Analyse this

6th January 2006 at 00:00
What do you think of the new key stage 4 specifications? The TES asked four experts

School science is on the move again. There can hardly be a secondary science teacher who hasn't had to consider which GCSE course they are going to offer next year.

So what might influence your choice? How easily it is assessed? Or perhaps the syllabus requiring the minimum change? Let me suggest that this would be a professional lapse. Let's make no mistake - school science currently is not doing a good job of engaging its audience. And it is here that some simple research speaks volumes.

A survey of more than 1,100 14 and 15-year-old students conducted by the University of Leeds found that less than half thought that their school science was interesting. Even more worrying for the politicians, and perhaps the economy, only a fifth were considering pursuing a career in science.

Why might this be? The same survey listed 108 things that the students might like to learn about and asked them to rank them. What did the boys most want to learn about? Explosive chemicals; how it feels to be weightless in space; how the atomic bomb functions; biological and chemical weapons and what they do to the human body; and black holes, supernovae and other spectacular objects in space. No surprises there, then.

What did the girls want to learn about? A very different answer - why we dream when we are sleeping and what the dreams may mean; cancer, what we know and how we can treat it; how best to perform first aid and use basic medical equipment; how to exercise to keep fit and strong; what are sexually transmitted diseases and how to protect against them.

Indeed, there were 80 statistically significant differences between boys'

and girls' rankings.

So, if you want to interest more girls in science, the answer must lie in picking a syllabus which focuses at least on some of their interests part of the time. OCR's Twenty First Century Science, for instance, specifically has a unit on the "Brain and the Mind". AQA and Edexcel have similarly wide-ranging options.

Another issue for school science is that it likes to keep a hermetic seal between itself and the real world. When science teachers were asked what were the most important discoveries of the 20th century, they rattled off a familiar list of major scientific stepping stones - DNA, splitting the atom, penicillin. When their students were asked the same question, what did they answer? Personal computers, mobile phone, television, and so on.

In short, the world out there.

As teachers of science our vision is retrospective: how did we get to where we are? Our students' vision is prospective - where are we going - and, clearly, they don't distinguish between science and technology.

The question for teachers of science is: will the course you pick incorporate topical material or will it just be some old wine in a new bottle?

Data collected by King's College about the pilot of Twenty First Century Science shows that, compared to standard GCSEs, the course was viewed as significantly more topical and relevant. AQAand Edexcel have similar results.

The real key to engaging students in science is a sense of anticipation - that science has some amazing ideas to tell you or wonderful things to show about the world. For instance, that you look like your parents because every single cell in your body carries a chemically coded blueprint of how to reproduce you; that all the atoms more massive than helium in your body were fabricated in some star millions of years ago; that Africa and South American were once joined together... Such claims spark students' curiosity, allowing the teacher of science to show that even a simple idea, like the fact that day and night is caused not by a moving Sun, but a spinning Earth is knowledge that has had to be hard won. For surely, "to know science" is to know not only the nature of phenomena, but also how they relate to other events, why they are important and how this particular view of the world came to be.

Most importantly, isn't it about time that we remembered that if you really want young people to learn, it is motivation and engagement that matters? So, in approaching this all-important choice, remember what sparked your own interest in science. It is worth remembering when it comes to choosing a new GCSE course that enthusiastic teachers create enthusiastic students.

Jonathan Osborne is chair of science education and head of the department of education and professional studies at King's College London

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today