Changes in Science Education
Changes in Science Education

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12 Science in secondary schools

The first three readings in this course use the context of secondary education, particularly in the UK and Australia. In this section, I'll be looking again at the issues highlighted in the previous section on primary science and drawing comparisons with experiences in secondary schools; I'll re-visit much the same issues when I consider post-compulsory science education in Section 13. The particular issues of interest are what approaches are taken to science teaching (and learning), the impact of the restrictions on resources and accommodation, the influence of assessment requirements and the science education and training of the teachers themselves.

Section 4 asked ‘who is science education for?’ and you considered the arguments in favour of ‘Science for All’ and a need for a scientifically literate population. This was set against the particular needs of those (relatively few) individuals who will become professional scientists. How can a school curriculum cater for both types of demand? As we will see, this problem has caused considerable difficulties and, combined with other pressures on teachers, such as the need to hit performance targets for examination grades, this phase of science education is giving some cause for concern – at least in the UK.

In 2002, the Westminster Parliament Science and Technology Committee reported on Science education from 14 to 19 and said the following as part of the document summary:

Science has been a core part of the education of all students up to age of 16 since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989. Most students take double science GCSE from 14 to 16. This course aims to provide a general science education for all and, at the same time, to inspire and prepare some for science post-16. It does neither of these well. It may not be possible for a single course to fulfil both these needs. Government is supporting a pilot that may resolve these tensions, which is welcome but not enough. Existing GCSE courses should be changed and a wider range of options in science offered to students.

(House of Commons, 2002, p. 5)

Go to House of Commons [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] for the full report.

This is certainly a strong condemnation, especially from such a committee with access to such wide-ranging views and opinions. Given what we have just read about the emphasis on ‘processes’ that underlies much of the science education in primary schools, and Peacock's caution about the effect even there of an assessment driven curriculum this further quote from the report is particularly stark:

Current GCSE courses are overloaded with factual content, contain little contemporary science and have stultifying assessment arrangements. Coursework is boring and pointless. Teachers and students are frustrated by the lack of flexibility. Students lose any enthusiasm that they once had for science. Those that choose to continue with science post-16 often do so in spite of their experiences of GCSE rather than because of them. Primary responsibility should lie with the awarding bodies; the approach to assessment at GCSE discourages good science from being taught in schools.

(House of Commons, 2002, p. 5)

So how could the examination boards as ‘awarding bodies’ get it so wrong?

Assessment of pupils has of course been important in many countries, but perhaps especially in the UK. Its practice ensures that information can be used for selection purposes for different stages of education and for entry into employment. The assessment regime introduced into and alongside the National Curriculum in England and Wales had the additional rationale that it ensured that the compulsory curriculum was taught. All teachers wish their pupils to do well in external testing and so the nature and form of those examinations has a powerful effect on the way that teachers and pupils behave. To overstate the issue, all collude to ensure that a good mark is obtained in the exam. This ‘backwash’ effect of the assessment requirements into the curriculum has been known for some time, but in more recent years it has been re-emphasised by the publication of so-called ‘league tables’ of schools’ examination results.

In the 1960s, secondary science was revolutionised by curriculum developments that required pupils to use their understanding of science rather than merely remember disconnected facts or routinely apply memorised formulae. Such science schemes involved considerable practical work by pupils, enabling them to explore what was considered a proper experience of natural phenomena. New-style examinations were written to award this teaching approach to science; often the questions did indeed require pupils to exhibit a high level of application of scientific knowledge and understanding. Many upper secondary pupils today would find the one-line exam question ‘Estimate the pressure on a tent during a thunderstorm’ quite daunting.

New teaching methods with an emphasis on application rather than memorisation of facts for their own sake became a cornerstone of what was considered ‘good’ science teaching. We have already seen that this became more widespread in the 1970s and, especially, the 1980s with school textbooks such as ‘Science in Process’. Your spider diagram may have included memories of the specialist science equipment invented for this ‘hands-on’ approach to science teaching. The slogan ‘I do and I understand’ led in a short time to most secondary school science laboratories being stacked with runways and wheeled trolleys. As a result, many hours were spent by pupils puzzling over dots on seemingly miles of ticker-tape to try to work out if their trolley had accelerated or decelerated.

But such an emphasis on practical work so that pupils could discover laws and principles for themselves had its critics. Many argued (see Driver, 1983) that that the constraints of a 50-minute science lesson with 30 pupils and one teacher is not the best environment in which to reveal what it formally took decades to discover – you'll recall from Section 4 an earlier comment by the sociologist Harry Collins to much the same effect. So why this emphasis on practical work?

