S-TEAM has plan to put spark back into science

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Inquiry-based lessons are needed, but restrictive curriculum and training prevent them, say experts

More investigative science in the classroom is the key to re-igniting youngsters' interest in the subject, according to a group of European experts. But, they go on to say, systemic change is needed before teachers can deliver.

An intensive three-day conference on the future of science education, held in Glasgow this week, heard that teachers did not have the time to develop inquiry-based science education; their training was not geared towards it; they were restricted by the curriculum and exams; and lessons were often too short.

These are the findings of the S-TEAM (Science-Teacher Education Advanced Methods) project, funded by the European Union to promote inquiry-based science education in schools.

Project manager Peter Gray said: "We can't just tell teachers `do inquiry' and hope something good comes out of it. We have to give them the right conditions: how are things examined? What is in the curriculum? Does there even need to be a curriculum? Are schools the best places for science education, or should centres like Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh play more of a role?"

Mr Gray added: "Politicians want predictability, results and figures but that is not compatible with this style of learning. Some students might come out not knowing the usual facts, but three will end up developing Facebook or gene technology."

The received wisdom in Europe is that, to be competitive, the region needs more scientists, engineers and mathematicians, as well as a more scientifically-literate population. However, pupils' interest in science is waning. The Rose study (Relevance of Science Education) showed the more advanced a country was, the greater the lack of interest in science among students.

S-TEAM, in common with several other EU projects, aims to improve science education through the widespread dissemination of inquiry-based science teaching. But while more freedom to experiment and investigate might intuitively seem "a good thing", S-TEAM has found implementing inquiry in the classroom is not always easy.

"Our message is that curriculum, pedagogy and assessment have to reflect a coherent philosophy in order for inquiry-based methods to be fully effective," says the organisation.

Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence could be a model for the rest of Europe, Mr Gray continued. It was less restrictive, he suggested, but it would depend on what the new examinations looked like.

"It is potentially bold and imaginative but, in terms of real freedom, teachers are still not quite sure where it's going," he said. "A lot of teachers are good at doing inquiry and want to do more, but they are restricted by the fact they have to teach to exams or tests. Often, the amount of time they have is simply not sufficient"

The team consists of experts from 26 institutions in 15 European countries, led by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. They were joined by policymakers, teachers, teacher educators and researchers.

"Four or five years ago, key documents were published about the direction science education should be taking but, since then, more experience and knowledge has been developed and now we think we can develop a better vision," said Mr Gray.

The outcome of the conference will be published in a report.

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