13th October 2000 at 01:00
UNDERSTANDING SCIENCE LESSONS: Five years of science teaching. By Michael J Reiss. Open University Press pound;15.99.

This book chronicles 21 children's experience of school science over the five years of their secondary education.

The database is extensive, comprising observations of 563 50-minute science lessons and 225 interviews with pupils, parents and teachers.

While the focus is on school science education, the author places the findings in the broader context of parental hopes and pupils' career expectations.

As Michael Reiss points out, studies of science education rarely give pictures of individual pupils or follow their work over a long time. This study does both. What emerges is a lively and interesting account, showing a range of teaching types and the expectations of the individuals and their families.

Many interesting points arise: the failure of an otherwise good school to provide adequate support for dyslexic pupils; the high proportion of pupils suffering, in school work as well as in other ways, from the breakdown of their parents' marriage; and the contrast between the richness of many pupils' home activities and their comparatively arid science lessons.

The closing analysis of the reasons why many dislike science makes clear yet again that the lack of relevance toyoung people's lives and interests is an enduring weakness of the school curriculum.

But despite the rich diversity of issues raised, there are some disappointments. Each of the five main chapters presents the whole range of data for one of the five school years, and comparatively little of the text is devoted to analysis and reflection. It follows that the portrait of each pupil has to be assembled from five separate, brief sketches, which makes it hard for the reader to form a clear picture of each one's development. By contrast, the account comes alive when an issue is presented as an assembled set of quotations from the pupils - as in the discussion of peer influences in gender effects. But there are too few examples of this approach.

Overall, the study seems to fall between two stools. The possibilities of quantitative analysis of data from the small number of pupils involved were clearly limited, but the potential for systematic qualitative analysis of the records seems not to have been fully realised.

The author rightly states that the account is a personal interpretation. The result is attractive enough to raise the question of whether more could have been made of an unusually extensive body of data.

Paul Black is professor of science education at King's College, London

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