Teach what you enjoy

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Jonathan Osborne explains why the new GCSE courses starting this year offer a better deal to pupils

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, is an aphorism many of us have ignored to our regret. In the case of school science, there can be little doubt that it is in serious trouble - not just in this country but across the globe.

Australian researcher Terry Lyons looked at what pupils in Australia, Sweden and the UK had to say about the subject. The results were depressingly similar. Pupils complained that their experience was fundamentally one of transmission -essentially a process where the teacher's notes became the pupils' notes without going through the mind of either.

It is not that this is the sole mode of teaching science but rather that it is the default mode. The result is that science appears monolithic - the knowledge it offers is there to be accepted not questioned. And, unlike so many other subjects, there is no room for the pupil to pose the questions or set the agenda. Or, as one student put it: "The problem with physics is that it gives uninteresting answers to questions we never asked." The result, as a study from Leeds university found, is that, while school science is interesting, it is not as interesting as other subjects and only a small minority are thinking about continuing with it post-16. Living as we do in a scientific and technologically based society, this state of affairs is causing concern in the corridors of power. Where, they are asking, is the next generation of scientists to come from?

The changes for GCSE that will be introduced this September are one attempt to address the problem. One of the difficulties unique to science as a school subject is that it has served two masters. On the one hand, it has sought to educate pupils about the scientific understanding of the material world - to give some insight into the magnificent creative endeavour and intellectual achievement that science represents - as well as some understanding of the many ways that science creates reliable and valid knowledge. On the other hand, it has sought to educate the next generation of scientists: a form of pre-professional training. Given the historically elitist nature of the British educational system, the latter has predominated.

The introduction of the national curriculum offered a watered down version of this pre-professional curriculum as a one-size-fits-all imposition. It sells science short, too often failing to make the case for the achievements of its forebears.

Rather science, and teachers of science, suffer from collective amnesia when it comes to recognising their cultural contribution. For instance, less than 5 per cent of science teachers can provide more than one piece of empirical evidence for why we believe day and night are caused by a spinning Earth - a staple of the primary curriculum. It does not get much better when you ask what is the evidence for why we believe that matter is made of atoms, and other key propositions of the key stage 3 curriculum.

Why? Because too many of these ideas are taught as dogma to be believed rather than ideas to be argued for.

For the past 10 years, many of us have argued that what is needed is a curriculum that is fundamentally an education about science, an introduction to the best that is worth knowing and the major explanatory ideas it offers about the material world, an enterprise more akin to the English teacher trying to imbue a sense of what makes great literature great. Pivotal to the whole argument has been that by the time students reach 14, there needs to be a greater diversity of choice and, importantly, choices which do not close doors.

That is now what the various curriculums now on offer (see below) are providing, whether it is 21st century science, applied science or the single sciences. The real point about these changes is that they have restored a vital element of decision making to teachers and schools. Rather than be a deliverer of somebody else's vision, the central question that teachers must now ask is: "What kind of education is most likely to be of value to my students in this school?" To allow other questions such as "Which is the easiest to assess?" would be a denial of professional responsibility.

When all is said and done, all the research shows that is not the curriculum that matters, it is the quality of the teaching. Committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teachers have a much bigger effect on student outcomes. If nothing else, you should pick the curriculum you are going to enjoy teaching. At least if you are enjoying it, there is half a chance that your pupils will as well.

Jonathan Osborne is professor of science education at King's College London


From September, the aim is much more flexibility.

* A core of science equivalent to a single GCSE focuses on: data, evidence, theories and explanations; practical and enquiring skills; communication skills; applications and implications of science.

All pupils will be taught six topics, including: health - effects of environmental and inherited factors, use and misuse of drugs, medical treatments; new materials - the natural resources and chemical reactions that produce them; and radiations - their use for communication in the form of waves.

The single GCSE can focus on scientific literacy and the evaluation of claims about scientific developments, or on applied science.

Students can add a second or third GCSE, perhaps following an academic or applied route. Single sciences as well as a traditional double science format are also to be offered.

One suite of courses available is 21st century science.The core course aims to develop scientific literacy, with two main strands - key science explanations that help us make sense of our lives and ideas about science that show how science works.

* Additional science is a course for prospective scientists, and prepares for AS and A-level.

* Additional applied science is for practitioners, with a strong focus on work-related science.

* Separate biology, chemistry and physics - extra topics will extend the core course

* Entry level: short topics with hands-on work.


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