Changes in Science Education
Changes in Science Education

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13 Post-compulsory science education

In a speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs in 2001, the then UK Secretary of State for Education said:

Young people choosing vocational study will be able to see a ladder of progression that gives structure, purpose and expectation to their lives, in the same way that a future pathway is clear to those who leave school to gain academic A-levels and enter university. Over-16s in full-time education will be able to take forward their vocational GCSEs into programmes of study that are predominantly vocational, or which combine new vocational A-levels with academic A-levels in a mixed programme of study. And just as we have created broader A-level studies, so I want to be sure that vocational programmes are coherent, equipping young people with both broad knowledge and skills, and specialist expertise and competence. I will ask the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to prepare advice on this issue. I will not tolerate large numbers of young people churning around on courses that are narrow, or which many persistently fail to complete. Weakness in standards and completion rates feed back rapidly to young people as poor quality options, which they then do their best to avoid.

(Morris, 2001)

Notice that Morris says ‘I want to be sure that vocational programmes are coherent, equipping young people with both broad knowledge and skills, and specialist expertise and competence’, raising again the concerns outlined by Beyond 2000.

This short extract highlights a number of important issues that affect the formal study of science after the compulsory school leaving age:

  • the lack of parity of esteem between vocational and academic study that has been a feature of the UK education system (though much less apparent in other European countries);

  • the attempts since 2000 to broaden the post-16 curriculum at A-level in England so that it more closely resembles other EU countries and the scheme for Highers in Scotland;

  • an assumption that A-levels provide an appropriate pathway to university study for those with ‘academic A-level’.

What is ‘vocational science’? Coles (1997) suggests that this is a far from easy question to answer. He points out that just as primary science became synonymous with a way of viewing science education as ‘asking questions and fair testing’, so vocational science has certain pedagogy and teaching approaches associated with it.

The word vocational is so imprecise when it comes to science education that using it in a conversation or when constructing an argument is asking for trouble. School science is strongly vocational since success in it is a prerequisite for many technical jobs. Science A-levels are vocational because higher education course entry largely depends on them and, these days, a science degree is the main route into science jobs.

(Coles, 1997)

Activity 9

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

Review the spider diagram, which you constructed from ideas and memories about science learning that you did at primary, secondary and after school. Did you learn any science as part of a course with a vocational emphasis, such as engineering? What were the vocational elements of your secondary and post-school science learning?

Like me, perhaps you learned about such cutting edge inventions as the Davey miner's lamp! Did you have more pertinent vocational examples on that part of your diagram that considered post-school science? Did you study topics such as medical physics or new industrial chemical processes? What was the relationship between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ or even just ‘practical work’ in your post-school science?

Add any further ideas to your diagram.

In many EU countries, there are vocational routes through secondary education. This is true of Germany and Holland for example; many Eastern European counties have very well developed vocation pathways where pupils can concentrate on specific aspects of science pertinent to areas such as manufacturing or agriculture.

Coles (1997) contrasts the science in vocational courses with the more academic content of courses that prepare for conventional ‘pure science’ university courses. He identifies several distinctive characteristics of vocational science courses:

  • General vocational science courses concentrate on the broad purposes of scientists’ work – such as extracting substances from raw materials, analysing substances. The knowledge and skills to do what scientists do are learnt ‘as needed’ so as to encourage students to be better ‘information seekers and handlers’.

  • Contexts for study are work-related and based on problems encountered in business and public services. This approach of learning science located within everyday contexts is typical of new curriculum materials, particularly at the post-compulsory level, and indeed it is increasingly a feature of a more academic courses. What is commonly argued is that setting a context for science learning is more motivating and makes concepts easier to grasp.

  • Active learning methods (such as group work, role play and debates) are promoted because they are thought to encourage general skills such as planning, information-seeking and teamwork. Such skills are sought by employers in their recruitment; other skills looked for in employees can include the so-called basic skills of communication, application of number, information and communications technology (ICT), working with others, improving one's own learning and performance and problem solving. Many other countries are attempting to encourage a similar move to active learning, e.g. it is part of the long-term education strategy for Egypt and Turkey.

