Too much breadth has led to too little depth

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Elizabeth Buie reports on this week's far-reaching report on maths and science teaching

Science subjects at schools are overloaded and the breadth of coverage required is leading to superficial learning, according to the STEM report (School to University Transition in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). It draws on the views of academics from the science, mathematics, engineering and computing departments of 13 Scottish universities.

They call for a seamless 3-18 curriculum, avoiding the current "disconnects" in continuity and relative difficulty between different stages.

The design of assessment, particularly in science, must be "radically altered" if the proposed shift in curriculum emphasis is to be realised, the report warns.

While expressing great respect for the commitment and professionalism of science teachers and acknowledging the pressures they face, the academics nevertheless express concerns about:

* Negative trends in science and technology subjects in the upper secondary and difficulty in recruiting to university courses, particularly physical sciences, engineering and computing science.

* The degree to which the science curriculum is dominated by topic knowledge and assessment driven.

* The limited extent to which the relevance of science to modern life and the nature and public importance of science "issues" are brought out.

* "Disconnects" in the progression of science education - for instance, between primary and secondary and in the marked increase in difficulty, relative to other subjects, between Standard grade and Higher.

The report argues that the current school exam system provides only a relatively weak correlation with degree performance. It comments: "There is no need to regard the form of the current school assessment model as sacrosanct because of its reliability as a precise predictor for university admission judgments."

Concerns are raised about the popularity of science Highers - between 1995 and 2003, numbers sitting the three main sciences have fallen by more than 20 per cent. While human biology has grown in uptake, biology and human biology taken together still show a net decrease of 13 per cent.

Of particular concern are the figures showing that the proportion of pupils taking two science Highers at one sitting has fallen from 13 per cent to 9 per cent in four years.

The report states: "The numbers of students enrolling on physical science and engineering courses at university continues to fall and several universities have cut their chemistry departments.

"At the same time, Scottish industry thinks that it will have a shortage of engineers and also physical scientists in the future because we are not training enough of our people either at graduate or apprentice level. There is also an approaching shortage of school science teachers."

The university community wants to see a stronger focus on developing attitudes to education and work. Students are said to require the interest and motivation to apply themselves to their studies and they need persistence and perseverance to achieve their goals at university as they do in school.

"Pupils today seem to be assessment-driven rather than interest-led and it appears that league tables, published in the press, encourage this attitude," the report comments.

It wants to see much more emphasis on the key scientific skills areas: numeracy and basic mathematical skills; "literacy" developed in a scientific context; and problem-solving, particularly in more open and extended applications.

The report emphasises the importance of mathematics to a wide range of disciplines, including the physical sciences, engineering, computing and mathematics - and, increasingly, the biological sciences.

It also calls for a strengthening of mathematical attainment throughout the school curriculum, and argues that all the current content of Higher maths is important. Some academics argue for more development of statistics, which they say is currently only available beyond Standard grade as an option: that has the consequence of excluding other vital topics such as additional geometry.

Things to do

* Declutter the curriculum to concentrate on core principles, studying fewer topics in more depth, introducing "science for all", discussing controversial issues and involving the pupil.

* Consider the balance between integrated and single disciplinary curricula in the sciences.

* Reduce assessment and give more weight to teacher-led assessment.

* End external moderation of practical work.

* Introduce more practical work, particularly in chemistry and biology.

* Form links with other subjects in the school curriculum, developing the contribution that science can make to enterprise, creativity and citizenship.

* Encourage pupils to learn and study independently and to work in teams.

* Construct a single coherent 3-18 curriculum related to clear developing and unifying aims.


Technological studies

There is concern about the decreasing national uptake of Higher technological studies and the low esteem in which this subject is sometimes held.

However, the report states: "There appear to be no easy answers as to how technological studies can be made more popular. There is debate about how to balance 'academic' and 'vocational' aims. Perhaps this terminology is itself misleading: it might be better to think in terms of supporting and developing 'professional' and 'technical' interests.

"There are also discussions of the potential merits of taking a more 'thematic' approach, and concerns about inadequate resourcing of equipment."


Higher mathematics is regarded as a better predictor of ability to cope with a computing science course at university than a Higher in either computing subject.

Lecturers acknowledge that the principal purpose of the Higher is not to prepare pupils for study at university, but they nevertheless thought that opportunities are missed to develop the skills and abilities required to study computing science further.

"From a university perspective, the Higher computing units on computer systems and software development seem overly knowledge-based. It is also suggested that more emphasis could usefully be given to what a computer can do rather than how it works.

"It is concerning that there appears to be a problem in attracting well-qualified graduates to the teaching profession, and also in keeping the skills of existing staff up to date in this rapidly developing discipline."



The report urges that much less emphasis is given to specific detailed knowledge. "Learning in science is not fundamentally about committing large volumes of factual information to memory and proving later that this can be regurgitated."


* confidence and reliability in arithmetic calculations, including handling fractions

* applying proportion

* appreciation of the relevance and significance of scale

* estimating and assessing the reasonableness of an answer

* assessing the relative significance of risks of different levels Mathematical skills

* basic mathematical skills, particularly competence in algebraic manipulation

* understanding of indices, logarithms and exponentials


* the ability to articulate ideas in extended writing

* grammar, spelling and the correct use of language so that communications can be clear and accurate Problem-solving skills

* tackling problems in unfamiliar contexts

* working on problems in more extended contexts

* breaking down problems into logical steps

* comprehending the nature of the problem

* more practical work and demonstrations

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