Blueprint for a scientific revolution

14th December 2007 at 00:00
We can't all be lucky enough to be taught by the person Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop chose as her best teacher in The TES Magazine (October 26). But delegates to this year's Scottish Learning Festival did get the opportunity to attend a spotlight session by the "tall, quiet man with dark hair" that she remembers from her schooldays in the 1970s.

The dark hair remains and so does Jack Jackson's passion for his subject. But almost 20 years as the inspectorate's national science specialist - a post he recently retired from - have transformed the "very impressive teacher" into Scotland's leading expert on the state of science education in our schools.

Professor Jackson began his talk by posing the question: "Science education: evolution or revolution?" His own preference emerged almost immediately when he pointed out that "progress over the past 40 years has been very slow".

Scottish schools have traditionally provided young scientists with a sound start, and they still do. But those pupils are in the minority.

"All learners should be prepared for the science they will meet as citizens and decision-makers," Professor Jackson says. In this respect "we have not achieved well".

Despite the best intentions of a series of curricular developments, "the needs of many young people in our schools are still not well met". Assessment dominates and "suppresses good practice and innovation".

The aim of providing more practical work and investigations has not been achieved. There are too many barriers between primary and secondary, and between schools and colleges. Vocational courses are almost non-existent.

Accommodation for science lessons can be dire. Learning is rarely related to pupils' interests, and careers advice is wholly inadequate.

It is a lengthy catalogue, he says, of piecemeal patches, good intentions that missed the mark and long-term failure to tackle problems systemically - all of which has led to a decline in uptake of science subjects that has "enormous implications for higher education and the economy".

Convinced that all these difficulties can be solved, Professor Jackson regards the 3-18 curriculum review as a golden opportunity to finally escape from the past fragmented initiatives and construct a coherent system for all pupils.

Productive links between schools and colleges and between early years, primary and secondary sectors should be nurtured. New technologies must be embraced. Science centres of excellence should be developed in every authority.

Although influenced by American and English specialist schools, these would be firmly rooted in Scotland's comprehensive system, bearing most resemblance to our music and sport academies, he says.

While providing an inclusive, comprehensive education for every pupil, they would:

- improve the uptake and raise attainment in science;

- acquire and share good practice in teaching and learning of science;

- develop productive links with outside agencies;

- provide extra-curricular science opportunities; and

- build productive links with other departments and in associated primary and special schools.

But the single most important factor is high-quality continuing professional development. "This is now a national imperative," he says.

The growth of science shows no signs of slowing. So teachers must renew their knowledge and skills regularly and profoundly. But more than this, schools need to deliver citizens who can handle the complex issues, implications and applications of 21st-century science.

Teachers need to foster deep understanding of key ideas, develop problem-solving and critical skills, promote discussion of ethical issues and support pupils to assess the risks and benefits of new science.

""Pupils spend most of their time listening," says Professor Jackson. "They need opportunities to speak the language of science and to discuss ethical and social issues."

Newly-qualified teachers will require CPD within a few years of leaving university, and regularly from then until they retire.

Professor Jackson concludes: "We need to deliver high-quality professional updating to all teachers of science. That is the challenge for the Scottish Government."

Listen to Science Education: evolution or revolution? at www.ltscotland.org.ukaudioslfslf2007seminarsltscotland-slf2007-l1h.mp3.

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