Time to evolve;Science;Subject of the week

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Science - the subject is as vast as the universe and, like it, expanding all the time. But do we need to teach children every aspect? Jonathan Osborne urges teachers to have their say on the curriculum

As the proposals for the science national curriculum land on your desk, your natural reaction is unlikely to be one of glee. However, it's worth remembering that what is decided upon is likely to be cast as a tablet of stone for at least the next five years. So it's worth finding the time to study and respond.

Is this the kind of science teachers really want to be offering pupils at the start of the new millennium? Will it enable you to portray science as an exciting body of knowledge that is vital to know, engaging to learn and a source of enduring interest? Or will it leave pupils at best bemused by its irrelevance; at worst alienated and bored, convinced science is not for them?

The most noticeable and welcome change will be the merging of the general requirements (Sc0) with experimental and investigative science (Sc1). But the science curriculum will still embody some fallacies. Fallacies in the sense that the assumptions and rationale for what we do are essentially erroneous - what might be called the seven deadly sins of science education.

First is the fallacy of miscellaneous information - the belief that a set of knowledge based on atomistic bullet points is both useful and valuable. In reality, knowledge suffers from the "use-it-or-lose-it" principle. What endures are the memories of the feelings and attitudes generated by experiences of school science.

The next "sin" is the belief that the edifice of scientific know-ledge has to be assembled brick by brick. What it's all leading to and why it matters gets lost, so pupils lose the plot, and their interest wanes. Any new vision of the science curriculum means a much shorter document which sketches out areas of knowledge to be learned in terms of the outcomes, leaving teachers to decide which bricks are necessary to grasp the essential outline and import of the story that science teachers have to tell.

Third is the belief that any decent science education must be broad, balanced and comprehensive, including all the sciences. Yet no self-respecting teacher of English would attempt to teach the whole canon, nor would any history teacher attempt a whistle-stop review of the past 2,000 years. So why do we attempt to do this in science rather than choose a representative sample that would contribute to a broad and balanced education? The current result - to be seen in key stage 4 classrooms across the nation - is a desperate attempt to frog-march pupils through an education which never offers any time to stand and stare, to explore those little bits that interest young people or allow teachers the luxury of pursuing their own enthusiasms.

The fourth "sin" is the belief in a detached science - in short, a course that emphasises basic concepts from which most of the technological applications have been excised. There are two problems with this: first, many people do not distinguish between science and technology. Try asking your colleagues what they consider the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century (DNA, penicillin and so on), then ask your pupils the same question. Top of their list will probably be personal computers. Effective communication means starting with your audience's understanding, not yours, so removing this gulf is essential.

The other problem is that splitting technology and science makes it difficult to complete the small step from one to the other, and much harder to make the larger step from science to society. And all those burning issues which young people want to explore in school science, such as cloning and genetically modified food, never even get a look in.

The fifth "sin" is to call a course double science when it should be called double sciences. The distinction may be subtle but the difference is enormous. The former perpetuates the notion that all of the sciences are fundamentally the same, when in reality evolutionary biology and cosmology are as distinct as chalk and cheese.

And the idea that there is a singular scientific method is philosophically dead - a notion which is bereft, barren and out of date. Rather than presenting science as a process of hypothesis testing, we should present a variety of methods that scientists use, from constructing models to looking for correlations. The latter is particularly important if our future citizens are going to make sense of media reports of science based on epidemiological methods which look for associations.

And please, please can we totally revisit and revise the method of assessing school practical work so that teachers are not forced to offer ritualistic exercises which bear as little relation to what scientists do as painting by numbers does to great art.

The sixth "sin" is the homogeneous fallacy - the belief that one curriculum fits all, particularly post-14, when the reality is that pupils are so different in their aptitudes, interests and abilities that the national curriculum strains at the seams as teachers undertake miraculous contortions with it to interest their pupils. What pupils need, and what pupils want, is an element of choice - something which is different from the science taught for the past nine years. Some would choose a course which is more vocational, others would want a course which gives more emphasis to scientific literacy, and some would choose rigorous, academic science.

The seventh "sin" is the belief that all this is useful - that what we offer in the classroom might help someone fix a plug, mend a car or get a job. In reality less than 20 per cent of the population use science in their work, and advancing technology has placed the repair of many appliances and equipment beyond the ability of most science teachers, let alone their pupils.

The real reason why an education in science matters is that scientific knowledge is one of the greatest achievements of our culture. Together with technology, it has transformed our lives. Not to know some science is to be as illiterate and as much an outsider as somebody who knows no Shakespeare.

So take up your pen and tell the QCA and the DfEE about the science education you would really like to offer children. For once, they might listen.

Jonathan Osborne is senior lecturer in the School of Education at King's College London.The national curriculum review division of the QCA is at: 29 Bolton Street, London W1Y 7PD. Tel: 0171 509 5417. Fax: 0171 509 6965. E-mail: ncr@qca.org.uk

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