Taking fear out of new formula

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
In the first of five pages on science, the national strategy and A Curriculum for Excellence, Douglas Blane talks to Walter Whitelaw, chair of the review group.

Cells, forces, chemical compounds and all the other fixtures of a well-furnished science brain will still be in the new curriculum. But learning outcomes will be fewer, more general and cast in pupil-centred form: "I can ..." rather than "Pupils are able to ...".

Outlining the key changes that teachers can expect to see in the review paper on science due out this month, Walter Whitelaw, chair of the review group, says: "Learning outcomes will look different from those we have now. So we would like to encourage everyone to go back to the curriculum document and work through it themselves."

The spring paper will contain a number of sample learning outcomes, but a complete set is planned for publication later in the year, he says.

But it could be disconcerting for teachers to go directly to these, without initially attempting to engage with the purposes and principles of the new curriculum.

"In particular, it is instructive to look at the four quadrants that expand on the capacities (of children to develop as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society), and try to relate them to their own subject. It's an exercise everybody finds valuable," he says.

As a former biology teacher and science adviser who worked on the Science Strategy for Scotland, Walter Whitelaw has been in Scottish education long enough to remember when children could get into trouble for seeming to enjoy themselves in science. "You, boy, why are you smiling?" is how he characterises the classroom ethos of a bygone era.

So, putting enjoyment, enthusiasm and motivation for learning at the heart of the curriculum is itself a revolutionary step. "It's new. It has never really been part of Scottish education," he says.

But science teachers, who like working within a clear framework, will be reassured to know that while the science review has taken a constructive approach to streamlining the curriculum - rather than tackling existing guidelines with a big, red pen - it will not dispense with learning outcomes.

A major aim of the review was to give teachers and pupils classroom time to engage with the subject's big ideas, rather than trying to cover every aspect of a rapidly expanding realm in a superficial sweep. In this way the thirst for understanding of the natural world, so evident in primary age children, should be preserved well into secondary school.

Good science specialists will be produced, as they always have been, but so too will young citizens who can reflect intelligently on key issues of the day, such as bird flu, nuclear energy and weapons of mass destruction.

Knowledge about how children learn has advanced greatly since the last time the Scottish curriculum was reviewed. So, the science group consulted robust, modern research, says Mr Whitelaw, "not just about how young people learn in science, but also what constitutes effective teaching.

"Then we asked ourselves what were the really big ideas of contemporary science that pupils should know by age 15. That did not take us a million miles away from where are now. The difference is how it's contextualised.

"If we have been successful in stripping out detail, producing many fewer bullet points and leaving things more open and flexible, teachers will feel free to take current events, or things happening in the local environment, and bring it into their teaching."

While welcoming the freedom to be creative and responsive, explore topics in depth and relate science to the wide world, teachers do have some anxieties about the new curriculum (see below).

Assessment is the key issue. Secondary science teachers enjoy taking a scientific approach to preparing pupils for exams and there are concerns that what is sometimes described as two years of low pace and challenge might now become three. One of the best indicators that A Curriculum for Excellence and Assessment is for Learning have taken a firm hold in schools will be a marked decline in teaching to the test.

"Teachers deconstruct the exam every year and that gives them additional learning outcomes," says Mr Whitelaw. "But it's an approach that limits creativity and children's scope for learning.

"Assessment is for Learning is a natural outcome of good teaching and learning. It is not just about formative assessment. It is also about using summative assessment in different ways. If teachers are doing more creative things in the classroom, they will have access to new forms of testing that let them make sound judgments about pupils' understanding."

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