June 10, 2023

Improving students scientific skills with astronomy

Teaching astronomy in secondary schools is one of the subjects I most enjoy, and so do my students. The problem is that fitting it into the demands of a science curriculum can be a challenge. More often than not it is consigned to a space topic in one year of KS3 and possibly some topics in KS4 physics. If you’re like me, you’re most likely running an extra curricular Astronomy GCSE, and although I love teaching this it is often only to a very small cohort of students.

For me the challenge of bringing astronomy lessons to a wider group of students is going to change next academic year, as I will be teaching my school’s entire Year 8 students (12-13 year olds) an astronomy course over the course of the academic year.

I hope this article will be the first in a series over the course of the next year, charting the progress of implementing an astronomy course for this age group. But before we kick off, let me provide some background.

I teach in an international school in Mexico. Here we endured schools being closed for the longest period of time during the pandemic. We went to online teaching a week before the UK in March 2020, and did not have students in school until August 2021. When we returned we reopened with a hybrid model, with half of the students in school each day and half online.  The hybrid model lasted until December 2021, with all students returning to presencial lessons in January 2022.

As you can imagine, a year and a half of online learning left a lot of areas for us to catch the students up on, both academically and pastoral. This year has been about focusing on ensuring we support the students best on their return to school, and we have identified over the course of the year that we will still need to implement a lot of additional support next academic year.

We decided to add support classes in core subjects such as English, Maths and Spanish. These would be in addition to regular classes for the students, with the idea to support students using project work that is based on the content they have seen in their regular lessons. As a head of faculty I was asked if science could benefit from these kinds of classes.

Not wanting to either give the science team additional planning and preparation work, or repeat content the students would see in their normal science classes, we thought it would be a good idea to give the students something they have not seen in as much depth, hence Astronomy.

The additional subjects are on a rotational basis with students rotating subjects, with classes having two periods a week. The number of rotations means that Astronomy gets two cycles of ten lessons in total. I want to avoid a lesson by lesson planning approach, and instead take inspiration for Adam Boxer’s fantastic book ‘Teaching Secondary Science’. In the two astronomy unit cycles instead of having a title and two or three learning objectives for each lesson, the unit outlines are going to be based on ‘core questions’. Or another way to put it:

“Instead of saying ‘In this lesson, I need to do X,’ you say, ‘In this unit, I need to teach these questions”

(Boxer, 2021, p 35)

In trying out this core question and content led approach, I am hoping it will give me the freedom to progress at the pace that is needed by the students. I am also hoping this will be a good trial run with the idea to adapt our current schemes of work for Key Stage 3 science.

So where to begin? Well, that is where I am at right now. The goals for this course is to improve the students scientific literacy, while seeing a topic they would not normally see. Currently, I am finalising what core questions I want to focus on in the first unit, and using this to develop a unit outline. Also I want to establish what knowledge of astronomy they already have from a space topic they saw in Year 7, this will be the starting point of the course. In the next couple of weeks the outline for the first unit should be complete, so stay tuned for the next part


Boxer, A. (2021) Teaching Secondary Science, A Complete Guide. John Catt

Photo by prottoy hassan on Unsplash

Rich has taught physics in the UK, Mexico, Brazil and Germany since 2009. He is passionate about making physics as hands on and relevant to students as possible. He is also a Head of Faculty. His interests include: anything to do with space exploration and astronomy, running, and inserting a Simpsons reference into any conversation.

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