Mary20 Anning20 20 ASE
Feb 27, 2023

How UK Primary School Students Are Learning About Science, Religion & History Through Film

An innovative new curriculum helps primary school teachers bring their students into history and engage with complex science topics in an interdisciplinary way.

By Benjamin Reeves

Science education can be difficult, particularly at the primary school level. Many concepts are abstract, and not every child has the same interest in STEM subjects. Some pupils may engage more with literature, history or art than mathematics or science. Further complicating things, teachers must not only engage all of those students but also inculcate the scientific method and approaches to problem solving and discovery. New curriculum from the Association for Science Education in the United Kingdom, with backing from Templeton World Charity Foundation, helps solve some of these problems using film and dialogue-based lessons.

While the curriculum focuses on evolution as told through the story of Mary Anning, who discovered the ichthyosaur in the early 19th century when she was just 12-years-old. The centerpiece of the curriculum is a short film, Sea Dragon, which serves to bring the students into the story, introduce Mary Anning and the social circumstances of the world she lived in, and explore scientific topics like fossils and evolution.

“Teachers really need to start getting children thinking like a scientist and to start developing those observation and critical thinking skills and reasoning skills,” said Marianne Cutler, director of curriculum innovation at the Association for Science Education and the executive producer of Sea Dragon. “What we wanted to show in the film is how Mary started to do that from a young age.”

The film ultimately becomes a launching point for class discussions and activities, with students taking the lead in dialogue and exploration about topics ranging from the role of religion in society to the historical treatment of women in the sciences. Of course, it’s one thing to say that a curriculum will accomplish all of these things, and another one entirely for it to work in real world classrooms.

Indeed, some subjects lend themselves naturally to an interdisciplinary approach, but oftentimes this is more difficult in the sciences. “Currently I’m working on invaders and settlers,” says Clare Kirkham, a teacher at St. Blaise CE Primary School just outside of Oxford. “I’m teaching Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and then, you know, it’s usually quite easy to intertwine the English with the French. It becomes less easy to intertwine the science, and things like religious education tend to be taught very much as a standalone subject.”

“I love physics and chemistry and those parts of the sciences, but in terms of biology and animals, it was just something where I had an interest but not that kind of knowledge,” says Mari-Clare Mitchell, a primary school teacher in East Renfrewshire just outside Glasgow.

Michell’s background was in STEM, she had studied engineering and worked on the business side prior to becoming a teacher fifteen years ago, but she did not always feel as comfortable teaching a subject like biology in an interdisciplinary way. After COVID lockdowns had ended, “the project was presented to me as a chance to re-engage these children who had been out of school for such a long period of time into literacy and science and big questions and discussion.”

One of Mitchell’s students was obsessed with dinosaurs and, unusually, already knew who Anning was. “I said to this young boy, ‘Callum, you’re like Google for us with everything we need to know about Mary Anning and fossils. But the whole point of this project is that I’m learning alongside you.’” As they got deeper into the project, Mitchell found that the curriculum was flexible and engaging enough to bring in a student who was already obsessed with the subject, like Callum, as well as children who were less interested at the outset. “The project really promotes this idea of dialogue between pupils. The teacher is going back and forth, and they’re asking me questions I don’t know the answer to, but then I’m modeling ‘well, let’s find out, let’s discuss together.’”

The film was a key component of drawing students in and engaging them with the subject matter. Each time the class watched the film, they would focus on a different aspect of it, which helped to guide discussion and activities in new directions. Beyond the science of evolution, “the film introduces the kinds of issues that Mary was facing as a young, uneducated, poor girl at that time,” Mitchell says. “She had these ideas, but they were kind of discredited.” The students, “loved that element. It piqued my interest because it was another woman in history. It was great to have her voice.” Mitchell’s students not only interrogated the film as a text “in terms of character and plot and setting,” but also dove into big questions around religion and predominant views at the time of the film’s events.

In Kirkham’s class, the students quickly dove into a deep discussion about “not just the fact Mary Anning was a child, but she was a woman, and women weren’t accepted and their discoveries weren’t found.” The video also touches on the fact that some of Anning’s beliefs were considered to be “against the Bible and god,” which “led to another good discussion about how she was still finding things despite that,” Kirkham says. That discussion subsequently led to an exploration of the works of Darwin.

The Sea Dragon curriculum becomes all-encompassing, touching on everything from religion to history to evolution. “Children are such visual learners nowadays, and you immediately hooked them in,” with the film, Kirkham says. “I could have read them a story, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”

Read a Q+A with ASE Director of Curriculum Innovation and Sea Dragon Executive Producer Marianne Cutler.

Learn more about this innovative curriculum in a piece by Bonnie Zahl, Principal Advisor for Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Big Questions in Classrooms.

Benjamin Reeves is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at or follow him on Twitter.