Off the straight and narrow

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Relax curriculum constraints, give teachers the controls, and pupils' enthusiasm for science, maths and technology will rocket.

"...a school which knows it is preparing students for the 21st century, students who are flexible in their thinking, competent in each of the curriculum fields, are independent learners, communicate effectively and enjoy walking into class each day."

It is hard not to sign up for such a broad and appealing vision of how education might be. The practice, of course, tends to be different and nowhere more so than in maths, science and technology where, all too often, dull, formulaic methods have produced students lacking interest or understanding.

Britain is not alone in feeling uneasy. Maths, science and technology cause dissatisfaction across the world, despite attempts to move forward. But there are also grounds for optimism as more flexible ways of thinking and teaching develop, with apparently successful results - among our competitors at least. The quotation above comes from the head of a school in Tasmania explaining what he hopes will emerge from just such a development: an integrated curriculum gathering together science, maths and technology. This is within a broad framework specified by his government; a contrast with our own often prescriptive approach. The evidence is that his vision might well be realised.

The Tasmanian example is taken from a report of a project sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its member countries want- ted to study how and why science, maths and technology are changing. To do this, every country was invited to select an innovation and to fund a detailed study of it by their own researchers. Thirteen countries responded, with the US supporting eight studies and the others 15 more (while Scotland took part, the Department for Education submitted no evidence). Analysis of the reports, which add up to about 1,500 pages and constitute the largest international study of its kind ever attempted, reveals some important common findings.

Why did these innovations seem so important to their governments? Two answers emerge from the studies themselves: all countries are dissatisfied with what is happening in these important subjects and want to change. They also find change difficult, for many have experienced past disappointments and want to learn more about how to make innovation effective.

While all are dissatisfied, it is not always for the same reasons. Some believe that a low position in international tables for school performance threatens their economic competitiveness. More specifically, those thinking about future needs in employment say education should prepare people who are flexible and creative, not people who are simply well informed about yesterday's knowledge.

Others - notably Japan and Germany - are concerned because their students, however apparently successful, are not being equipped for the uncertain and rapidly-changing technological future. This same concern is expressed as a starting point for the largest American science project: "The terms and circumstances of human existence can be expected to change radically during the next human life span. Science, mathematics and technology will be at the centre of that change - causing it, shaping it, responding to it."

Unchecked, such changes may not be benign, so it follows that society will need citizens who can take informed positions about the continuing flow of new issues raised by science and technology. It follows that schools should be helping students to understand and make decisions about those issues in their personal life and in society. There is widespread concern that school science and technology is not doing this, so that many students see school work as irrelevant.

Different concerns are raised by those who stress the importance of conveying the cultural and intellectual achievements of science. What students are currently offered is seen to be dull and over-formalised, failing to convey either the appeal that science has for its practitioners or the wonder that its achievements should evoke.

Yet the messages from the studies are optimistic. The innovations that have been studied were selected precisely because they are tackling these problems. A statement about changes being worked out in the schools studied by Japanese researchers gives some of the flavour. The work here was attempting: "Ito develop the ability of problem-solving and a rich sensitivity to and love of natureIAnd furtherIit is important for children to look at their own lives and to find relationships between school-life and home life."

Here an aim to convey love for nature is combined with an emphasis on the practical. The new-style science lessons in Japan often start from study of a local environmental problem rather than from an abstract principle. One result is that Australia, Canada, German, Japan, Spain and the US are all moving away from separate teaching of the sciences because when students study a real problem, they often meet the need to look into several disciplines and to explore a variety of concepts and methods - studying each of these because of a need to know and not because it happens to be the next topic in the textbook.

Teachers involved with a new curriculum plan of this type say that their main motive was to make physics more attractive to girls, and their report chronicles success here.

What stands out is that it was the teachers themselves who were deciding what should be taught - having given considerable latitude in national or state curriculum frameworks. In movements to reform the science curriculum in the 1950s and 60s such decisions were driven by academic scientists.

Now it seems that the ownership of the curriculum has changed hands. The fact that those in basic research now have a much weaker voice may be justified, but this raises the question of who should decide. In particular, if educating for future citizenship becomes the main aim - rather than training future specialists - how are society's concerns about its future to be reflected in the curriculum?

Many countries believe that the results of research into learning can now guide important improvements in teaching and learning, and the drive to respond to this guidance was an important and explicit feature of most new programmes. This quotation, from a science teacher in Spain, is a typical expression of the thinking: "The true innovation is not to be found in changing methodologies, but rather in transforming 'didactic attitudes'I" This transforming was a feature of most of the studies and in particular new ways of looking at student learning were at the heart of those from Switzerland, Japan, Australia and the US. All thought it essential to make students actively thoughtful rather than passively receptive, and to engage their effort through work immediately relevant to their lives. Through such changes, they saw that their students found their learning more meaningful and had a new confidence in their own power to make sense of it.

One conclusion is that there is no conflict between the aim of strengthening learning through these approaches and the aim of presenting the nature of science, maths and technology in a more authentic way. The two have converged in efforts to generate changes in learning that foster individual responsibility, learning capacity and the capacity to work with others.

However, such changes don't come easily. They require teachers to question their traditional practices and routines. They call for a change in their roles from being authorities in the transmission of subject matter to being guides who support and challenge their students to be more effective and more ambitious as learners. Confronting such changes - not in theory but on one's feet in the classroom - requires courage. It's much easier to be brave when you have support: the risks of innovation should not be borne by lone teachers, but should be a whole-school responsibility.

Students are also challenged by innovations and they can be disoriented if their old ways of learning have to be abandoned. One teacher in the US, working in a programme to reform maths learning, describes how this worked out: "It bothers them that we don't tell them everythingItheir anxiety level is definitely increased because these are students that have been very successful in traditional type programmes. And now they're in an untraditional programmeIit takes them a little while to start getting used to things. "

Ultimately, innovations succeed or fail in the classroom. No one can dictate from outside what should happen there. It follows that no worthwhile change can be secured unless teachers can transform ideas into their personal actions within the complexities of the classroom. Such transformations are difficult to achieve and take time. Given this, it seems that urgent and large-scale revolution with all its dramas and traumas is unlikely to be profitable.

These studies indicate that we would do better to plan change as an on-going process in which teachers are guided and supported to work out their ways of responding to the variety of aims which society wants schools to pursue. Politicians, administrators, the general public and those in schools have to learn to look upon change in this way. They all have to help to work out how they can support not just any particular innovation, but the creation of the conditions and the climate in which teachers and schools can become effective agents of change.

Paul Black is emeritus professor of science education at King's College, London. Changing the Subject: Innovations in science, mathematics and technology education. Edited by Paul Black (King's College London) and J Myron Atkin (Stanford University, California). Published in association with OECD by Routledge: London and New York. Hbk Pounds 40; pbk Pounds 14.99.

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