Shaping things to come

10th May 1996 at 01:00
The statutory Order has deskilled teachers as curriculum developers, says Phil Ramsden , who introduces a major new project which has been set up to identify a new rationale for how the subject should be taught. I have been teaching long enough to remember the days before the national curriculum. Do you recall that science teachers in what we now call key stages 1, 2 and 3 were quite used to the idea that they had the responsibility of deciding for themselves what science they would teach?

Even at key stage 4 and beyond many of us felt that we had some say in designing the CSE and GCE syllabuses even though A-level was largely prescribed by the universities. In deciding what to teach, teachers needed a rationale of why science was being taught and this was developed by the Association for Science Education and other curriculum bodies.

The original science national curriculum working group also started their work by attempting to define a rationale for science teaching and went on to build their proposals in this. However, many revisions later we now have a curriculum far removed from the original rationale and without any new one.

One inevitable effect of the statutory approach has been to "de-skill" teachers as curriculum designers and developers. We have fallen out of the habit of deciding for ourselves what to teach which has also removed from us the need to reflect on why we are teaching it. There is great danger of a whole generation of teachers growing up who have known only the national curriculum and would see curriculum development only in terms of modifying its content or how it is taught.

This may be what Sir Ron Dearing foresees after the "five-year period of stability" but it is surely not good enough given the limited consultation which accompanied introduction of the original science Order and the lack of an opportunity to look critically at the revised Order.

Members of ASE had been uneasy that when presented with national curriculum proposals in 1987 all the association could do was to measure them against its broad policy statement and point to shortcomings and possible problems. Crucially, it had no detailed proposal of its own against which to compare them. The weakness of this position has been recognised and throughout the Nineties, pressure has been building for ASE to develop detailed proposals of its own. In March last year the ASE looked again at these demands and the Science Education for the Year 2000 and Beyond Project was born.

The project started by identifying key questions to ask about science and science education and then giving everyone else with a concern for science education an opportunity to air their views. This phase is going on at present and looks set to continue even after the next phase starts in the autumn. This will be the crucial development phase in which major issues arising out of the consultation are tackled and specific proposals are worked out. A second consultation phase will then follow, leading to final proposals which can then be disseminated widely as a means of influencing changes at national level.

The current consultation phase sets out to answer the following basic questions: What is science?

Although many of the problems arising out of the original scientific investigation attainment target were attributable to flawed assessment requirements, particularly at the higher levels, it was also apparent from the furious debate at the beginning of 1994 that there was wide divergence of views as to what science was and whether a scientific method could be specified. Thus it seems essential we at least try to identify the common ground and map out the areas of contention.

Why teach science?

Science for citizenship, science for survival and science for further study are the shorthand justifications most often given for pupils learning science, with sometimes the addition of science as a cultural activity. But are they all valid? Do they apply to all students at all stages? Are there any others?

What science should be taught?

This is the nitty-gritty question which we want to start with but it has to be answered in the light of the answers to the previous questions. The "answer" will also be long and may not be the same for all students and will be linked to the answers to the next pair of questions.

How do children learn science and how should science be taught?

There are no simple answers to either of these questions but none the less the vast amount of research evidence must be evaluated before learning experiences can be developed which give pupils the best opportunities of improving their understanding of science and of its role in society.

What is the role of practical work?

The debate over scientific investigations has prompted the realisation that all practical work is not investigation and the reasons why we want pupils to do it are not self-evident.

How should science fit into the curriculum?

This wide question encompasses more specific ones about the role of science in the primary curriculum as well as the science offered at secondary and beyond as well as the issue of whether all the different aims of science education can be achieved in one course or if science for citizenship, for example, needs to be taught as a separate course.

How does science education contribute to the development of attitudes?

The public understanding of science doesn't extend simply to the concepts of science but also to an appreciation of the interactions between science technology and society. Also the attitudes of future citizens to science and scientists are crucial if society is to get the best out of science education and ensure the best science can go on.

What is the context in which science will be taught and learned in the year 2000 and beyond?

The greater use of IT seems an easy prediction to make but how much greater? Think back to 1991 and ask yourself how different educational IT is now. What should we reasonably be planning for? Other social factors such as the patterns of employment are far harder to predict but we must at least try to suggest ways in which we can plan for a continually changing scene.

Have your say in the debate

The ASE has asked its 19 regions to arrange meetings to discuss the key questions outlined above and has produced a resource pack to accompany each question.

If you can't get to one of these meetings but would like to have a discussion in your school or among a small group in your area you can obtain individual packs by contacting the Science Education for the Year 2000 and Beyond Project at ASE headquarters: Tel: 01707267411. Fax: 01707 266532.

You can also join the debate via the Internet by looking at ASE's Home Page which can be found at: hhtp: q.html.

Alternatively, you could complete the form below and send it to ASE, College Lane, Hatfield Herts L10 9AA. In the table below please score the following reasons for teaching science on a 5-point scale giving 5 to the most important at each stage of development of pupils. There is space for you to add your own reasons.

The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum began a similar exercise in 1995 and its Science Review Group has just produced a consultative report, Science Education in Scottish Schools - Looking to the Future, which seeks to justify science education and outline its main features. Central to its proposals is a definition of scientific capability which consists of the five components: n scientific curiosity eg an eagerness to investigate and discuss; n scientific competence eg the skills to carry out investigations; n scientific understanding eg knowledge and understanding of key ideas; n scientific creativity eg inventing explanations and hypotheses; n scientific sensitivity eg appreciating the impact of science on people.

Further information from the Scottish CCC. Tel: 01382455053. Fax: 01382455046. Email: Phil Ramsden is a field officer for the Association for Science Education.

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