  • Assessment of students’ progress is continuous and based on coursework. It often involves a ‘project’. Every student's knowledge base is developed in a range of settings and varies in depth according to the particular problems solved. Continuous assessment is often a dominant part of assessment practices in vocational programmes.

  • The student imposes their own structure on the work – they have to demonstrate management of their time. This flexibility is usually denied those following more academic routes.

It's possible to see some parallels between the introduction of vocational science courses and that of primary science. In both cases there is an emphasis on the student taking responsibility for owning the curriculum in the choice of topics that they might investigate. The fact that the questions explored are located in the ‘real world’ is common too. And in both cases the approach puts pressure on the teacher to help the student explore an area that may well be outside the immediate knowledge base of the teacher, using resources for ‘project work’ that must be acquired, made or adapted from what is available in school or college.

Much of the present-day good practice in primary science mirrors the child-centred learning approach to primary education advocated in the influential Plowden Report. This report recommended a ‘child centred’ approach to teaching, reflecting the seminal work into how young people learn carried out by Jean Piaget. The introduction of science was intended to inculcate processes that could have a wider educational impact. This is also the rationale for the approach to science adopted by vocational courses. What is implied is that that the characteristics of vocational science will be transferred to the workplace. In this way, problem solving in science lessons, within work-related contexts, is assumed to help transfer in general terms to problem solving on the job. However, the transfer of knowledge and skills from one context to another is often difficult. What is learnt is not only linked to the situations in which it is learnt, but also to the situations in which it is applied.

When students learn facts, principles and skills in situations that are distant from those where they will be applied, they have difficulty in transferring their abilities. Scientific work settings are not accessible to most students and it might therefore be expected that, whilst some students have learned useful science in school or college, they will have a problem applying it in practice.

(Coles, 1997)

Degree studies in science can be considered vocational, in as much as many science jobs require degree-level study. However Laws, in a review of the research on undergraduate science education, noted:

Williams (1991) expressed the view that undergraduate science education was about ‘learning to become better and more critically informed citizens in the sciences’. In other words, he maintained, it was not (any more?) about training the next generation of researchers; this was now the function of the PhD, for which the student worked on the supervisor's project (not his or her own). That this was the case was a consequence of the explosion of knowledge, which made the undergraduate degree more of a qualification in the manipulation of this knowledge and in having some basic technical skills.

(Laws, 1996, p. 4)

A particular view is expressed here of the purpose of science education. However, Laws also seems to be suggesting that there is now just too much science to learn, so that a first degree certainly does not put one at the cutting edge of new knowledge; by this logic, a research degree only just starts to do that. Here we return to the question of the place of knowledge (content) and ‘basic technical skills’ (process) that we have considered in all phases of science education from 5-year-olds through to university study. What then is the relationship between ‘lab work’ and ‘lectures’ in higher education? How can undergraduates be encouraged to look at the links between knowledge and process? Is the problem-solving approach used in primary schools, and advocated for vocational science courses, applicable to university level study?

The Fensham article discussed the generally conservative nature of university science teaching – a point supported by Law's analysis. For laboratory work and open-ended ‘Project Work’ such as that often conducted in the final year, staffing and resources are again key factors in the success of such work. But here, in contrast to primary science, we have the additional problem that senior staff are often not themselves at the ‘sharp end’ of the teaching, a proportion of which is commonly administered by graduate students.

The criticisms of practical work at university level, not least from the undergraduates themselves who have to endure the long lab sessions, is in marked contrast to the approach to science learning adopted by post-16 vocational courses discussed by Coles. There the practical orientation is seemingly welcomed. But in higher education, as Laws reports from the work of Kirschner and Meester (1988):

  • There appears to be an overall agreement that laboratory work at present provides a poor return of knowledge in proportion to the amount of time and effort invested by the staff.

  • All too often, the work done in a laboratory simply verifies something already known to the student.

  • It is not at all uncommon to find a student who shows absolutely no understanding of the processes and techniques, which he or she applied even a day earlier in the laboratory.

