'Blurred' priorities fail to deliver scientific literacy

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Confusion over how science is taught, researchers claim

Many teachers are continuing to teach science the way they always have, despite the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence.

This claim is made by two Strathclyde University researchers, who say the policy behind CfE science and the practicalities of its "experiences and outcomes" are in conflict.

They examined an array of recent education policy documentation and found confusion over CfE's aims for science.

Stephen Day, who is also a science teacher at a North Lanarkshire secondary, and Tom Bryce argue that, while the "policy vision" for CfE highlights the relevance of science to everyday life, the experiences and outcomes lean towards a curriculum that is content-heavy and full of practical techniques and laboratory work.

Although CfE policy has underlined the importance of general scientific literacy over science for specialisation, in the experiences and outcomes, scientific literacy comes 11th out of a list of 12 development aims.

"Why is the development of pupils' scientific literacy so far down the list of developmental priorities when, according to the science rationale, scientific literacy is the main aim of the curriculum?" write the researchers.

Dr Day, who presented the work at the recent annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association, said "blurring" around priorities for science was "inevitably going to lead to a curriculum that lacks focus".

Professor Bryce added that there seemed a "lack of commitment" to the vision for CfE science among national education bodies.

Policy documentation was "so vague you could drive a bus through it", added Dr Day.

The new president of SERA, George Head, suggested this might be a boon to teachers, in giving them more freedom in the classroom: "Why don't we drive a bus through it and decide what should be in there?"

But Dr Day told TESS: "That's OK if you know what you're trying to achieve."

He is concerned that very different approaches could take hold across Scotland, to the detriment of pupils.

He fears, too, that CfE is failing in the aim of bringing about a "more discursive, more open" approach to science, in which there is a "free exchange of opinions" in classrooms.

Dr Day and Professor Bryce found that far more experiences and outcomes were concerned with "content knowledge" and "experimental-based inquiry skills" than "socio-scientific discussion" (see table).

"In my view, the science experiences and outcomes do not constitute a radical change from what went before, in terms of content knowledge and experimental-process skills, from that of 5-14 science," Dr Day said. "Thus the curriculum is not transformational, but business as usual."

The "lack of specification and clear definition of what we're supposed to be doing" was impeding change, he added. "Science teachers will always revert to what they know and trust and what they feel is achievable."

In a joint statement summing up their findings, the two researchers say: "Greater clarification as to what the priorities are and should be for Scottish science education is required.

"Pupils' development towards functional scientific literacy cannot be achieved if there is confusion as to the purpose(s) of science education."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said learning outcomes were not ranked in priority order, and that its guidance "clearly sets out the knowledge and skills that young people will develop through learning in the sciences".

He added: "We want young people to develop as scientifically-literate citizens, with a lifelong learning interest in the sciences. We aim for learners to develop the skills to be able to have informed views of scientific and environmental issues, and reflect critically on sources and data."

Assessment would focus on important scientific concepts including investigative skills, analytical skills, scientific literacy and "general attributes".

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk.

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