Take a fresh approach to avoid a dark age

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Science in the 20th century was largely taught by throwing kids in at the deep end and then concentrating on those who splashed around and had a wonderful time. They grew up to be scientists and engineers, while the bedraggled wee souls who struggled out coughing and spluttering never went near the water again.

The 21st century deserves better, says John Richardson, executive director of the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre and a key figure in current efforts to transform school science.

"The fact that youngsters are walking away from the subject in droves means we could end up in a new Dark Age," he says.

"Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It's a way of thinking about the world and its activities," he says. "It is about being sceptical, having an enquiring mind, not taking statements at face value. Science is about asking questions."

While good for society, this can be hard work for the teacher, especially if his or her own education pre-dates the modern belief in science for the citizen. This is why professional development programmes to help teachers of science engage all their pupils are springing up.

In Scotland, the development of quality CPD sessions, a key component of Improving Science Education 5-14, is being funded by the Scottish Executive through the SSERC under Mr Richardson. The centre is also responsible for the Improving Science Education 5-14 website, while other components - formative assessment and homework - are being led by Learning and Teaching Scotland.

With Executive funding of pound;1.8 million over three years, the new science CPD programme is at various stages of development by four consortia around the country. These share common principles, while differing in implementation details and areas of the curriculum addressed.

"My role is a facilitator," says Mr Richardson, "so I didn't go in saying 'this is the model you have to use'. The projects do, however, have to meet certain criteria, which is why some local authorities are not engaged. The most important criteria are that projects have to be collaborative among several authorities and involve both the primary and secondary sectors."

The fresh start approach to science classes adopted by many secondary schools, based on the assumption that primary schools could not teach the subject well, is no longer acceptable. Indeed, says Mr Richardson, many of the skills displayed by good primary teachers are precisely those needed to make science accessible to a wider audience of any age group.

"Each sector can learn from the other. But the feedback we are getting, when the consortia pilot the new CPD session, is that techniques that engage young people, build on prior learning and encourage discussion and investigation come more readily to primary than secondary teachers. It's how they teach many of their other subjects."

One factor which helped to secure the SSERC's central role in developing the new CPD programme was its previous work on the Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) biotechnology education project, which has proved a successful model for large numbers of biology teachers.

Key features of SAPS that have largely been adopted for the new CPD programme are: curriculum materials that are reliable and directly usable; training that is delivered by credible classroom practitioners through practical workshops; summer schools and seminars which provide teachers with new skills, increased confidence and a sense of professional community; local authority, industry and university involvement to ensure the science is relevant and topical; and social and ethical issues of new technologies are explored.

"We have also taken the opportunity to develop SAPS itself," says Mr Richardson. "Too many teachers were still operating within a deficit model based firmly on content and driven by summative assessment.

"What we are now asking teachers of science to do is not easy. It's different from what many of them have been used to all their lives. This new high quality CPD will help, but changing teachers' mindsets will take time.

"At the heart of it all we are saying 'Here's a practical example. Go ahead and give it a try'."

Douglas Blane


South East Earth and Space Consortium, e-mail djh@roe.ac.uk

Tayside Science Education Consortium, e-mail Duguid@angus.gov.uk

North East Scotland Science Consortium, e-mail j.a.heaton@abdn.ac.uk

Glasgow and Lanarkshire Learning for Understanding in Science, david.lawson@education.glasgow.gov.uk

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