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Why pupils lose interest in science

EARLY in the morning of September 8 1994, I sat at the back of a science laboratory waiting for a new class of Year 7 pupils to stream in for their first secondary science lesson. Over the next five years, until the end of Year 11, I carried out a longitudinal study on this group of children. I watched almost 600 of their lessons and conducted more than 200 interviews with them, their parents and science teachers.

The study sought to shed light on two questions: How do pupils experience school science lessons? Why do some pupils enjoy science and do well in it and others don't?

One of the saddest findings was that most of the pupils lose their initial interest in science over the five years of their compulsory secondary science education. This was despite the fact that the school has a strong science department which gets excellent Office for Standards in Education reports and impressive GCSE science results.

This loss of interest in science as the pupils went up the school contrasted with the enthusiasm many of them showed in Year 7. After a video in Year 7 on human pregnancy, George (all names are pseudonyms) asked why you cannot remember when you were in your mother's womb. Instead of answering directly, the teacher opened the question up for discussion. Michael suggested that you do not remember because your brain is not developed. Edward suggested that the memory might be in your unconscious mind even though you cannot remember it. George then told the class about the difficulties his sister had in breathing after her birth.

One of the boys talked about how his mother nearly died during one of her pregnancies. Edward talked about smacking a newborn baby to get it breathing. Martin asked about miscarriages and one of the boys said that his mother had a miscarriage. This led to another boy asking what happened to his mother, who had a baby that had died inside her. Ian then questioned whether the mother survives a Caesarean section and Catherine wanted to know why you get morning sickness.

Martin asked how Down's syndrome occurs. Michael said that he wa present when his brother was born and saw the placenta. It was only the end of the lesson that brought this discussion to a close.

As the years go by, such enthusiasm gradually wanes, in part because the pupils do not find their science lessons relevant enough. At the end of Year 9, I asked the parents of the pupils what they would like their children's science lessons to consist of. The most common response was that lessons should be relevant.

At the end of Year 10, I asked the pupils which science subject they most liked and why. Biology and physics fared well but none of them liked chemistry most. The contrast with the first interview I did half way through Year 7 was striking. On that occasion I asked: "What would you like to do in science lessons?" and chemistry topics were mentioned most.

Year 11 was dominated by finishing the syllabus and revising. Many of the pupils put in two or more hours a night of homework, mainly revision, and said that they "hated it", that they "cancelled quite a lot of after-school activities" or that their "social life went down the drain". One pupil said she was doing "20-25 hours a week" of homework and revision .

One of my main conclusions is that school science education can only succeed when pupils believe the science they are being taught is of personal value.

For many pupils, science is of worth only in so far as it is of use, for example, for further education or a job. Other pupils search for meanings and may feel that science can help them to understand their place in the world. Such diversity among pupils means that a science curriculum cannot assume that there is only one reason for learning about science. But unless science teaching genuinely engages with the concerns of real pupils, they are likely to learn little from it - and give it up at the first opportunity.

MICHAEL REISS Michael Reiss is reader in education and bioethics at Homerton college, Cambridge.'Understanding Science Lessons: Five Years of Science Teaching' will be published by Open University Press in July, ISBN 0 335 19769 8.

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