The Association for Science Education

Research - Michael Reiss


Michael Reiss
Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London

This article describes Prof Reiss' route into science education research, following this biographical pen-portrait. It reviews in some detail his 5-year longitudinal study of a group of 11 year-olds as they studied science up to their GCSE.

He is Chief Executive of Science Learning Centre London, Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of York, Docent at the University of Helsinki, Director of the Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology Project, a member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council and editor of the journal Sex Education. He has been a Vice President of the Institute of Biology, Specialist Advisor to the House of Lords Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures and Director of Education at the Royal Society.

Researching science education
Michael Reiss


1. The first 25 years
2. School Teaching
3. Cambridge University Department of Education
4. Homerton College, Cambridge
5. Institute of Education, University of London
6. Further Reading

1. The first 25 years

I was sent to some sort of nursery school at the age of 3 or 4 but when my mother came to pick me up at the end of the session on my first day, she was met with a story involving myself, another boy and a crate of milk and it was made clear to her that it would be best if I did not return. I was therefore allowed to return to playing with my sister Julia - an occupation I much preferred.

On my 5th birthday (January 11th 1963) I started at a prep school in London. I didn't realise it at the time but one of the excellent things about the school was that it was very flexible about when you moved forms. On average you moved every two terms. However, I was rather slow at learning to write and so spent three terms in the first form. Thankfully in those days there were no baseline or other targets and the impression was never given to me by my teachers or anyone else that I was slower than average. I soon speeded up and learnt to love reading.

My mathematics had got going earlier. I have a memory before I started school of my mother teaching me addition on a small blackboard that we had in my sister's and my playroom. She must have continued to teach me some mathematics because I have another memory - I must have been aged about 7 - of returning to school after a fortnight's absence caused by some childhood illness such as chickenpox or measles. A kind teacher said, with a certain anxiety on my behalf in her voice, that we had started multiplication and I replied with a lofty confidence and words along the lines of "That's quite all right; I can do that".

It was about this time, or a year or two later, that I started enjoying looking through science books that I had been given. I don't think that I actually learnt very much content matter but they helped to inspire me and on at least some occasions I answered the question ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?' by saying that I wanted to be a nuclear physicist - I found the drawing of the Bohr model of the atom to be fascinating.

Having done my ‘A' levels in Physics, Chemistry, Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, I went up to Cambridge intending to read theoretical physics. However, in my heart of hearts I knew my mathematics wasn't really that strong and, benefitting from the choice afforded by the Natural Sciences Tripos, I soon gravitated to biology.

After completing my undergraduate degree I began a PhD under Tim Clutton-Brock on the island of Rum. I spent some time on the island and learnt how to undertake careful observations of red deer behaviour but it soon became clear to me that while this was all very enjoyable, I wasn't any better at it than the next person. I knew that the first requirement of doing research was to do something others couldn't so I began to use my mathematical expertise to produce models that tried to predict various features of animals' behaviour or morphology.

Thankfully this work went well and I duly got my PhD and started a post-doc. Many years later, by complete co-incidence, I was chuffed to hear that something called ‘the Ghiselin-Reiss hypothesis' exists. This predicts that small males require less time to forage and so can afford to expend more time on reproductive activities. I quantified all this and came up with mathematical predictions as to what the degree of sexual dimorphism in body size should be within a species depending on the reproductive strategies of the males and females.

2 School teaching

By now it was early in 1982; unemployment was heading towards three million and, somewhat unsurprisingly, there was a dearth of jobs going for theoretical biologists. One of the features of the Cambridge PhD system is that one can get to teach undergraduates and I had done this and greatly enjoyed it. I therefore decided to do a PGCE reasoning that this would give me another year to decide whether to continue with academia or move into school teaching.

I enjoyed my PGCE year greatly and found myself early in 1983 with interviews for a two-year post-doc, a four-year post-doc and a permanent teaching job all in the same week. I realised I wanted the teaching job - at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. Thankfully I got the post and the starting salary of £6,999 a year was enough for Jenny and me to get a mortgage on a three-bedroom semi-detached house six miles from Cambridge. (Those were the days.)

At Hills Road I was fortunate enough to have Stephen Tomkins as my Head of Department. Not surprisingly I spent the first couple of years simply getting on top of the teaching but having survived those, Harriet Sants, who had done her PhD at the same time as I, and I co-authored a small book for sixth formers titled Behaviour and Social Organisation that came out in 1987, published by Cambridge University Press. I had no thoughts of writing academically in science education but wrapped up my research in biology in a book titled The Allometry of Growth and Reproduction that came out in 1989, again published by Cambridge University Press. I also began enthusiastically to send off articles to Journal of Biological Education and a colleague and I started writing health education packs on HIV/AIDS and other topics.