Our discussion of primary school science and, as we will see (Section 13) post-16 vocational science courses too, suggests that one important reason is that it is said to be motivating. But this quality depends on some sense of ownership by the pupil of the work in hand. Significantly, for a teacher engaged in such a teaching approach, it is expensive to carry out in both time and resources. The ‘string and sealing wax’ resources that are acceptable – perhaps even advantageous – at primary level are no substitute for accurate measuring instruments and other equipment required for higher-level science. If science is a compulsory subject for all pupils, then this requires a considerable level of resource; countries such as Egypt and France have more recently discovered this to their cost as they move to adopt similar practical approaches in their science teaching. This is also true for laboratory and prep room facilities. In 2002, it was estimated that 905 secondary schools in England were of such poor quality that teaching was being adversely affected and the equipment, such as microscopes and centrifuges, had been purchased so long ago that it was reaching the end of its useful life. And not least in the consideration of resources, the technician support that once provided the backbone of practical work has been difficult to maintain, given that their remuneration has been so very poor. In 2002, an additional 4000 technicians were required. The House of Commons Committee considered their pay and conditions as ‘downright exploitation’ (House of Commons, 2002, pp. 51, 52 and 54).

Many teachers faced with such constraints on teaching resources, within an overall assessment framework that is so pressured to achieve examination success, will take a cautious line. The required examination of practical work by the teachers themselves, which started as a move to ensure all teachers did indeed do practical work with their pupils, has led to a widespread ‘recipe approach’ to experimental work. In some schools, a task such as the investigation of the stretching of a loaded spring (Hooke's Law) is conducted by 16-year-olds on the grounds that it will readily illustrate the desired assessment outcomes. But the exercise is not especially taxing and for many it will be a repetition of lower school work; one might say Hooke's Law insufficiently stretches older pupils!

This catalogue of issues for science education at the secondary level might sound particularly dispiriting for the UK. However, there are moves to try and produce a new course that has similar aims to that for scientific literacy in Canada where ‘all Canadian students, regardless of gender or cultural background, will have an opportunity to develop scientific literacy’ (CMEC, 1995, p. 2). One recent development in the UK mirrors movements in Japan, where secondary pupils consider issues such as environmental pollution and global warming, in recognition that ‘there is a need to include more up-to-date ideas’ and that ‘the applications of science should be highlighted more strongly’ (House of Commons, 2002, p. 31).

Substantial moves to produce a secondary school curriculum that emphasises scientific literacy as advocated in the Beyond 2000 report, however, will need teachers properly prepared to teach it.

Teachers will need considerable support if the proposals in this report are to be put into practice. They will then be asked to teach in a different way, for which they will need training. And they will also need to plan how to teach new exam courses, which will include adjusting to new methods of assessment, developing new and interesting approaches to coursework and getting up-to-date with developments in science.

(House of Commons, 2002, p. 42)

Around the world it is the case that primary teachers rarely have specialist science qualifications for teaching the subject. That is not true for secondary science teachers, although in many western countries (though not all – Finland, for example, is an exception) it is difficult to recruit well-qualified science teaching staff. Table 1 shows the proportion of teachers with a degree (other than in education) in the subject(s) they are teaching in state maintained and independent private secondary schools in England across a range of subjects from a survey of over 1000 teachers (published in 2003).

Notice the contrast between the subject background of teachers across the science subjects and between the state and private sectors. This is marked even for a country where the state education system is well developed and illustrates clearly the potential scale of education and training that is needed to implement curriculum change. In many developing countries, the private/state divide is greater and sometimes hidden – private lessons are an important source of extra income for poorly paid teachers. So quite apart from the consequences of any move to a curriculum more geared towards greater scientific literacy, the table implies that for England, training is needed for the more specialist sciences that are taught in the post-compulsory sector. It is to that phase of science education that we now turn.

Table 1: The proportion of teachers with a degree in the subject(s) taught (Smithers and Tracey, 2003)
Subject(s) TaughtTeachersDegree in Subject1TeachersDegree in Subject1
Total1 393686249.2735432358.8
1 Degree in subject or closely related subjects; does not include education degrees.
2 Does not include 67 graduates teaching social sciences, commercial and business studies, SEN and learning support, careers, etc.
3 Does not include 39 graduates teaching other subjects.

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