Changes in Science Education
Changes in Science Education

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10 ‘Science for all?’ A look at some contexts

The following statement is from the science National Curriculum in England published in 2000.

The importance of science

Science stimulates and excites pupils’ curiosity about phenomena and events in the world around them. It also satisfies this curiosity with knowledge. Because science links direct practical experience with ideas, it can engage learners at many levels. Scientific method is about developing and evaluating explanations through experimental evidence and modelling. This is a spur to critical and creative thought. Through science, pupils understand how major scientific ideas contribute to technological change – impacting on industry, business and medicine and improving quality of life. Pupils recognise the cultural significance of science and trace its worldwide development. They learn to question and discuss science-based issues that may affect their own lives, the direction of society and the future of the world.

(DfES, 2000)

In the light of your reading so far and the contested nature of what should count as science education, the confidence implicit in this statement may have surprised you. However, it is quite an achievement to encapsulate succinctly the subject for all pupils between the ages of 5 and 16, and a colleague who worked on the statement commented on the number of drafts and how long it took before the working group could settle on the wording.

Let's pick up a few sentences from the statement, building on what you've already read. First, ‘Scientific method is about developing and evaluating explanations through experimental evidence and modelling’. It is not clear from such a short paragraph what exactly the authors mean by terms such as ‘evaluating explanations’ or by ‘modelling’ in the school context – both complex issues as you know. You'll appreciate that the assertion that ‘Science stimulates and excites pupils’ curiosity about phenomena and events in the world around them’ is certainly not true for all, or even most, pupils, although science teachers, governments and scientific institutes desperately wish otherwise. For these authors, the purpose of science education is to enable people to ‘question and discuss science-based issues that may affect their own lives, the direction of society and the future of the world’; thus scientific literacy is at the heart of such a curriculum.

In our discussion so far of the intended outcomes for science education, the focus has been on the ‘Science for All’ assumptions of the curriculum of the 1980s, highlighted in the article by Peter Fensham. Such an aim strongly influenced the current prescribed science curricula of a great many countries. But such an aim has not been universally accepted by all, nor has the associated pedagogy implied by such an approach been adopted widely by teachers. Fensham, for example, drew in particular on the experience of pupils and teachers in secondary education. As you read Fensham you might have thought about your own school days and maybe also your experience in higher science education. Let us do that explicitly now.

Activity 7

Timing: 0 hours 45 minutes

I'd like you to call to mind your own experiences of learning science. My reason for asking is that the remainder of the course looks at the way science is taught in different phases of education. What you did in your science lessons in school, or at a higher level, may have been shaped by the views of ‘good’ science teaching and the purposes of science education that were prevalent at that time.

Think back to what you would consider to be ‘science lessons’ that you experienced at primary school, secondary school and in higher education. On a blank piece of paper draw a ‘spider diagram’ linking together your memories and ideas about the context in which you learnt. Start by treating the different stages of your education separately, but then you might like to think back to similarities as well as differences and make links across. Just to get started, you might like to consider some of the following issues, which we will be looking at later:

  • Topics covered

  • Practical work

  • Science knowledge of the teacher

  • Learning environment

  • Apparatus

  • Links to other subjects

  • Time to study

  • Books and other learning resources

These are just some possible starting points and are not intended to constrain you in any way. What other thoughts occur to you? If you have an opportunity, ask someone younger or older of their memories of learning science in the different phases of education. How do your experiences compare with theirs? Figure 1 shows how I began this task.

Figure 1
Figure 1 A spider diagram of the author's experience of science learning

Clickto open a larger version of the spider diagram [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Keep the diagrams close to hand as you look at the remainder of this course, along with any amendments or additions suggested by colleagues or fellow students.

There may have been a mismatch between your own personal experience and that described in the earlier readings about what happened in the schools of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Were you really ever a ‘scientist for a day’ progressing by doing experiments, on your own or in a small group that allowed you to ‘discover’ new phenomena for yourself? Although you may justifiably not recognise your own school science education experiences in the extract from the recent National Curriculum quoted above, more significantly, would pupils learning science in English schools today recognise it as describing their experience? Much has changed in science education in recent years, particularly at the primary school level. In many counties, such as France, Germany, Sweden and Japan, science is now a compulsory subject in secondary education, with a major expansion of primary science teaching in most countries over the last 15 years or so. Post-secondary education has seen the development of further science-related vocational courses to sit alongside the more common ‘academic’ study in preparation for higher education.

For the remainder of this course we take some specific areas of science education to fill out the answers to ‘Who is science education for?’. First we look at primary science (Section 11), then, more briefly, we look at the secondary phase and then science in the post-compulsory sector and in higher education. These examples were chosen to widen the context from the emphasis on secondary schooling considered so far. They also bring in some of the utilitarian factors such as staffing, teacher motivation and training, the constraints and requirements of assessment, the adequacy of resources such as accommodation and equipment, and the feasibility of conducting practical work. All are factors that often act as a brake on educational policy. Debating, as we have done in Sections 2–9, ‘What is science?’ and ‘What is the purpose of science education?’ is vitally important, but just to consider the factors in isolation from the day-to-day contexts in which they are being promulgated offers a very limited perspective. So it is to a consideration of these important contextual influences on the science curriculum that we now turn.

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