Seize the day, science teachers

23rd January 2009 at 00:00

It is widely accepted that standards of achievement in science in upper primary and lower secondary have been poor over recent decades. A Curriculum for Excellence should ensure that the outcomes and experiences are updated to better reflect contemporary issues in science, and are thus more relevant to the needs and aspirations of young people in the 21st century. The reduced content, supported by helpful exemplification, should make the delivery of the programme more manageable by teachers. However, these developments in themselves will not lead to improvement.

Primary teachers will need considerable support to deliver the necessary scientific knowledge, understanding and skills associated with more active and experiential approaches to learning. The allocation of one extra science teacher to each secondary school would be the most effective way of developing capacity and consistency across associated primaries.

These teachers would teach some P6-7 lessons, run continuing professional development sessions for primary teachers and audit primary school programmes and resources against ACfE. They would be trained to work across the 10-14 stages so that they would have the requisite knowledge and skills to operate effectively in both sectors.

Many science graduates train as primary and secondary teachers, and more could be done by teacher education institutions and schools to ensure they are able to take on a cross-sectoral role. Such an innovation would help ease transitional problems, particularly evident in this area.

There are a number of very effective science departments across Scotland where learning is enjoyable and challenging, and where uptake and achievement are high. In the absence of advisers, such departments should help provide the kind of local support no longer available in education authorities or in TEIs where much of this capacity has been stripped out over recent decades.

Other countries use "centres of excellence" to exemplify and disseminate best practice to neighbouring primary and secondary schools, to promote an interest in science beyond the conventional curriculum, and to build productive links with FE, HE and science-related industries.

These science comprehensives would not be selective or elitist; they would serve their existing communities; and they would focus on improving the experiences of all pupils, particularly those S1-4 pupils who have been turned off by the existing curriculum.

The Scottish Government recently provided welcome funding to the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre and other partner agencies to deliver CPD for teachers of science. This has been used effectively, but the capacity is limited and it will take many years to reach all. SSERC staff are continuing to develop and pilot a wide range of innovative models, including working with whole science departments in their schools.

The exponential growth of scientific knowledge will only increase the need for teachers to gain hands-on experience of innovative protocols. Even specialist subject teachers are being asked to teach content, including practical protocols, which they did not experience in their own degree courses.

Designing a new science curriculum is, relatively speaking, easy: seeking consensus a little more challenging. Winning the hearts and minds of teachers, supporting and encouraging them to adopt new pedagogies, providing sustained high-quality professional development, breaking down the long-standing and unhelpful barriers between sectors - these are the real challenges which lie ahead if the aspirations for ACfE are to be turned into reality in every classroom and laboratory across Scotland. Carpe diem!

Jack Jackson is visiting professor at the department of curricular studies, Strathclyde University.

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