No signs of warming in science climate

27th February 2009 at 00:00

With an office close to Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, I am constantly reminded that the clues for what is going to happen today lie in the past. With this in mind, let's consider what's to be learned for A Curriculum for Excellence from earlier national developments.

The Standard grade development programme was the first major campaign, and the opportunity to engage in curricular change was initially welcomed by many enthusiasts. However, this went on to be the focus of the most intense industrial action, in part because insufficient thought was given in the early stages to the production of resources and in-service training for teachers.

Lessons were learned and the Higher Still development programme was organised differently, with regular consultation meetings, an agreed timescale, transparent leaders and well-organised continuing professional development for teachers evident from the start.

So what is happening with ACfE? With moves away from principal teachers towards faculty heads in secondary schools and a lack of subject advisers at council level, as well as issues relating to technicians, the science climate could not be worse. We anticipate the publication of a new set of learning outcomes and, thanks to the work of many seconded teachers, we can expect a significant improvement in the level of acceptability but it would be naive to believe that the latest outcomes will be greeted with a wave of euphoria.

History suggests that what is required is face-to-face explanation and clarification to win the hearts and minds of the majority of science teachers. Electronic communication has its place, but the impact of failing to organise opportunities for teachers and developers to exchange views in an open and honest way through group engagement should not be underestimated.

Changing the curriculum is relatively easy. Helping teachers improve the quality of the experience for our learners is more difficult.

Most agree that ACfE is about methodology and so continuing professional development, not content change, is key. Sadly, there are no transparent plans in this area, and we are waiting for actions to match the rhetoric.

The science community is grateful for the substantial sums of money given to Improving Science Education 5-14, and this has resulted in high-quality CPD. However, we should heed lessons from the past; we need to broaden the range of models to try to reach all teachers. Careful thought should be given to supporting an approach that takes "trainers" into schools. Those engaged in school-based CPD can provide evidence of its success.

In line with the main thrust of ACfE, many science departments are successfully introducing, for example, more effective ways of questioning, comment-only marking and peer and self-assessment. Pupils are being encouraged to develop informed views on social, environmental, moral and ethical issues. However, firm leadership and organisation is required to reassure us that the initiative is systematic and in safe hands.

Otherwise, the golden opportunity for science, highlighted by Jack Jackson in his recent TESS articles, is going to be missed.

Douglas Buchanan is a lecturer at Moray House School of Education.

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