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It's time to restore the big picture;British Association conference

Karen Thornton reports from the British Association conference in Cardiff on moves for a reformed science curriculum, on a plea for a broader sixth-form curriculum and on research into how parental help can raise standards in mathematics

Classroom science is failing, concludes a major report on the future of science education.

The curriculum needs a major overhaul if it is to meet the needs of the majority of pupils who do not go on to become scientists.

Dr Jonathan Osborne, of King's College, London, told the British Association's annual festival of science in Cardiff that the existing curriculum is unable to engage youngsters in the kind of science they see every day in the media.

He was outlining the recommendations of a group of science educators, curriculum specialists, teachers and inspectors, who have been working on new ideas for the science curriculum. Their report, due to be published in November, has been compiled with the help of the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Robert May.

Dr Osborne told the festival that science education should concentrate on the big ideas - and give up trying to cover everything in detail. The new curriculum, due to take effect in 2000, should focus on enhancing pupils' scientific literacy and equipping them for a democratic society.

Speaking at a session on the curriculum organised by the Association for Science Education, Dr Osborne said: "There are cultural ideas embedded in science that we would hope you would carry away from science education - for example, that diseases are carried by micro-organisms.

"The notion is that because scientific knowledge is hard won and carefully constructed brick by brick, that is the way it should be reconstructed in the child.

"`I want to question that because the problem is that in focusing on the detail, we have lost sight of the main stories science has to tell.

"Without looking at the whole building, it's impossible to say if you are looking at St Paul's Cathedral or a pile of bricks. Consequently is it any wonder that pupils end up with the feeling that their scientific courses have as much value as a pile of bricks? We have to get out of this hierarchical fallacy and communicate this awe and wonder of science we have."

The group's report also emphasises the need to reintegrate technology and the application of science into the mainstream science curriculum. Dr Osborne said pupils do not distinguish between "pure" and applied science, as demonstrated by their ideas on the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century. While their teachers list DNA, penicillin, splitting the atom and genetic engineering, pupils go for personal computers, television laser technology, telephones and cars.

The group's report also recommends the use of more varied teaching methods, changing assessment methods to match the proposed curriculum changes, differentiating the curriculum to meet the needs of different pupils.

* Science, subject of the week, Friday magazine, pages 20-29

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