Changes in Science Education
Changes in Science Education

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9 Evidence of progress?

The new one-year science course for 16–18 year olds Science for Public Understanding, (SPU) has recently been developed and trialled in the UK. It embodies much of the thinking behind Science 2000. Central to the course is the notion that students would use interesting and engaging topics and issues in science, many with a contemporary feel, to develop ‘key science ideas and ideas-about-science’. As with all syllabuses of this (AS) type, SPU is split into modules. The first (Issues in Life Sciences) includes topics such as ‘understanding health and disease’ and ‘understanding genetics’. The Issues in the Physical Sciences module includes topics such as ‘understanding the effects of radiation’. A specially written textbook for student use, entitled AS Science for Public Understanding, gives a clear indication of the type of issues and topics that are at the fore of the course.

An evaluation of the delivery of the course in its initial presentation in 2000 (after two years of preliminary trials of the materials) provides a useful insight into the benefits and problems associated with this novel type of curriculum (see Millar, 2000, and Osborne, Duschl and Fairbrother, 2002). Feedback on the course was sought from students and teachers, using evidence from questionnaires, interviews and examination answers. The main areas of interest were how the teachers involved had implemented this new curriculum, how students had responded to the experience and what they had learnt. The course appeared to succeed in terms of engaging student (and teacher) interest, on a scale not commonly encountered in more conventional courses. Further, the course encouraged students to ‘take an informed interest in media reports about issues and events involving science and technology’. But a significant concern was that the absence of practical work meant that there were relatively few opportunities to interpret and evaluate empirical data, which the evaluators judge to be an important element of any course in science.

Especially noticeable were the demands the course made on the teachers’ pedagogic skills, for example in setting up and running effective discussions that encouraged students to think critically about socio-scientific issues. For example, developing a coherent and personal argument, by drawing in appropriate evidence, was thought to be a skill that needed to be expertly and explicitly taught. The major finding of the evaluators was that the absence of the distinct pedagogic skills required from teachers for this kind of course was limiting the achievement of the major aims of the initiative. In their words ‘changing the cultures that form and mould teachers is, unfortunately, a much harder task than simply changing the curriculum’. Much the same conclusion emanated from a meeting of science educators in December 2001, looking at ways in which controversies in biological sciences could be introduced into the school curriculum (see Turney, 2002). What is clear is that a move to science teaching in these new styles will require a lot of support and professional training for teachers, plus a good deal of cross-curricular work in schools. At present, the Wellcome Trust in the UK is establishing a national network of Science Learning Centres – ‘centres of excellence for science teaching’ that have the aim of improving and updating science teaching and supporting the teaching of science topics of social importance.

At the same time, a new GCSE course 21st Century Science is soon to undergo trialling in 50 schools in England and Wales. The debt it owes to Beyond 2000 is very clear. Interestingly enough, the earlier emphasis on ‘narrative stories’ has been superseded by more conventionally defined ‘science explanations’. But the topics themselves (e.g. the germ theory of disease, radioactivity, etc.) are unchanged and the spirit of Beyond 2000 lives on in all other significant respects. The ambitious aim of 21st Century Science is to develop the scientific literacy that students will ‘need to play a full part in a modern democratic society where science and technology play a key role in shaping our lives – as active and informed citizens’. Its successful adoption would be a significant move forward for the ideas embodied in Beyond 2000, within the compulsory stage of science education that (as the next section makes clear) is for the great majority of pupils the most significant experience of science learning.

These are genuinely exciting initiatives and may transform the nature of school science teaching in England and Wales at (by educational standards) breakneck speed. But how and why we might move to this futuristic model depends much on present-day realities; there are also broader educational aspects to consider too. So far, my arguments have stemmed from the particular and rather focused debate relating to the secondary school curriculum. Now I want to step back and think more broadly about rather more pragmatic contemporary problems and issues that exist in relation to all levels of science teaching, and in doing so begin to move away from our largely UK perspective to date. What we have thought about so far in relation to ‘what is science education for?’ and the direction of future change takes on an extra dimension once we look at issues that have more to do with the ‘here and now’.

Before moving on, you should listen to the audio sequence where a range of views on issues at the core of the course are presented. In particular, students’ attitudes to science are discussed, together with the value of the notion of scientific literacy and whether a ‘crisis’ currently exists in the teaching of school science – the consensus is ‘not’! – and finally, hopes for the future.

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