Multiple choice for would-be scientists

29th July 2005 at 01:00
The latest overhaul of the science curriculum will increase its appeal to both pupils and teachers, writes Jonathan Osborne.

GCSE science is about to undergo radical change. Instead of a simple choice between single and double science, the examination boards are now offering a positive plethora of courses to schools. Given that a recent survey conducted by OCR found that 51 per cent of school students described their science courses as either "boring", "confusing" or "difficult", getting the choice right really matters.

Why, you might ask, are they changing yet again, and why should what is on offer be any improvement?

The seeds of change can be traced to the national curriculum of 1989. That made science effectively compulsory for all and most schools opted for double science - a course which effectively occupies 20 per cent of curriculum time. Sadly, it is a course which has never addressed what it might mean to educate all young people about science.

For school science has always suffered from a fundamental tension. On the one hand, it is effectively a training for the would-be scientist. To achieve this end it requires an emphasis on basic scientific concepts.

Developing any broader or coherent picture of the major explanatory themes of science is something that only emerges with time, when the young person finally joins the scientific club. It requires commitment and application and, as the figures for A-level show, where 5, 6, and 8 per cent of the post-16 cohort take physics, chemistry and biology respectively, it is far from being everybody's cup of tea.

Ultimately, its aim is to train the next generation of scientists. For the majority, however, such courses probably do more harm than good as they teach little or nothing about how science is done. They encourage a reliance on authority, lower motivation and encourage data fabrication.

The other goal of science education, however, is to educate young people about some of the subject's major ideas - such as the idea that you look like your parents because every cell in your body contains a chemically coded message of how to reproduce itself, or that we live on a small planet circling a very ordinary star in a universe that contains as many stars as there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.

However, such an emphasis on the needs of the future citizen requires more than a body of content knowledge. Fully-functioning citizens also need to know how science works.

How, for instance, do scientists decide on what is good evidence? What are the mechanisms that the community has for regulating itself to ensure that the claims advanced are reliable? And what are the implications of developments in science and technology for society? In short, how can science education help to make young people critical consumers of science?

Gradually, the realisation has dawned on the powers-that-be that expecting one course, double science, to address both of these aims is simply unworkable. It is time to break the Gordian knot that ties the two together.

Moreover, the pervasive accountability regime enforced by a combination ofpublished schemes of work, Ofsted inspections and league tables has led to a compliancy culture where the professional judgement and competency of teachers is no longer trusted.

Even the Department for Education and Skills has now realised that this is harming education. After all, what does it mean to live in a democracy where we are trusted with a vote and yet denied such trust in our professional place of work - the one area where we can claim to have expertise - rather than being forced to deliver a curriculum in which we have little faith?

The new GCSEs are a chance to free science education from the yokes that have made it one of the less appealing subjects on the curriculum.

On offer are single GCSE courses which are a genuine attempt to educate the future non-scientist, such as 21st-Century Science, academic courses for the future scientist, and applied courses for those who want a course whose relevance is more transparent.

Schools and teachers now have the opportunity to exercise their professional judgement once again. However, there is a danger that they will fritter away this opportunity by choosing the one that they think is easiest to assess, or one that will enable them to serve up the same old fare.

To do so would be a grave mistake. If students are to spend a fifth of the week studying science, it is absolutely essential to think carefully about what course is most suitable for their needs and abilities. Which course will offer students the most flexibility? Which course is most likely to offer an engaging and stimulating science education? And even, God forbid, which might be the most enjoyable to teach?

As teachers wander round the various road shows where the exam boards are anxiously displaying their wares, now is the time to ask some very critical questions. The only one that really matters is what's this course going to be like for my students? Everything else is secondary.

Jonathan Osborne is professor of science education at King's College, London

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