How to keep up with new discoveries

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Scottish teachers want a national science centre of their own to help them keep up to date, modernise lessons and improve pupils' achievement, Douglas Blane learns

Science advances more rapidly than any other school subject.

Cloning, stem cells, prions, dark matter, climate change: these are not just new topics but whole new areas of investigation, with concepts, techniques and ethical implications undreamt of when many science teachers were at school.

HM inspectors have identified this "almost exponential growth" as a critical challenge to schools and the prospect of producing scientifically literate citizens for the 21st century. By responding too slowly, schools turn pupils off science in droves. The answer, say the inspectors, is twofold: modernise the curriculum and update teachers'

knowledge and skills. Crucially, both must be continuing processes.

So, the two key recommendations of Improving Achievement in Science in Primary and Secondary Schools, published by HM Inspectorate of Education in February, are that Scotland should:l "establish a sustainable national mechanism to deliver high quality professional updating to all teachers of science", andl "devise a mechanism to allow the continuous updating of the curriculum to take account of ongoing developments".

Teachers are desperate for action in both areas.

"The main problem is that Scotland has no national body for school science, so we all work in isolation," says Jim Shields, a principal teacher of biology who has just moved from Balfron High, in Stirling, to the independent Glasgow Academy.

"We need to spend money on a national science centre that will study developments and how they should impact on teaching and the curriculum.

What happens now is that long after a new topic has appeared, somebody suddenly goes: 'Jings! The kids are hearing all about stem cells but we are not teaching it to them.' " A network of science learning centres has sprung up all over England and Wales. These include the National Science Learning Centre in York opening this autumn, notionally for teachers from all over the UK. However, despite its wonderful resources, accommodation and attractive courses, the centre has not yet been overwhelmed with applications from Scotland. Nor is it likely to be.

"It is too remote. We need a national science centre staffed with people who can think pro-actively but we need one in Scotland," says Mr Shields.

The deficit of strategic thinking in science also concerns Franca Reid, headteacher at Longforgan Primary, in Perth and Kinross, and former president of the Association for Science Education.

"A lot of continuing professional development is not effective and is attended only by people already interested in science. For CPD to work you need every teacher involved," she says. "Cascading - sending one teacher on a course to come back and show everyone else - does not work."

Ms Reid brings a practitioner's perspective to various science education committees. "I sometimes feel like the token teacher. There is a fair bit of ivory tower thinking.

"The curriculum badly needs to be slimmed down, maybe along Northern Ireland lines, with more emphasis on skills."

One of the main ambitions of Improving Achievement in Science is to get pupils much more actively involved in their learning.

"Pupils were given too few opportunities to discuss science issues, including those which had social, moral and ethical implications," say the inspectors.

Interactive teaching, shared objectives, investigations and class debates all motivate pupils and show them that science is not detached. A barrier to this type of teaching is that there are very few good resources, says Ms Reid.

"One thing that motivates our kids is Science for Living, where they discuss issues like designer babies. They get into ethical debates about whether you should be allowed to choose the sex, eyes, hair. It's superb.

We had to make the resources ourselves, however."

Lack of resources for innovative teaching methods is also a problem in secondary schools, says Mr Shields, although some are appearing. "There are good websites with scenarios, role-playing and other ways of tackling science issues, particularly for older kids.

"We have been using resources from the European Initiative for Biotechnology Education on genetic testing for diseases. Teachers love the serious science content and pupils enjoy the involvement in real-life issues. It's brilliant.

"The problem is it takes ages to find resources like that, then plan lessons using them. Do we want every science teacher searching for resources? Of course not."

Also, secondary teachers in general have had less training and are less comfortable than primary colleagues with using discussions, debates and role-play approach. So good CPD is needed not just for knowledge, but to help teachers deliver lessons in novel ways.

"You need a structure, sources of information, guidance on how to run discussions," says Mr Shields.

"It would be wonderful if we had a national science centre to provide high quality resources and show us how to use them."

European Initiative for Biotechnology Education,

* At Longforgan Primary, in Perth and Kinross, the pupils take an active part in science lessons almost as soon as they start school. On tiny chairs around low tables the P1s are trying to figure out what everyday objects are made of.

"I know this lid is metal because the magnet picks it up," Bruce says confidently.

"Science is fun because you do experiments," Jamie says.

Niamh enjoys the subject, she says, because "I like to find out about stuff."

Enthusiasm for science is equally evident in the wildlife playground, where older pupils are buddying young ones to capture and study worms, woodlice, snails, ants and spiders.

"Put the lid back quick. The slater is escaping!" David cries.

P4 teacher Claire Reid takes a little time from bug-hunting to talk about an intervention programme the school is trying. Let's Think Through Science! was developed in London schools with King's College between 2000 and 2002 as a cognitive acceleration programme for 7- to 9-year-olds.

"It is all about developing their thinking skills," she says. "We get them to work in groups to solve problems. The idea is not to give them too much information but to let them work it out themselves. Afterwards they discuss how it went and how well they worked together, and we give them techniques to help them improve."

In the P6 class, pupils are on the floor, tackling energy and forces by running toy cars down ramps.

"If you use a thick book the car starts higher and goes further," Andrew summarises his findings.

"Kids are always asking questions and expressing opinions," says their teacher, Nicholas Murray. "I encourage them to test out their ideas, to have a go.

"It is highly motivating for them because they are finding out about the world around them. It also sticks in their minds. Weeks from now they'll say: 'We know about that because we did it with the toy cars.' " Active involvement is the key to successful learning for teachers as well as pupils, says Mr Murray. "I like the kind of professional development where you do the same experiments as the kids will, rather than somebody saying: 'This is what you need to learn.' " P7 teacher Alison Cuthbert enjoys organising discussions, group work and investigations for her science lessons, she says. "You tell them a certain amount, show them on the whiteboard, then they investigate and form their own opinions. They think for themselves and they challenge you."

Her pupils have been investigating energy sources alternative to fossil fuels, and already know that all have their problems: wind-turbines are ugly and inefficient, solar power is expensive, and nuclear power creates long-lived waste.

"I like science because we talk about things that happen around us every day," Becky explains. "The teacher tells us some things, then we find out more and discuss it in groups."

"Everybody likes science," Erin says. "But we don't all have the same ideas. It's fascinating because you get to see what other people think."

Let's Think Through Science!,

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