It's all a matter of nine

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Science experts have come together to decide precisely what needs to be taught about the subject - and how to do it effectively, says Mary Ratcliffe

Facts, facts, factsI To the outsider that's what much of science education seems to be about. But now science in schools also includes scientific enquiry - how we know what we know.

But what exactly should we teach about science? And how can such ideas be taught effectively? There are many disagreements about the nature of the subject, so answering these questions has been an important aim in our work at the EPSE network - it stands for Evidence-based Practice in Science Education.

To answer the first question and pinpoint what we should teach about science we canvassed the opinions of 23 experts. They were drawn from scientists, philosophers, sociologists of science, science educators, science communicators and science teachers. These experts completed three open-ended questionnaires in successive phases without knowing who the others involved were (a so-called Delphi study).

From their answers, we identified nine themes which participants agreed were important for anyone to know about. Some of the themes, such as "Analysis and Interpretation of Data", are part of national curriculum science. Others, such as "Creativity" and "Competition and Collaboration", are not.

Given the importance the experts attached to the concepts of ideas and evidence, we think there should be more emphasis on them than the mere 5 per cent presently allocated at GCSE.

How could the nine themes be taught in school science lessons? Eleven teachers worked with us over a year to look at the challenges in teaching the themes at key stages 2, 3 and 4. After a series of one-day workshops, in which we shared approaches and resources, teachers developed and taught at least eight lessons addressing these themes.

Most science teachers have had limited exposure to ideas about the nature of science within their own education - and our group was no exception. But we found that the most important factor affecting teachers' ability to communicate the themes to pupils was the way in which they structured the lessons, rather than their knowledge and understanding.

Pupils were effectively engaged with the ideas when teachers asked open questions, shifting the focus to "how we know" rather than "what we know". Other effective strategies were to support pupils in small groups in which views were shared, discussed and evaluated, and to ensure that the activity had a ring of authenticity to it.

For many teachers, such an approach would require support with in-service materials and courses. Perhaps more important is that, if teaching about science really matters, it needs to be reflected in higher quality questions in national tests so that pupils show more reasoning and explanation, rather than simply reproducing facts.

What has our work achieved? We think it has provided a body of empirical evidence that shows there is a consensus for the common features of what we like to think of as a vulgarised account of science.

We also think we have some insight about how to teach that account. All being well, it is one step forward for the evolution of the science curriculum.

Mary Ratcliffe is a senior lecturer in science education at the University of Southampton.The EPSE network, co-ordinated by Robin Millar, is part of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, funded by the ESRC.

For further details of this study and other projects, visit: details of the EPSE study can be found in the report What Should we Teach About Science? available on the network's website.

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