3. Is current Science education achieving our agreed aims?

In Strand 2: Aims of Science education we outlined what we believe a Science education should provide to pupils. Here we discuss whether or not the current Science curriculum fulfils these aims. The remaining strands of this project will attempt to reproduce successes and overcome failings.

Successes of the current Science curriculum?

  • All pupils receive at least one GCSE science qualification.
  • Core science gives middle-ability pupils a more appropriate and supportive curriculum than the old “double award” courses.
  • Greater flexibility.
  • More pupils are studying separate sciences.
  • Many schools have received record-breaking results in science.

Failings of the current Science curriculum?

The following are some concerns that teachers have expressed to us, often verbally.

Problems which affect all pupils

1 The constant change in content (imposed by Government) undermines the teacher's ability to teach well (a well-structured curriculum would be stable over a much longer period of time).
2 The quality of the materials produced by awarding bodies is modest at best and unhelpful at worst.
3 Some units appear (particularly to the pupil) to have little coherence. Pupils have problems knowing what it is about.
4 GCSE assessments do not match specifications well enough, have too generous grade boundaries and do not adequately differentiate pupils of different ability. This is compounded by excessive use of modular, multiple-choice exams, which test mainly short-term retention.
5 Many schools feel pressured to purchase the textbook directly linked to the course to help achieve higher examination scores. Regular changes to the course require further expense and waste.
6 Where the "spiral curriculum" means that pupils meet the same material agian, a feeling that "we've done this before" blocks further learning.

Problems related to different abilities.

There are a range of problems which arise from failing to understand the substantial differences between able pupils who need the opportunity of a good A-level preparation and less academic pupils who have neither the aspiration nor appropriate grades.

1 Science is difficult: Not all pupils can benefit by studying scientific theories.
2 Dumbing down. The level of demand needed to achieve a high grade has been reduced.
3 Inadequate preparation for further study. Our "scientists of the future" are not able to receive a good enough Science education within the framework currently in place.
4 Abstract concepts are often introduced in a simplified form in Core science and elaborated in Additional. This means pupils cannot make “sense” of the Core material and have to rote-learn for the exam.
5 The content of GCSE Core science is overly-simplistic for high-ability students and too abstract for the non-academic.
6 The Science education offered to non-future-scientists ("Science for citizens") is often a dilute and ineffective introduction to more abstract, less relevant science concepts rather than the practical knowledge they will find useful.
7 Achieving a low grade in an academic course has no good purpose.

Problems related to teaching

1 Science of learning. The research which shows the most (and least) effective teaching methods is not applied in the course.
2 Logical order. Pupils construct their knowledge of abstract ideas. Unless the concepts appear in the right order and the pupil has sufficient time to absorb and apply their new knowledge, they cannot learn well.

How school science affects the adult population

Nearly all adults have had a science education at school. An analysis of public attitudes to science reveals several deficiencies in the current system.

  • When asked to draw or describe "a scientist", most people describe someone in a white coat, someone using words and numbers they do not understand etc.
  • Many adults in the UK seem to be proud of the fact that they "don't understand science".
  • Conversely, respect for "scientists" (who do understand it) means that, to support any claim, science or pseudo-science language is used. The public are easily fooled by claims in adverts and newspapers which purport to have a scientific basis.
  • Most people associate "science" with the set of facts and knowledge they tried to learn at school, not with a process.
  • Adults are largely unaware of "placebo" and "Hawthorne" type effects - where the outcome is created by the experiment itself.
  • Science is viewed in the UK as having been invented in Europe in the 17th century, rather than as the mode of enquiry which enabled the modern world to develop.
  • Most adults cannot assess and compare risk. We over-react to small risks (such as your child being abducted) while failing to act decisively on larger risks and near certainties such as smoking, obesity and climate change.

To what extend has the adult attitude to science been created by their experience of science in school?

  • School science reinforces these problems by measuring science as the ability to learn an agreed agenda. Most pupils struggle and leave school to become adults who think they "don't get science".
  • Much of school science is disconnected with pupils' everyday experience. This reinforces the idea of it being separate and ignorable.
  • Experiment tend to be carried out in "lab conditions" and on experiments with a definite, known answer.
  • While most pupils grasp the idea of a "fair test", they are not introduced to the rules of evidence when controlling all the variables is not possible.
  • Much of the output of science is in statistical form, but little training is done on interpreting statistical evidence, to understand "statistically significant" evidence etc.
  • HSW works aims to give pupils "real life" contexts (such as global warming), but overestimates their current knowledge. Pupils can only reproduce the arguments they have heard, not form a judgement.

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