed, evoked or even feared, education is called upon the task of preparing citizens for ethical, public dialogue, moving from knowledge to complex dialogical competencies which are linguistic, social, imaginative and creative.

In this open-ended and contested scenario, which progresses through debate and radical uncertainties arising from the new frontiers of science, the teacher has a key role in terms of preparing young people to interrogate the knowledge we need and to elaborate own models of living.  I find some notable parallels with the comments produced by Dr. Joe Smith in the earlier blog about history, saying that “progression in history refers not to a more complete understanding of the past (of which most of us know very little), but a more sophisticated one”.  Clearly this business of complexification is tricky for science education. It is well known that in terms of language, scientific terms – like food chain or food webs – are specific, retaining the root of everyday language but encompassing a singular and precise meaning, defined by the discipline.  So, we can see how the preoccupation with specification arises and how it can be justified and legitimised. However, we can recognise that we are amidst a contradiction here. If on the one hand, a simpler set of benchmarks carries the hopes of freeing teachers from the task of sifting out exuberant content; on the other hand, the specified nature of the content demands a critical interrogation of the selections that have been made, recovering the motives, purposes and value-frameworks that accompany any form of knowledge.

What hopes and what possibilities?

Research in science education has repeatedly pointed to the problems of resisting naïve views and perceptions of science held by both teachers and students at different levels of education. Learning and teaching science is equated to a protocol, which through the right sequence of steps, will lead to the right answer. Much has been contributed by science education researchers in terms of pedagogies to address such problems. My own research conducted with colleagues in International contexts, has shown that Scottish teachers are interested in innovation, often taking risks in the implementation of creative pedagogies in science. However, leadership ethos in the school is not supportive of such attempts, and students are preoccupied with attainment and performance, thus contributing to a progressive reinforcement of a transmissive pedagogy and old-fashioned beliefs (Gray et al., 2016[3]).

An important element of innovation and hope in the newly published set of benchmarks however lies with the emphasis on play as a form of scientific inquiry and discovery. Recent understandings of cognition as an embodied process point to play as the first and fundamental process of sense-making. The engagement with spaces, objects and materials can be paralleled to what happens during a scientific investigation and for this reason, it can provide the first point of access for young children into science. Most importantly however it is a process which sustains the development of analogical and metaphorical language supporting increasing levels of conceptual thinking and abstraction. For this reason, I would like to see more emphasis on play and imaginative play throughout the curriculum and into the draft benchmark document. I would like to see further opportunities for students at third and fourth level to be sensitised to alternative value-frameworks and to grapple with the ambiguities and the uncertainties which characterise a genuine scientific investigation!

Similarly, I wish to see teachers as animators of playful interactions. Students and teachers of science can come together as a team of inquirers and interpreters of the ways in which science and technology shape our actions in society. The science laboratory is the wider world and the classroom can afford a space of possibilities, in which we are all actors… in an unfolding play.

(This contribution for the blog has benefitted from the ongoing conversations with colleagues in the School of Education at Aberdeen, Dr. Kirsten Darling and Dr. Donald Gray and from the long-standing affiliation with the Interdisciplinary Research Institute on Sustainability, based at Turin University,


[1] Priestley, M. & Humes, W. (2010) The Development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: amnesia and déjà vu, Oxford Review of Education 36 (3): 345-361.

[2] Day, S. and Bryce, T. (2013). Curriculum for Excellence science: vision or confusion? Scottish Educational Review, Vol. 45 , No. 1, 2013, p. 53 – 67.




2 thoughts on “Some commentary on the new CfE Science benchmarks

  1. I have just read the obit of Seymour Papert
    and wonder if he addressed the presence/absence of fun in science education wayback. And today’s TV has a man bungee jumps to dip a biscuit in a union jack mug so there is clearly interdisciplinary activity at large.

    I recollect the pleas from teacher’s for more focus from the broadness of the CfE vision and so the latest Scottish govt output needed to provide direction to help de-complexify such as suggested alternative world views of magical experiences such as the magnetic force.

    It is difficult (within the limits of WordPress) to fully debate the above so I would conclude by offering; the great Leslie Nielson from 34 mins but at 30 & a half mins the reference to variety of episode styles. Teachers/people/pupils need to see a range from rhetorical Cassandras to those with alternate life views.

    1. I like the bit where Leslie Nelson crawls under the train… yes.. checking the tracks for once, looking from underneath to see how it actually works.

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