Don't change the formula if it works...

31st January 1997 at 00:00
The consultation process for Higher Still has now closed. But serious questions remain as far as chemistry is concerned, say David Fleming, Jim Goodfellow and Iain Robertson. Of all the subjects in the Higher Still proposals, with the possible exceptions of English, chemistry seems to have suffered the most substantial, unnecessary and unwanted changes.

The consultation process, which ended last month, tended because of its very structure to channel attention away from some fairly basic questions. Was there really a demand for change? Was it intended? To what extent? And what about the workload implications and the cost?

Initially, most chemistry teachers were - and many still are - deeply concerned about the changes in assessment procedures. But as the dust settles, the structure and content of the Higher appear to be under threat.

Large chunks of material have been moved out into an already overcrowded Advanced Higher. New materials have been introduced, supposedly to modernise the course which was revised as recently as 1990. And in sectioning the course into three 40-hour units, some aspects have been moved from their familiar contexts or spread across units, thus fragmenting previously coherent parts.

Take the concept of enthalpy, for example, which has been much reduced with about 10 of the existing Higher outcomes removed to Advanced Higher. The remaining pieces of "enthalpy" are now a sub-part of a section on "fuels". But "fuels" is normally dealt with as a sub-topic of carbon chemistry, and carbon chemistry is in a completely different 40-hour unit.

These bizarre proposals ignore the principle of minimal change. An example of minimal change which the proposals do make, is the mention of fullerenes as a new form of carbon.

Major changes might have been deemed necessary if there had been evidence of a drop in the popularity of chemistry or criticism of the present content from higher education, industry or the Scottish Office. But this has not been the case, and the number of presentations at Higher, as in many other subjects, has increased.

The following responses to the consultation process were collated from East Lothian, Fife and Edinburgh: "Chemists are least happy with their proposed course"; "There was unanimous dissatisfaction with the revision of the Higher chemistry course"; "A majority view is that the attempt to update and modernise chemistry at Higher has not been a success. There is a strong call to retain the existing Higher with no new content."

The arguments for minimal change are strong. First, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Not only is the current Higher chemistry course popular, but it also offers an excellent blend of theory, knowledge-based problem-solving and practical work.

Second, the combination of taking out, adding and relocating - a triple whammy - puts existing resources under threat. If the present course were changed minimally, then the considerable resources invested by teachers and schools in planning, developing and implementing it would be given an extended shelf life. Even if the promise of centrally-produced materials to deal with new content is met, existing resources will still be inadequate. Any pupil using a textbook should find that the text matches the course being taught, but as our illustrations of "enthalpy" and "fuels" illustrate, current textbooks would now provide too much detail on enthalpy and present fuels in a different context.

Good textbooks that require annotations such as "omit this paragraph" or "read this page with a different chapter" are exasperating. The alternative is the expense of new textbooks (when published) - a road we should not need to be going down.

In the classroom too, Higher chemistry has been increasingly taught using sophisticated differentiated learning materials, in many cases by purchasing commercially available packs. Here, too, change equals cost - the cost of purchasing revised packs and of reprinting sheets and collating into booklets.

It would be a supreme irony if in the name of "modernising" the Higher, chemistry teaching methods were forced to step back because of the cost of new books and resources.

And what about the workload issue? As in other Higher Still subjects, new courses are being introduced at Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2, each with their workload implications. But in contrast to others, considerable content change is also being proposed at Higher itself. Many comprehensive homework packages evolved by schools for the current Higher will require parts taken out, added in, or relocated.

It's all time and effort, and if in-class resources need to be modified in school (rather than purchased anew), the workload pressure increases even further. Just reading all the documents produced by the Higher Still Development Unit is time and workload, never mind going on to do anything about them.

Minimum change at higher grade would allow chemistry teachers to feel that in at least one area of the Higher Still developments, they were already conversant with the content and standards of the course (a reassurance teachers in most other subjects already have). Returning all of the content removed to Advanced Higher would not only restore the integrity - the gold standard - of the Higher; it would also alleviate what is becoming a highly-overcrowded sixth-year course. But that is another story.

Hopefully, even at this late stage, the Higher Still authorities will be sufficiently responsive to restore the essential structure of higher chemistry with only the minimal changes required to allow its division into three 40-hour units.

David Fleming, Jim Goodfellow and Iain Robertson are principal teachers of chemistry from Edinburgh, East Lothian and Fife and are the partners in Resources in Science Education (RISE), a small publishing company run by teachers

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