Closing the international gap

22nd August 1997 at 01:00
Wilson Flood puts forward astrategy to lift performancein science and mathematics

The recently published results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study would suggest that for nine and 13-year-olds Scotland's performance in the two subjects could be a whole lot better. Mathematics performance was poor in Britain generally, but the science performance of pupils in Scotland was significantly worse than that of English pupils.

Preparing science tests which measure pupil performance across a number of countries presents formidable problems since curricula vary. In one country science may be primarily thought of as a body of theoretical knowledge; in another it may be seen as an empirical process with the emphasis on heuristic learning; in others it may be taught as a component of cross-curricular topics. This does not invalidate the use of such tests but it means care is needed about drawing conclusions based on rank ordering of countries when scores are close together and when the average chronological ages of the groups vary.

This last point is important: the Scottish groups were among the youngest to be tested. There is also the question of how pupils were sampled: no doubt a representative sample was chosen in the case of Scotland and England, but was this so in other countries where in some cases it may be that science is not taught across the full ability range?

Although they could have done better in the science test, Scotland's nine-year-olds were in the group rated as being significantly above the international average despite the fact that when the test was administered the 5-14 environmental studies document could not have been long issued and there were prior to that no detailed national guidelines for science in the primary curriculum. The 1995 survey by the Scottish Council for Research in Education showed that primary teachers do not feel confident teaching science, especially those areas known as the physical sciences. The experience from the national curriculum in England was that confidence increased dramatically once suitable staff development had been provided. The message is clear: if the Education Minister wishes to see an improvement then teachers will need professional support similar to that provided for modern languages.

Even allowing for the age disadvantage, the science results for 13-year-olds are disappointing, coming 23rd out of the 31 countries meeting the survey's criteria, but hardly surprising. Assessment of Achievement Programme surveys have highlighted a problem for many years. The poor performance compared to England is irrelevant but can be explained away. Since pupils in England transfer from primary a year earlier than they do in Scotland, 13-year-olds from English schools would have been studying secondary science for more than two years whereas those from Scotland would barely have completed one. The question is whether this justifies the size of the gap, and the real problem is the poor result in international terms. Matters might improve once 5-14 environmental studies is fully implemented, but a review of the P7-S2 stage and the first two years of secondary science education is still badly needed. If we want to raise standards than we need to do something more fundamental than reorganising the seating arrangements in the laboratory, developing some science investigations and linking everyone to the Internet.

Despite advances in what we know about children's understanding - or, more accurately, misunderstanding - of scientific concepts, the key features of the P7-S2 stage attainment outcomes for science in 5-14 environmental studies bear a depressing resemblance to what is in Curriculum Paper 7 issued as long ago as 1969. In the first two years of secondary science, pupils of all abilities, but especially the more able, are insufficiently challenged.

It is often the case, for example, the work done in primaries is repeated by pupils in secondaries. Also, schools in England and Scotland use similar secondary science textbooks but, because of their earlier transfer to secondary, the concepts presented to 11-year-olds in England are tackled by 12-year-olds in Scotland. With 5-14, the opportunity presents itself to allow primary 7 pupils to tackle work similar to that being done by their year 7 contemporaries in England. This raises certain issues: the need for real primary-secondary liaison; trained primary science specialist teachers; the possibility of secondary science teachers working with primary classes; modification of content to take account of lack of specialist accommodation in primary schools; the possibility of primary pupils being taught in secondary school laboratories by primary teachers; or primary education ending at P6.

Higher standards at S1-S2 could be achieved if something different began to take place in the classroom. Many proposals have recently been put forward such as setting or more whole-class teaching, but one route to better performance is to place more emphasis on how pupils learn. There are science materials available for S1-S2 which emphasise the development of independent, reflective learning through processes known as cognitive conflict and construction. This sounds rather esoteric but teachers using these materials report levels of intellectual stimulation among pupils not previously encountered in science classes. What is more, it would be perfectly feasible to adapt the methodology to any set of science lessons. Trials in England have shown that if teachers are trained in using the approach then improved results in national examinations are the outcome. Similar materials in mathematics are being trialled. There are also non-subject specific courses, usually grouped under the heading of "thinking skills". Despite teacher scepticism, the evidence shows that the proper use of these courses does raise standards. Why are they used in hundreds of schools in England but hardly at all in Scotland?

Raising national standards in mathematics is essential but there would have to be a prior recognition of the need for a shift in cultural norms. Account should be taken of practice in countries where standards are high; perhaps not in Japan or Korea, where cultures are too diverse from our own, but in places nearer home such as Switzerland or Hungary, already the subject of a study being carried out by Exeter University. Nothing miraculous is happening in these countries; it is, more often than not, simply an absence of calculators, good classroom practice in mathematics, hard work, and, most important, the exercise of self-control by pupils.

The creation of independent, reflective learners is a key step in raising overall standards. Independent learning does not mean individualised learning: it can occur when reading quietly, when listening to a teacher, or when discussing ideas with other pupils. Independent learning requires pupil self-control, and respect for others and for the learning environment. Creating a culture of civilised behaviour in a classroom may not be easy in some schools but it is essential for higher standards and it raises issues of values in education and how that culture can be established. Major factors in determining classroom behaviour are expectations set by teachers and by the school, but also those set by the local community and society as a whole.

Let us be under no illusions: it is also on these latter two fields that battle needs to be engaged.

Dr Wilson Flood was science adviser in Dumfries and Galloway Region and is now an educational consultant.

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