Build a future

1st January 1999 at 00:00
Why do we teach science in schools? When the manufacturing base of our economy was much larger, when jobs were secure for life, science offered a valuable qualification for employment.

Now, in the changing context of the late Nineties, such certainties are long gone. Well, you may say, at least it is useful for knowing how things work, and it develops logical thinking.

But, these days, if anything goes wrong its black-box nature means we are more likely to call out the repairer or buy a new item than get out the screwdriver. And, as for that scientific attitude of mind, there is precious little evidence that scientists are any more or less rational than the rest of us.

Yes, we do need a core of individuals to enter the hallowed portals of the scientific establishment. But do the needs of this small minority justify the cost and effort of teaching science to all? In short, the idea of a science education for all lacks a sense of purpose.

Recent research at King's College, London, with focus groups of 16-year-olds, carried out for the Wellcome Foundation, shows that pupils are similarly puzzled. If science is so interesting and so important, why do they spend so much time copying and memorising all the "facts" and repeating so much work? As the pupils say: "we should move on and do something better, more advanced. "

And, they complain, the curriculum seems full of "old stuff, nothing updated", the kind of things that children say their grandmothers remember learning. What emerges is a picture of a curriculum that has lost its interest for too many pupils as they are frog-marched from one feature of the scientific landscape to another, without time to stand and stare, or discuss the implications of the ideas.

Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, a report launched last November and presented at the Association for Scientific Education this week, is an attempt to present a new vision of science education.

Produced by a mix of teachers, academics, inspectors and curriculum specialists, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, it argues that most of our young people need an education that helps them appreciate the major "explanatory stories" of science and encourages them to think about science.

The real reason for teaching science to all pupils is because it is the force behind our society's greatest achievements. Moreover, in a society increasingly dominated by socio-scientific issues, we must develop a critical interest in science if we are to sustain a healthy democracy. For instance, why should we believe scientists' pronouncements, or how do we know what is good science?

These are just some of the questions that need to be considered if we are to develop the bare bones of scientific literacy. Currently, school science attempts to build up a scientific understanding "fact" by "fact". One result is that too few ever get to see the whole building - the glittering hall full of awe and wonder - and appreciate its value or import. Is it any surprise, then, if they end up thinking it has as much value as a pile of bricks?

Beyond 2000 is our attempt to put the building first, to see some of the new as well as some of the old, and to see how it is built as well as what it is made of. And, last but not least, to encourage those changes in assessment practices and teaching styles that might allow this to happen.

* Dr Jonathan Osborne, King's College, London, and Professor Robin Millar,University of York, will be presenting the 'Beyond 2000' report at the ASE on January 8 at 9.30am, Palmer 109. Sue Collins is a research associate at King's College London. A copy of the report can be obtained from Caroline Gill, King's College, London, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8WA or http:www.kcl.ac. ukeducation

FACTS NEED STORIES TO MAKE SENSE

The report recommends

* The science curriculum needs to contain a statement of its aims - making clear why we consider the study of science valuable for all young people and what we would wish them to gain from the experience.

* The science curriculum from 5 to 16 should be seen primarily as a course to enhance general "scientific literacy".

* At key stage 4 (age 14-16), the science curriculum needs to differentiate more explicitly between those elements designed to enhance "scientific literacy" and those designed as the early stages of a specialist training in science.

* Up to the end of key stage 3 (age 11-14), a common curriculum is appropriate. At key stage 4, we recognise the need for greater diversity. We recommend that 10 per cent of the total curriculum time be taken up by a statutory course for all pupils, designed to enhance "scientific literacy". Alongside this core provision, we would then envisage a wide choice of science options, including modules of a more academic and of a more vocational kind. These could be taken by pupils in a variety of combinations.

* The curriculum should be presented clearly and simply, and its content needs to be seen to follow from the statement of aims. Scientific knowledge can best be presented in the curriculum as a number of key "explanatory stories", so the core understanding to be developed is not of a set of singular "facts" but rather a set of inter-related ideas.

* The curriculum should provide young people with an understanding of some key ideas about science - about how reliable knowledge of the natural world has been, and is being, obtained.

* The science curriculum should encourage the use of a wide variety of teaching methods and approaches. There should be variation in the pace at which new ideas are introduced. Case studies of historical and current issues, involving practical work and other resources, should be used to consolidate understanding.

* Work should be undertaken to explore how aspects of technology and the applications of science currently omitted could be incorporated. The existing curriculum focuses overwhelmingly on pure science. Consequently, any treatment of "how things work" has become marginalised. Yet this aspect, rather than abstract formal knowledge, is a central interest of many children.

* The assessment approaches used to report on performance should encourage teachers to focus on pupils' ability to understand and interpret scientific information, and to discuss controversial issues, as well as on their knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas.

* In the short term, the aims of the existing science national curriculum should be clearly stated with an indication of how the proposed content is seen as appropriate for achieving them. Aspects which deal with the nature of science and with systematic inquiry in science should be incorporated into the first attainment target, "experimental and investigative science"; new forms of assessment need to be developed to reflect such an emphasis.

* In the medium to long term, a formal procedure of trialling innovative approaches in science education should be established. The outcomes would be used to inform subsequent changes at national level. No significant changes should be made to the national curriculum or its assessment unless they have been previously piloted in this way.

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