While anything to do with space is fascinating, old industrial processes are definitely not. Jonathan Osborne and Sue Collins reveal what 16-year-olds are saying about science in schools today.
What do pupils think of the science education they get? What would they like to see changed? We have been trying to find answers to these questions with a two-year study funded by the Wellcome Foundation.
In the context of the current debate about the science curriculum stimulated by Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future it surely makes sense to ask the pupils, as the recipients of so much science education, what they think. Given that school science is failing to attract larger numbers post-16, it would be hard to argue that all is rosy in the garden of science education. Pupils may have some very pertinent ideas and comments from which we all could learn. These days, science and scientists have a problem, being widely regarded with, at best, ambivalence, and at worst outright suspicion by the public. What impact does this have on pupils?
We talked to 140 16-year-olds from London, Leeds and Birmingham from comprehensive schools with average science GCSE results, using 20 focus groups, split by gender, and whether they intended to continue with science post-GCSE. What surprised us most about the pupils was how insightful they were, and how fluent many were, particularly the girls, at expressing their ideas. What surprised them most was that anybody was prepared to listen.
The good news is that they nearly all think science is important. If it were not for science we would "still be living in caves" without "washing machines or computers". Science is even "interesting" and helps you to understand what "they are talking about on the television". People who have science qualifications are clever and worth knowing. Science also makes you feel good - as one girl commented: "When my cousin asked me how babies were made and I told him, I felt happy that I was able to explain to him how it actually happens."
The bad news is that science is not quite as valued as maths and English, and it's only useful for a limited range of careers. The idea that scientific knowledge is of intrinsic interest - as much a part of our culture as the aphorisms of Shakespeare, the poetry of Blake, or the novels of Jane Austen, and valuable in any occupation - never surfaced. For a body of knowledge which, we would argue, is the greatest achievement of the past 400 years, school science clearly has a marketing problem.
There is also a lot they don't like. What surprises us is the antipathy for much of GCSE chemistry, particularly anything to do with atomic and molecular bonding or industrial processes, whose relevance is totally lost on pupils. Living in a post-industrial society, where you would be hard pressed to find a single blast furnace south of the Humber, the comment:
"The blast furnace - when are you going to use a blast furnace? You are not going to come across it ever," seems to hit the mark. Perhaps it's time for the chemists to rethink the industrial applications that they use to illustrate the importance of their subject. "Copying", possibly a euphemism for "boring writing", also emerges as something that has been happening a lot - a device which enables the notes of the teacher to become the notes of the students without going through the mind of either. The teachers we spoke to denied that it happened in their classes but the comment came up too often to be dismissed.
Science also suffers from too much repetition. Topics including photosynthesis, gases and liquids and others are done "over and over again", with little advance from one year to the next. Science education may rest on a spiral curriculum but for too many of the pupils it looks like a circle. Do we teach too much science of the wrong kind for too long? Eleven years of science education may be rather like an eleven-course meal. The first course may be enchanting, the second a delight and the third satiating, but the fourth? And as for the fifth, sixth and seventh? Before we ask more young people to dine at the restaurant of science should we not ask ourselves whether the menu we offer is both appropriate and appealing?
On the positive side, there is a lot they do like. Biology scores highly, with girls of course, but also with the boys because it has that vital ingredient - relevance. Chemistry is fun when you can "mix chemicals", "watch the results for yourself, do the practicals", and there is an element of danger. Girls find light and electricity interesting topics in physics, while boys show an interest in anything to do with cars or flight.
However, the one topic that receives uni-versal approbation is anything to do with space or astronomy. This topic addresses fundamental cosmological questions of who we are, what we are and where we are - and there are few pupils who are not interested in that. It deals with the unknown. It is contemporary science and is "something you are fascinated with".
Pupils also like practical work. It is motivating as it provides an element of personal autonomy in the classroom, it helps them to remember ideas, and it's just "fun". Challenge and intellectual stimulation matter as well, although this is difficult to get right, as pupils are put off when the subject gets difficult and stays difficult.
Needless to say, teachers matter. Those who take the time to explain things, talk about science, add an element of humour, and avoid lots of "boring writing" make science enjoyable.
What is turning a lot of young people away from science, the study found, is that the final years are so rushed - an overcrowded curriculum forces teachers to frogmarch their pupils across the scientific landscape. It's all "crammed in, and you either take it all in, or it goes in one ear and out the other". Science is too authoritarian, obsessed with "right and wrong answers" and allows no opportunity for any creativity or personal expression. Even when interesting topics such as cloning or genetically-modified foods do permeate the hermetic seal of the laboratory door, there is no time for discussion. And if a topic is interesting, and pupils want to know more, too often they are fobbed off with "wait until A-level". Since most of the pupils we talked to were not going on to A-level, they didn't find that helpful.
If this was a marketing exercise, there would be a clear message in the pupils' views. If you want a curriculum that appeals, then it needs to have lots of biology, lots of astronomy (without repetition), a little physics and a little chemistry, and more contemporary science. It needs to be taught with a wider range of strategies and needs to have space for pupils to stand and stare, to discuss, and practical investigations that are more than ersatz assessment activities. While the national curriculum may have been brought in with the best of intentions, policy-makers must recognise that as well as the intended outcomes, there have been a lot of unintended outcomes, most of which have had a negative effect on children's experience of science at school. Then again, if you decide to make the important measurable, who can be surprised if only the measurable becomes important? Fun, enjoyment and interest seem to have been left on the wayside.
And what did their parents think? That's another story.
Jonathan Osborne and Sue Collins are speaking about the report 'Pupils' and Parents' views of the school science curriculum' at the ASE conference on Friday, January 7. It is available from Jonathan Osborne, Franklin-Wilkins Building, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8WA