Time to make science user-friendly

Are too many dry facts turning students off? Should lessons look at ethical issues and how science affects society?.

"the GCSE science curriculum is over-prescriptive, it puts off students because they do not have the flexibility to explore areas which interest them."

So begins the excellent report by MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on science education from 14 to 19.

The problem, as MPs point out, is motivation. People talk of pupils learning science "for its own sake". But how can they before they know what science's sake might mean? They might think of Bunsen burners or fizzing acids. We should ensure they learn science for a sound reason that is important to them. That is the best way to motivate them.

Ask the students what's wrong with science and they will give their dismissive verdict: "It's boring." Often they add: "It's difficult, makes my brain hurt." Those who can be coaxed to answer more fully add: "I'm more interested in people" and, many insist, "we are always revising for tests". This fourfold indictment contains a clear indication of the scientific discoveries that they do want to learn about.

If our students had day-dreams in primary school of 'making discoveries' in science, those times are long past. By Year 10 when they begin the long haul to GCSE, they know better. Science lessons are for getting the facts right - and the only facts that matter are the ones in the national curriculum.

The report shows that most teachers and pupils do know what they want, and it is not a soft option. They want up-to-date science that looks at controversial and important topics. Issues such as BSE or cloning or global warming are both science-based and have a clear effect on people.

Some science teachers are quoted in the MPs' report as wanting different courses for different students. A choice of topics is a good idea. But all our future citizens need to be prepared for decision-making about scientific issues affecting society and they should all have the chance to discuss them.

That is the underlying reason why science is included with literacy and numeracy as a core subject in the curriculum. It is not just about teaching pupils to "be logical", or about improving international competitiveness and national wealth. In fact, our country already does well in the highest scientific stakes, the Nobel prizes; but we only need a few high-flying post-graduates for that. More innovative technologists would be welcome, but innovation can only be encouraged in schools where there is space for exploration.

There seem to be two major barriers to introducing social and personal values into school science: the first is the diffidence of teachers when it comes to speaking about such matters. There was similar resistance to new methods in the 1980s but they began to flourish - more through practice than because of training. The latter would be helpful but experience with the introduction of primary science has shown that teachers who enjoy a good rapport with students learn about new methods on their feet.

The second barrier is the fear of dropping down international league tables. But research from Canada suggests that using some teaching time to discuss moral issues around science does not lower attainment. At present a group of Asian countries (who also have high student suicide rates) get the highest science scores. England is in a second group of countries which have little to separate them. Do we want to force our children to higher scores, or give them time for creativity and discussion of issues such as using new technology to feed the world?

Professor Joan Solomon is senior research fellow at the centre for science education at the Open University

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you