3. Cambridge University Department of Education

I am not sure but I suspect all this writing helped me to be invited to have a one-year secondment in the Department of Education at Cambridge. By now it was 1988 and combined science at what were soon to be known as KS3 and KS4 was becoming popular in schools. Accordingly the Cambridge University Department of Education had secured funding to run a new PGCE in combined science. I ended up staying for six years on a total of seven fixed-term contracts.

I didn't start doing any serious educational research during these years but did write my first academic book in science education - Science Education for a Pluralist Society, published by Open University Press in 1993. The origins of this were that I had got interested in multicultural and antiracist science teaching thanks to the influence of a mathematics educator at Cambridge called Alan Bishop. After working with him and others on what we would now call a CPD project in this area, I suggested to Open University Press that they might want an edited book on the subject. Fortunately for me, they were beginning to feel that they were publishing too many edited books so they encouraged me to write it on my own.

It seems a bit remarkable to me now that I could have the confidence to write such a book on my own. I think doing a PhD and post-doc at Cambridge gave me the self-belief one needs - it was simply assumed that one would write up one's PhD for the best journals. Actually, as a book Science Education for a Pluralist Society works surprisingly well and I was quite sorry when it went out of print. One or two of the arguments about feminist science are pretty mediocre but I still stand by the fundamental argument.

4. Homerton College, Cambridge

My time in the Department of Education at Cambridge came to a sudden end when new regulations were introduced about initial teacher education. The Conservatives, who didn't believe the higher education component of a PGCE had much worth, insisted that at least two-thirds of the time should be spent in schools. Accordingly there was less money for higher education and the only two of us in the Department at Cambridge who didn't have permanent contracts lost our posts. Fortunately at precisely that time Homerton College in Cambridge advertised for a Senior Lecturer in Biology and I got the position.

Homerton was wonderful for me in a whole range of ways. Stephen Tomkins - who had been my Head of Department back at Hills Road - was appointed as Head of Science and at the same time as I was appointed and the two of us did most of the undergraduate biology teaching for the next six years. Stephen, as well as being a wonderfully kind and generous person, is an outstanding teacher and naturalist and I learnt hugely from him.
A second way in which Homerton was especially good for me was that my teaching was now almost entirely on the four-year BEd. Each year we would start with around 16-18 outstandingly capable students who wanted to be primary teachers with a specialism in science. As I had previously only worked with graduate students intending to be secondary teachers, my time at Homerton helped to broaden me considerably.

A third way in which Homerton was good for me was that it gave me a permanent post. I determined, therefore, to begin a longitudinal piece of fieldwork. In the discipline of animal behaviour, where I was reared as a researcher, longitudinal studies are seen not only as mainstream but close to essential. I did my PhD in the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour where ethologists such as Jane Goodall had done her own PhD shortly before. The academic study of animal behaviour became transformed by her pioneering work when she went in 1960 to study the chimpanzees at the Gombe reserve on the banks of Lake Tanganyika.

The crucial thing about Goodall's research was that she concentrated on the natural behaviour of individual chimpanzees over a period of many years. Her accounts of the activities of such individuals as Flo and Figan are memorable and have transformed our understanding of how animals behave in the wild. Her work has led to such wonderful long-running wildlife programme as Big Cat Diary - I have the four webcams on my screen live as I write.

Goodall's work is like the ethnographic work carried out by anthropologists when they study individuals and groups of people in a culture over an extended period of time. However, as I wrote in the first chapter of the book that resulted from my own longitudinal research:

... when I read papers or books on science education, I very rarely read much that is memorable about individual children. It is not, of course, that ethnographic research is rare in schools; far from it. Rather, it is that it almost never seems to be used in science lessons over long periods of time.

I decided to follow a group of children through a number of their science lessons over a period of at least two years. In the event I studied them for five, remaining with them from their first lesson as eleven year-olds at the beginning of Yr 7 to their last lessons as sixteen year-olds at the end of Yr 11.

My hope was that the findings might shed light on two main questions:

  • How do pupils experience school Science lessons?
  • Why do some pupils enjoy Science and do well in it, while others don't?

I was very fortunate in that the headteacher and head of science of the first school I approached agreed to let me undertake research there. In the manner beloved by ethnographers researching in schools, I collected a certain amount of data while observing pupils in corridors and in the school grounds between lessons. I also analysed pupil exercise books and made observations on such occasions as staff meetings, parents' evenings and the opening of new science laboratories at the school. However, the great bulk of my data were obtained during lessons or in interviews.

