Reforming Science Education
Several articles this week on science education have caught my attention. Of course as a scientist, I naturally have an interest in the matter but now that I am also directly involved in secondary science education, I have even more reason to spout on this issue. Teaching science at school is not easy. Compared to other subjects, it is probably more difficult as it involves more preparation, more administration, more risk assessments and practical planning. We already had some complaints that GCSE science actually contained too little science particularly practical science and concentrated too much on a context based teaching of the subject. Science is now to be even more diluted with ‘discussions’ on issues like GM crops and nuclear power that are now becoming a part of the syllabus.
Having already taught undergraduates who cannot weigh out something or work out the concentration of solution by themselves in the laboratory; it is more than a little worrying that the practical element of science could virtually disappear, whilst elementary things like balancing equations could be pushed aside in favour of discussing how chemicals pollute the urban environment. (The practical problem actually persists into universities who are not producing competent practical scientists at degree level. It is not uncommon to have a third year undergraduate attempt a final year project when they cannot handle a pipette, weight a chemical out or work out molarities.)
If the government wanted to introduce things like debate, why did they not produce a new subject of environment and ethical science? Would they ditch teaching historical events as part of teaching history in favour of discussing the rights and wrongs of beheading? The article in the guardian today raises fear that practical teaching has now been abandoned in favour of video presentations, due to safety legislation. This is not quite the case yet (depending on the school of course), but practical content has declined quite significantly since I was at school. As teachers we know that there is nothing like hands-on exercise to capture the imagination and to aid memory. If however, we become ever more burdened with increased requirements for assessment all the time and the schools are not provided with the means to teach basic practice science, then the subject WILL suffer an even more rapid decline.
OCR said the new GCSE was not an abandoning of traditional science. The briefing paper said: "Topics found in the old science specifications will continue to appear in the new ones, but we hope will be delivered in more interesting and exciting ways. So you will continue to find topics like the periodic table, chemical reactions, Newton's laws of motion, electricity and photosynthesis in either the science or additional science specifications (remembering that students going on to study at A-level will need to take both). "However, traditional topics like momentum can be explored in relevant contexts, for example, the importance of wearing a seatbelt, to make them lively and interesting."
Good teaching already looks at real-life examples to illustrate ideas where possible. The legislators are out of touch with the educators on this to some extent. Of course they will preserve some ‘core’ topics but consider how you put photosynthesis in context. Obviously kids do not learn about photosynthesis in isolation – they already learn that it is part of what a green plant does. They will already learn about genetic modification, so why distract them with issues of debate on GM? Surely, that should be contained within a different subject? There is already little enough time in the classroom to communicate the basic ideas, never mind attempt to turn them all into Dawkins.
Eminent philosopher Baroness Warnock can see the danger of the new changes. According to Warnock the agenda is being set by the media, creating debates that are more suitable for a pub than a classroom. She said:
"The present policy has two incompatible aims: to give all pupils some understanding of the subject matter of the sciences, and to so fire the imagination of a substantial minority of them, that they want to pursue their interest into the sixth form and beyond."
Other commentators are applauding the new changes, arguing that it is about time that science was brought under control. They say that scientists have conned people for too long about how important science is. They also say that science should be left to the freaks and more important subjects, such as economics should be promoted instead. Perhaps next time they want to get some medicines from the GP, they should be told to ring up an accountant instead. After all we science people are irrelevant to everyday life. If you want us to make science relevant and inspiring, remove the assessment burden and allow us to do our job.