  • Exercises are sometimes of a nature that tends to overwhelm the student, i.e. non-trivial experiments are not allowed enough time for assimilation and solution of the problem.

  • Students almost never have the chance to spend time watching an expert do an experiment.

  • The supervision of laboratory work is often inadequate.

  • Practicals are often seen as isolated exercises, bearing little or no resemblance to earlier or future work.

(quoted in Laws, 1996, p. 27)

If you look at your spider diagram you might have illustrated similar views when you thought about your own higher education. However, new approaches to science teaching are becoming more prevalent in universities too. ICT, for example, is having a particular impact on the way science is learnt at all levels. In some higher education institutions, reconciling the theory/practical split is being tackled in a fundamentally new way.

In the 1960s at McMaster University in Ontario, medical education was changed from a series of lectures and disassociated practical sessions to a problem-based learning approach that better reflects the way that, in real life, a patient presents a doctor with a problem to solve. A patient will describe their symptoms as best they can, or perhaps measurements are taken such as temperature, blood pressure and so forth, and in weighing up this evidence a doctor has to decide on a course of action. In this way, a theoretical understanding of disease has to come together with a series of possible practical solutions to try to effect a cure. A teaching strategy that starts with the problem – here, a patient with a particular disease – and draws on the different aspects of knowledge and processes that are required to help with a cure, was seen as being a realistic and authentic reflection of the actual job of a physician. Problem Based Learning (PBL) was taken up by other medical schools in the mid-1970s and extended to other professional-based areas such as architecture, economics, educational administration and mechanical engineering.

Many science courses use ‘problem classes’ as a teaching and learning technique, but these are usually seen as the culmination of a series of lectures and seminars. PBL turns this traditional approach back to front. PBL begins, naturally enough, with a problem that the students, working as a group, are asked to solve. The teacher acts as a coach to bring out from the group the personal knowledge that they already possess, and helps them identify what new information they need to find out in order to understand better the situation and to solve the problem. Working as a group, tasks are identified and individuals go off to research an aspect of the problem. Coming back together, the group members share their ideas, perhaps redefine the problem, and work towards a solution.

Such techniques can score highly in motivating students if the problem is authentic and if, within the allowed limits of time, students are allowed to follow some ‘blind alleys’ that arise during their investigations, such that genuine ‘real-life’ learning takes place. More than likely, solving a particular problem helps individuals tackle similar problems when they meet them again later. Indeed, universities throughout the world have taken up PBL in a range of subjects. In 2002, PBL courses in science were running at universities in places such as New York, London, Hertfordshire, Leicester, Liverpool, Plymouth and Sheffield across a range of subjects – Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science and Physics. For example, one problem in Analytic Chemistry in a course at the University of Hull asked the question ‘Who Killed the Fish?’.

Students investigate pollution incident(s) that have impacted upon the environment of a river, initially shown by changes in the fish population. The environmental problems encountered are organic, inorganic, and physical in nature. The concept behind this multifaceted case study is to produce a problem that appears simple initially, becoming more and more complex as the investigation proceeds. The scene is set in the first session with a letter from anglers who have complained about observing a reduction in their catch.

(Summerfield, 2002)

From our former consideration of some of the issues associated with primary school science lessons, however, some of the pitfalls of PBL are relatively obvious too. The problem, if it is truly authentic, may not easily be solved with the physical resources currently available to the group. Off-the-shelf apparatus may not be appropriate and a ‘string and sealing wax’ approach to practical work may be needed. As is the case with primary teachers, the university teacher may be required to work outside their specialist knowledge base as they support the students. Real problems have no respect for traditional subject boundaries. Assessment needs to be carefully framed too, so that students are able to show fully what they have learnt even though it may not have been carried out systematically.

It is interesting that PBL at universities, although starting in mainly technological subjects such as medicine or engineering, is now to be found in what may be considered ‘pure’ science courses too. The explicit linking of science topics to problems encountered in everyday life is understood to motivate pupils in primary schools, students on vocational courses in post-compulsory education and, as we have seen, is seemingly similarly engaging for undergraduates too.

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