A brave new world for school science

31st March 2006 at 01:00
As the curriculum reviewers issue their first progress report this week, Douglas Buchanan hails a golden opportunity

have become used to checking the time of the homeward train on the internet before making the short walk to Waverley Station at the end of the day.

Indeed, for a while I changed the name of the "when is my train due?"

service to "how late is my train?" It's the same question for science teachers, but what they are thinking about with widely varying emotions is the arrival of the initiative that has the potential to reshape the way science is taught and learnt in our schools. A Curriculum for Excellence - when is it coming?

For the veterans of Standard grade (1983), Revised Higher (1987), 5-14 environmental studies (1990) and the Higher Still development programme (1994), there is the chance quickly to find the escape hatch or prepare to take part in another "campaign". For those who are rookies, there are the new opportunities and challenges inevitably associated with curricular change at the national level. With the sciences in the front line, there's no time to waste.

So let's try to take stock. We are all aware that the 3-18 curriculum review group identified valued features of the present curriculum, including the flexibility available, the combination of breadth and depth, the quality of teaching and the quality of teacher material to support the comprehensive principle.

People argued for changes that would reduce overcrowding and fragmentation in the curriculum, make learning more enjoyable, achieve a better balance between "academic" and "vocational" subjects, equip young people with the skills needed for tomorrow's workforce, ensure that assessment and reporting support learning and allow more choice to meet individual needs.

The four purposes of A Curriculum for Excellence (to enable all young people to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors) have become the "buzz terms" of recent months. It is interesting to note that the adjectives can be freely interchanged without losing any sense; it also has to be stressed that these aspirations are hardly new for science teachers.

The guiding curriculum design principles are listed as: challenge and enjoyment, breadth, progression, depth, personalisation and choice, coherence and relevance. While some are considered to be less familiar, again it has to be recognised that much of what is needed already exists - the science community, for example, has a long history of aiming for enjoyable learning of relevant science.

It would seem that we can now prepare for what is being called a period of professional engagement . The focus for the consultation will initially be the 3-15 stages. So what can we expect from the science review group?

First, a decluttered and less fragmented curriculum will be achieved by removing unnecessary detail and overlaps within science and with other subjects. Here, while the workload implications are clear to all, the opportunity to address content overload, to produce a more progressive curriculum and to explore issues relating to breadth versus depth of content will be generally welcomed.

Second, there will be a real emphasis on how we teach as well as what we teach - the introduction to A Curriculum for Excellence is as much about changes in methodology as changes in content. Here again, the message is reassuring; science teachers are already greatly interested in the wider use of proven formative assessment techniques to promote the kind of thinking and discussion that leads to real learning as well as experimenting with co-operative learning strategies to create a more favourable classroom culture for interdependent learning.

Third, the use of practical work that offers an increase in the variety of challenges and experiences will be encouraged. Once more, this is non-threatening, for there will be more opportunities for meaningful and relevant investigative work in a less crowded curriculum.

Fourth, the content will be described using much more broad-based statements. This approach reverses recent trends by which outcomes have been specified in more and more detail, which is likely to be relatively contentious. There are certainly strong arguments for encouraging diversity and the local ownership of content that is not going to be nationally examined.

However, there is a tension between this move and the culture of schools in which teachers are increasingly accountable for their practice through the use of time-consuming, bureaucratic, administrative procedures. If teachers are to operate in a climate of professional trust, then it cannot be restricted to selected aspects of their work.

What is also pleasing is that thought has already been given to staff development. The "support for science education through CPD" initiative relies significantly on a grant from the Scottish Executive Education Department. Core partners include the Development to Update School Chemistry Project (DUSC), the Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) Biotechnology Scotland Project, the Scottish Initiative for Biotechnology Education (SIBE) and the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre (SSERC). Since the grant was awarded, representatives from the Institute of Physics and the Association for Science Education (Scotland) have joined the initial planning group.

So when is it coming? Well, it's actually here right now. With the emphasis on methodology, many departments are already successfully experimenting with, for example, more effective ways of questioning, comment-only marking and peer and self-assessment.

Departments are also beginning to audit lower school courses to build in additional content that enables pupils to develop informed views on social, environmental, moral and ethical issues relating to science and that also provides opportunities for pupils to evaluate environmental and technological data.

Given the recent curriculum flexibility, nobody in the science community can afford to view A Curriculum for Excellence as anything but a golden opportunity for their subject and, when the engagement begins, we must be ready to play a full part in the debate.

Douglas Buchanan is a lecturer in the department of curriculum, research and development at Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University.

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