Without their efforts, pupils would never learn that all-important principle of science, the controlled fair test. So it must seem strange if students read about real scientific research, like the discovery of a new planet, or the human genome, when there is no mention of fair tests at all. Do the scientists not know anything?
Reluctantly we may be forced to conclude that the fault is with the curriculum, and what is missing in these stale school investigations is variety and creativity.
But now QCA is asking teachers to try a wider range of enquiries for pupils' investigations at key stage 3. These include classifying (for example, what plants grow in and around water?) and surveying and sampling (how are plants on the school field affected by moisture?). Teachers can now base assessed investigations on data collected by real scientists, such as pollution levels, available on the internet. All this forms part of 'Investigating scientific questions', one of 37 units making up QCA's new Scheme of Work for KS3. This follows the introduction of similar schemes at KS1 and 2.
Cynics might argue that the scheme is primarily designed to address the shortage of science teachers: with schools all covering the same thing at the same time, the Government can simply hire a few advanced skills teachers and broadcast their lessons across the internet. More likely, the Government is trying to halt the well-publicised "science switch-off", when students lose their interest as early as Year 7.
Can QCA's scheme help teachers address this problem? First reactions have been very positive. While most changes to the curriculum have simply piled on new criteria t assess, this one shows teachers a way to achieve the objectives, using stimulating activities and a range of approaches.
Among its many virtues are an emphasis on the applications of science in everyday life, and the provision of differentiated outcomes. It also offers ideas for covering the newly assessed part of the curriculum, 'Ideas and Evidence'. This explores historical discoveries and topical issues likely to appeal to pupils. Perhaps most importantly, by following the scheme, teachers can feel confident they will not be duplicating what pupils have just done at KS2. Overall, it looks a challenging scheme to adopt, but it is also a refreshing alternative.
QCA has not said teachers must use it. Instead it is inviting teachers to review their existing scheme against a set of demanding criteria. Your scheme needs to address key skills, literacy, mathematics, ICT, PSHE, citizenship and thinking skills. And it is a fair bet Office for Standards in Education inspectors will take an even keener interest in science departments' schemes of work now.
Here are some tips:
* Download the QCA's scheme from its website * Plan to review your scheme this year, against the QCA criteria * Compare your scheme with the QCA's * Decide whether to adopt QCA's scheme (and slot in existing lesson plans), or add appropriate QCA activities to your scheme * Start teaching ideas and evidence and trying a wider range of investigations * If you hold shares in any marble companies, sell.
Useful websites: www.qca.org.uk www.scishop.org - an emerging site for web resources matched to the new scheme, from the Association for Science Education.
www.shu.ac.ukAcclaim - providing KS3 Ideas and Evidence resources based on today's leading scientists.
Tony Sherborne is at the Centre for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University, which is developing a complete resource pack for Ideas and Evidence published by Collins in Easter 2001