4.1 Classroom observations

Classroom observations were recorded as I sat quietly in the back of science lessons making notes in a field notebook. In all, I sat in on 563 fifty minute lessons. (The maximum number of lessons a pupil at the school could have had in science was 1008 - if they had done Triple Award Science.)

Whether I got to a particular science lesson or not was determined entirely by whether or not I had other commitments, principally my own teaching. Throughout the study all teachers, learning support assistants and student teachers allowed me to watch their lessons. As a generalisation, there are five stages in undertaking research:

  1. planning it;
  2. gathering the data;
  3. analysing the data;
  4. publishing the findings;
  5. and dissemination.

So far as possible, the last four stages should start almost simultaneously! I gave my first talk (at an ASET - now ATSE - Conference) about my findings nine months after the study began, 15 months after I arrived at Homerton and first conceived of the study.

During the lessons I functioned almost entirely as a non-participant observer, taking detailed notes (about 600 words a lesson). The skill here is to be unobtrusive and, indeed, appear fairly unobservant. I think, in a manner some might consider archetypal of male teachers, I managed to wear the same jacket on every visit I made to the school. More importantly, I chose to remain seated at the back of the room for the duration of each lesson. This had the obvious disadvantage that when the pupils were working individually or in small groups, I was much more likely to see and hear only what those near to me were doing.

However, sitting quietly at the back had the major advantage that I believe I had comparatively little effect on what went on in the lessons. Pupils, in particular, came to regard me as part of 'the furniture'. Indeed, I was encouraged by the comments made, in later years of the study, by new teachers to the school who remarked with surprise on a number of occasions on how the pupils seemed to pay no attention to me, though this is not to claim that I was invisible nor that I had no effect on what went on in lessons.

Throughout the study I took particular care not to catch pupils' eyes when I was in lessons, preferring instead to keep my head down if any pupils were looking in my direction. I was especially careful to do this when listening to any pupil comments. Although this meant, on occasions, that I failed to hear some tantalising communication, it did make it more likely that what I noted was not said or done for my benefit. When pupils asked me what I was writing down or doing I said (truthfully but rather uninformatively) that I was making notes on what was going on in the lesson. I made it clear, though, that I didn't want to get into conversations during lessons. In a further effort to minimise the possibility of pupils realising that I had heard or seen something of especial interest, I would typically wait for some 30-60 seconds after such instances before writing anything in my notes.

I did briefly wonder about whether to video some lessons. Videoing can produce extremely rich data and has been used with success in science education research. I had used video tapes to record red deer behaviour. However, a disadvantage, for the type of work I was interested in, is that videoing almost inevitably turns the 'subjects' - i.e. teachers and pupils - into 'actors'. Indeed, how can it not? At best, one hopes that the actors act themselves and are good at it. But there remains the strong possibility that some of them act what they think you want to see or what they think you don't want to see or, in the manner of certain sports spectators waving idiotically at a camera, what they would like themselves or their friends to see. In any event, actors begin their careers by acting self consciously. As soon as we reflect, consciously, on our behaviour, not only does that behaviour change but we change, with possible future consequences both for ourselves and for our observable behaviours.

4.2 Interviews

Half way through Yr 7, I wrote to the parents of the pupils in the class. The letter told them a bit about myself and the focus of my research and asked them if they would kindly let me come and interview their daughter/son at home. I was extremely relieved that all but two sets of parents agreed to this. Furthermore, the other two agreed from Yr 8. The initial interview half way through Yr 7 was only with the pupils. At the end of Yr 7 and each subsequent year I interviewed each pupil, one or both parents and each teacher, learning support assistant and student teacher who had taught classes during the year to any of the pupils I was following.

All this made for a total of 225 interviews. With one exception, I never interviewed parents separately from each other. Pupils and parents were always interviewed in their homes. Teachers, learning support assistants and student teachers were mostly interviewed at the school, though some interviews were conducted in their homes, some in my home, some in my room at work and some at the institutions where the student teachers were training. In addition, four interviews with student teachers were conducted over the telephone.

Educational research interviews are frequently audio-taped and transcribed. I decided not to do this. Instead, I made notes during the interviews and wrote up my notes within, at most, 24 hours - usually within four hours. A typical interview lasted for about 20 minutes and resulted in approximately 700 words of write-up.

