Changes in Science Education
Changes in Science Education

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Changes in Science Education

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.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Part 1 of discussion
Skip transcript: Part 1 of discussion

Transcript: Part 1 of discussion

NARRATOR (JEFF THOMAS)
Block 1 is about the potential for change and about existing problems of delivery of the science curriculum. This audio sequence is an opportunity to hear first hand, some voices, some opinions, clearly and forcibly put. Nearly all of what you’ll hear focuses on experiences of learning science at school level. The opinions expressed no doubt will spark some useful recollections of your own about learning science. A starting point will be to get a broader picture of views and experiences of teachers and students about school science. What are students and teachers asking for? A survey in 2002 conducted by the organisation Planet Science painted an intriguing mix of enthusiasms and concerns. Bobby Cerini of Planet Science provides the details.
CERINI
There is a number of things that there is not enough of in the classroom, things that we would like to see more of and that we know students would like to see more of, and also teachers and these come out in some research that we have done, with students looking at their responses to a science curriculum. We also received a lot of feedback from the thousands and thousands of teachers and students we have on our weekly mailing lists, so we do know that we are tapping into a range of ideas and feedback that’s coming from both kids and from teachers, and what they are saying are things like, ‘We’d like to teach in more exciting ways, but we don’t know how, we know there are great experiments that can be done; we have done all the ones we know, where can we get some more?’ Students are saying, ‘We love practical work, we would like to do it more, we would like to do it in a much more open ended way, we’d like to have a stronger ownership of it, so that the answers aren’t necessarily given, the teachers don’t necessarily know what the investigations will be, investigations that lie outside the very narrow topics within the curriculum, we’d like to see more philosophy, more ethical issues, we’d like to see more examples that apply to real life, we would like to see science in the classroom that applies to us as individuals’. That’s what teenagers have been saying to us.
NARRATOR
This type of evidence suggests that present day talk of a crisis in science education is rather overblown, but how can we ensure that interest in science at school level is maintained to motivate the greatest numbers of school students? Bobby Cerini again:
CERINI
I think one of the key things about retaining the interest of students, particularly whilst they are going through the motion of getting qualifications or even before that, getting through their primary science, is about giving them something that they can hang on to in terms of something that relates to them, provides them with a sense of ‘Oh, I understand how that relates to me, I understand what that means in the context of my other life experiences’. Now, if you are only ten years old, your life experiences might be limited, they might be limited things like you know, kicking a ball around, watching telly, going to the cinema, that kind of thing and what we are really keen on seeing is practical examples of how these everyday things can be interpreted in the light of science and scientific practice, but what they recommended was that the single way to really improve this was to introduce more real life topics, more relevant examples and applications that they could relate to. So, for example, topics like genetically modified food, human and animal diseases, human health, social issues that affect everybody on a day to day level, there is no reason why these shouldn’t be as equally applicable in the classroom as they are in everyday life.
NARRATOR
But some may think of the engagement with the real world of science as coming at a price. The image of science that surrounds us is a complex one with a number of different facets. Here’s what the educationalist Carolyn Swain thinks, followed by further thoughts from Michael Reiss of the Institute of Education, University of London.
SWAIN
If you look at the sorts of exhibitions about science that the Royal Society produces in terms of excellence in science; if you look at the pages of the New Scientist, you see stories of developments in science which are useful, which are helpful to people, are helpful to developing countries as well as to the developed world. If you look at our national press, you get rather a different story I think, and therefore if you are trying to relate science in schools to science in the outside world you need to look beyond the horror stories; the BSE, the MMR and so on, and try and get a range of things which pupils might be able to relate to and to show them that science brings benefits as well as problems or challenges to deal with. I think one of the problems with trying to do this is that children have so little point of reference other than their own experience and so they probably find it very difficult to see some of the advantages that science has brought to them and again it’s a matter of experience of the world and maturity that enables people to get a more realistic perspective. But I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t try to present a positive and a balanced view of the pros and cons of scientific development.
REISS
It’s interesting that most people who work in science education outside of the classroom are very keen to make really good links between what pupils are learning in school science and the wider world. They are very keen on things like using newspapers and media as vehicles. They are keen on other sources in formal science education. All the research shows fairly conclusively that while the minority of teachers do that in school science lessons, most teachers for all sorts of understandable reasons, don’t. So if we want school pupils to really be making the links in their lessons between what they are learning and science in the everyday world, we have got to ensure both that we have the curricula that are suitable for that, but also that we help and enable teachers to feel really comfortable teaching in ways that may be different from the ways that they learnt to teach science.
Learning science can indeed be fun and engaging. One of the ways to ensure that students don’t get turned off too much by it, is first of all not to be proselytising. In other words, the function of the school science teacher is not to try and convince everybody that science is fun and engaging and good for you. You often find that good teachers in other subjects are just better at treating young people as adults, able to look at a subject, get from it what they want to, but also look at it critically and without getting pulled into it wholeheartedly.
End transcript: Part 1 of discussion
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Part 1 of discussion
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Part 2 of discussion
Skip transcript: Part 2 of discussion

