All change with GCSE

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Tony Sherborne shares his three Laws of Curriculum Motion

As the new term starts, you can almost hear the whispering: which specification will you choose for 2006? GCSE has been satisfying pretty well nobody. It doesn't prepare youngsters to make sense of science and technology nor does it inspire the scientists of tomorrow. Will things be any better this time round?

To make a prediction, we need a theory. I've been observing the peculiar phenomenon of school science for 10 years now, and I'm delighted to announce my First Law of Curriculum Motion: in principle, teaching and learning will change only if acted on by a large force of assessment.

What's examinable in the new GCSE looks encouragingly different. A major new part of the prescribed content is the section "how science works".

These are the skills of enquiry, an understanding of the applications, issues and implications - exactly what students need to develop critical thinking abilities.

I might therefore predict classrooms will get more interesting, with less traditional content and more time to explore interesting contexts and to let student voice their own opinions.

However, I've also found a Second Law which is less optimistic. It states that the curriculum motion actually observed in classrooms is inversely proportional to the inertia of the system. Unfortunately there's a lot of inertia. First the awarding bodies whose job it is to translate QCA's criteria into new specifications are market driven, and in some cases have concluded that schools want as little change as possible. Hence, some specifications will look depressingly familiar. Thankfully, others which have attempted to embrace the new by building in more relevant and contemporary contexts.

The other main source of inertia is less obvious. It's us, the educators; 15 years of delivering the national curriculum have given us lots of unhelpful habits, which you might call "teacher misconceptions of science".

Like water for a goldfish, we're almost unaware of them. So much teaching communicates the image of science looming over students from a great pedestal. Our purpose seems simply to transform their impoverished ideas into textbook answers.

I wonder how many young people feel alienated from a subject where they can contribute so little. The irony is that professional science is nothing like this. It's finding out, not facts. We also habitually present concepts out of context, eg "Today we're going to learn the formula for resistance".

In the process, we miss a powerful source of interest - storytelling. Why not present a formula in terms of how a scientist struggled to explain a mystery, instead of sanitising it?

Where the laws of force and inertia seem so well balanced, my Third Law comes into play. It's the Law of Teacher Action and Reaction. When an individual takes a new action, such as running a debate on a controversial issue, or allowing students to do their own open-ended investigation, there's a small but definite reaction. Confidence begins to develop. A new habit is born, that, given time and reinforcement, can break the stranglehold of the old.

If you want to know which specification to choose, my advice would be to follow the Third law. Choose one that feels a little bit uncomfortable to your department, a trifle risky, and reject the status. That way, maybe we'll succeed in engaging more students in the next five years than we did in the last.


Tony Sherborne is creative director of the Centre for Science Education and a NESTA fellow

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