There were several manifest disadvantages with my decision not to audio-tape the interviews. For one thing, no one could check my audio-tapes. Then there is the obvious fact that an interviewer can only write down a small proportion of what an interviewee says. This means that I had continuously to select what to record. In effect, I was partially analysing the data as I listened.

However, I decide to use non-tape-recorded interviews for a number of reasons. The most important stemmed from how I still remember the first time, almost 20 years ago, that I was interviewed by someone else undertaking a piece of educational research. Despite the fact that I already knew and liked the interviewer and despite the fact that he showed considerable expertise in his interviewing technique, trying to put me at ease and so forth, I felt unnatural during the interview. I spoke in a more stilted manner than usual and thought less before speaking than is my wont. I certainly made no off the cuff remarks.

Now this may simply reflect certain inadequacies in my own personality! I think I, subconsciously, treated the interview as if it was an examination to a far greater extent than when people had interviewed me without using tape-recorders. As far as the study I was undertaking went, I thought it possible that some of my interviewees would similarly find the presence of a tape-recorder to be strange or even inhibiting.

In the event, I soon became convinced that I had done the right thing not to use a tape-recorder. For a start, I think it likely that some of the participants would not have granted me permission to use a tape-recorder. I was extremely keen to ensure that my sample was not skewed by the omission of certain people. Then, in addition to helping subjects relax, an unexpected bonus of my writing notes during the interview was that this slowed down the proceedings down. For some pupils, in particular, these pauses helped them to say more. Finally, a third advantage came from the fact that the absence of a tape-recorder blurred the boundaries of the interview. Interviewees often made some of their most interesting remarks as I met them or at the end of the formal interview.

On at least the first occasion that I interviewed each participant (child or adult), I explained about confidentiality and the use of different names if I eventually wrote up the material for publication. All interviewees gave me permission to use the material for publication and many interviewees - pupils, parents and staff - discussed with me the purpose of the research and its broad findings on more than one occasion.

All my interviews were semi-structured in the sense that I went with a prepared list of, typically, half a dozen to a dozen questions. I took particular care to ensure that none of the questions were leading ones or might have been felt as such. For example, even in the final interview with pupils at the end of Yr 11, when I asked them a question about what they were going on to do now that they had left the school, I didn't ask those who had chosen not to study science in some form why this was the case, for fear that this might have implied that I thought they should have.

Each year I prepared a new set of questions and asked different (though often related) questions to the various groups - i.e. pupils, parents, teachers, learning support assistants and student teachers. Within each group - e.g. within the pupils - I asked the same questions in any one year to all group members.

I decided not to use interviews to determine pupils' knowledge about science. I had two main reasons for this. First, I didn't want the interviews to be felt to be assessment instruments. I wanted pupils to feel relaxed in them and non-threatened. Secondly, I thought that I could probably get sufficient measures of pupils' scientific knowledge through classroom observations, backed up by their teachers' views and their performances on homeworks, tests and public examinations.

4.3 Analysing the data

All data need analysis and analysis begins with the selection of those data that the researcher considers most relevant. Obviously a five-year ethnographic study generates a large mass of information. As I wrote in the book that resulted from the research "I have, for example, records of all the occasions pupils left the room to go to the toilet (and am willing to consider joint analysis of these findings with any interested urologist)".

My interview notes consisted mostly of verbatim quotations. When I wrote these up I sometimes also included comments about how I felt and how I thought the interviewee felt. Clearly this is extremely subjective. But the reason for my noting feelings is connected with my having been trained as a psychodynamic counsellor. It was Freud who, initially, thought that he should ignore his own feelings about clients. Soon, though, he realised that he could learn a tremendous amount by analysing why he felt about certain clients as he did. For example, why he liked some or was bored by others. In technical language, this is known as analysing the countertransference. By now, this practice is commonplace among psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and counsellors trained within a psychodynamic framework.

As far as the study I was undertaking was concerned, the important point is that I tried to reflect on why I felt as I felt. Why, for example, did I feel sympathetic towards certain pupils but occasionally irritated by others? Why was I more likely, as my initial reaction, to excuse the 'mistakes' made by certain teachers in the classroom compared with others? Often I was able to work out the answers to these questions. It would be nice if I could unfailingly partition these answers into those that were to do only with me and those that were to do only with those I was interviewing or observing but I doubt that I can with complete accuracy.

What I did try to do when I wrote up the study was to be clear about how I felt and why I thought I felt as I did. My hope was that this would allow readers to decide for themselves whether they agreed with my interpretation or not. In fact, as I wrote up the study I increasingly became convinced of the value of letting much of the data ‘speak for itself'. This was particularly the case with regard to teacher pedagogy. I was uncomfortable at the thought of passing judgement on those teachers whom I felt taught well and those whom I felt taught less well. The book, therefore, has a number of long extracts from my field observations with little interpretation or commentary.

In recent years, educational researchers have increasingly, and in my view rightly, grown suspicious of those within their ranks who present a single description of events. We now doubt those who purport to be able to provide a single canonical version of past events. After all, as has been widely noted, history is too often 'his story' - i.e. a story told by just one person from one particular perspective. Unreflective perspectives tend, often without intending so, to marginalise or misrepresent those who have different perspectives.

Surely, as I argued in the opening chapter of the book that resulted from the research, Understanding Science Lessons:

... it is better for me to write, instead, what I explicitly acknowledge is just one vision and interpretation of events. Whether any of the characters in this story will ever write their own autobiographical accounts of this period of their lives I don't know, but I would be so pleased if they would. Then others could compare the various versions, rather as theologians look at the four gospels, attempting to extract further meanings from both the agreements and the differences in the separate accounts ...

Another issue to do with objectivity derives from the fact that while few of those involved in the research knew anything about me at the start of the study, as time went on, they and I inevitably started to develop some sort of relationship. In some cases the relationship was rather a thin one. A few parents and pupils were not that keen on my pestering them each year for yet another interview. Most parents and pupils, though, not only generously welcomed me into their homes but appreciated someone taking a genuine interest in them over a number of years.

By the end of the five years I felt close to quite a number of those I had come to know through the study. In a few cases it was clear that the people concerned found talking to me to be of actual therapeutic value. While I never intended the interviews to develop into counselling sessions, in a few cases interviews were conducted in harrowing personal circumstances for the individual concerned. Then, most of us value someone taking an interest in us over several years, even when things are going well.

My relationship with the school developed too. I joined the Gender Working Party. The Science Department generously insisted I came to one of its member's 50th birthday celebrations. And the school kindly invited me in to the staff breakfast party on the day during the summer holidays when the GCSE results came out for the pupils I was following.

Unsurprisingly, too, given how many of their lessons I had seen, I ended up writing job references for more than one of the teachers. Some of them sent me Christmas cards and I even ended up conducting the weddings for the daughters of two of the teachers in my capacity as a Priest in the Church of England, though, that was due to accidents of geography rather than to the effect of the study itself.

5. Institute of Education, University of London

I have concentrated on the research I undertook that led to the publication of Understanding Science Lessons: Five Years of Science Teaching by Open University Press in 2000 for a number of reasons. For a start, I suspect that its publication, along with a number of papers Sue Dale Tunnicliffe and I had co-authored in strong academic journals (International Journal of Science Education, Research in Science Education, etc.). helped me get appointed to my present post at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Then there is the point that few of us get the opportunity to undertake more than one large empirical study where we collect all the data ourselves. I certainly haven't; the work that led to the publication of Undertaking Science Lessons is distinctive for me in that regard. Most of my present empirical research involves research officers who do virtually all the data collection. This is obviously convenient in terms of time but there is nothing like collecting and living one's own data.

6. Further reading

A complete list of my publications is at my home page. If you want one of the papers / book chapters and can't get hold of it, I may have it electronically - though this is unlikely if it's more than 10 years old.
Books include:

Jones, L. & Reiss, M. J. (Eds) (2007) Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism,
Peter Lang; Braund, M. & Reiss, M. J. (Eds) (2004) Learning Science Outside the Classroom, RoutledgeFalmer;
Levinson, R. & Reiss, M. J. (Eds) (2003) Key Issues in Bioethics: A Guide for Teachers, RoutledgeFalmer;
Halstead, J. M. & Reiss, M. J. (2003) Values in Sex Education: From Principles to Practice, RoutledgeFalmer;
Reiss, M. J. (2000) Understanding Science Lessons: Five Years of Science Teaching, Open University Press;
Chapman, J. L. & Reiss, M. J. (1999) Ecology: Principles and Applications, Cambridge University Press;
Reiss, M. J. & Mabud, S. A. (Eds) (1998) Sex Education and Religion, The Islamic Academy;
Reiss, M. J. & Straughan, R. (1996) Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering, Cambridge University Press;
Reiss, M. J. (1993) Science Education for a Pluralist Society, Open University Press;
King, A. & Reiss, M. J. (Eds) (1993) The Multicultural Dimension of the National Curriculum, Falmer Press;
Reiss, M. J. (1989) The Allometry of Growth and Reproduction, Cambridge University Press.