Transcript: Part 2 of discussion

NARRATOR
And arguments like this are usually backed up by what school students of science tell us. Bobby Cerini from Planet Science again, followed by some further comments by Michael Reiss.
CERINI
There is a bit of a preconception that students must find science really dull and you know various studies have investigated this, and I think there is a slight tendency to expect people to think science is really boring in class or just in general; but what we found when we did the survey was that three words used most commonly to describe science out of a range of ten or twelve, some are neutral, some are negatively geared some are positively geared. The three that came out way ahead were, useful, relevant, and interesting. The use of these kind of words in preference to others gave us a clear indication that actually students recognised that science is interesting, and is in itself inherently useful to understand and to apply, and it’s a fundamental feature of everyday world, so I think it is dangerous territory to talk on behalf of students. What we found when we let them talk for themselves was different from we ourselves were expecting and I think it is very easy to not hear the voices of people that aren’t usually asked what they think, and students were saying to us, ‘People never ask us what we think, we have never been given the opportunity to say how we interpret it’, and what we saw from the kind of responses we were getting were very insightful, very mature, often very complex ways of looking at what they were learning, and why they were learning it and science was a subject area they had a very passionate responses to, bearing in mind that the students who answered the survey were a mixture of science students and non-science students. So, I think we have to be very careful about saying students perceive science in a particular way it’s not necessarily what we think it is
REISS
The question as to whether there is a crisis in school science education can honestly and simply be answered ‘no’. If you want crises in schools in England and Wales you don’t look at science. If you look at curriculum areas there are bigger problems in other curricular areas – for example, subjects like geography and history have bee pretty hammered, through not having as privileged a position in the National Curriculum as Science, English and Maths have. If you want to look at problems with the number of students studying a subject in the sixth form, although Physics is worrying, there are greater problems with mathematics to be honest. If you want to look at problems with students loosing out on whole areas of the curriculum you look at the performing arts, music and visual arts.
Now that is not to say that there are no problems with school science – there are. But they are problems that for example QCA has been consistently trying to address for about a decade now and they are problems where more or less everybody agrees what the problems are and that’s encouraging. You don’t find the Science Education Community in England and Wales being deeply divided among itself. Now there is a possibility that might be because of complacency, but I believe more positively it’s because people do realise what the problems are.
If you look at international studies, you find two things. You find in terms of what children learn in schools, we do quite well in science, but one of the really interesting things is you find is that the most so called developed countries, not just England, but also for example Japan and Scandinavian countries and so on, are the ones where young people have the most negative attitudes towards science. I am not talking now about school science, I mean science in general. In the countries where people are very positive about science are many of the less developed countries in the world and it’s quite interesting to wonder what will happen in the next few decades. There is one interpretation, some might say it’s a lightly alarmist one, that what you will find in blocks of countries like the European Union is an increasing public distrust of science which will slow down any of the so called benefits that science might bring. And it might be other areas of the world that will see the next generation of benefits in science.
NARRATOR
Now that you know a key feature of Block 1 is to address the purposes of science education and in particular how it relates to the issue of scientific literacy. Here’s what Michael Reiss had to say about that issue.
REISS
The good thing about the notion of scientific literacy is it gets away from people thinking we have just got to teach pupils science and it begins to make one ask a little bit more well, what do we mean by scientific literacy? And then one is into a game where one has quite a lot of discussion and debate about precisely what would constitute good scientific literacy. And there are some people who have quite a high level, rigorous understanding of that phrase and that is why you end up concluding only ten per cent of people are scientific literate in many of the so called advanced countries of the world. One example I find particularly interesting which will be one that many people will understand is something like children’s health. Now you get taught quite a lot in school science about health, but for most people the time when they really become expert about children’s health, in other words have a high level of scientific literacy, is if and when they have children themselves. At that point of course it becomes extremely important to one to understand about ones child’s health and to be able to see whether the so called professionals to whom one is talking, GPs and others, really in your heart of hearts understand and many people get quite good in that sense at critiquing science in action.
NARRATOR
And of course now is a time of rapid change and also one of hope and opportunity. What types of activities and experiences should be more prominent in science education?
SWAIN
I think I would like to see a variety of experiences within the same course for a group of children, a group of pupils. Different things, different ways of learning attract different students and I think you can say yes, we will have discussions. Yes, that will make science more attractive to this group of pupils. More practical work would appeal to these. More hard science getting at the underlying principles would appeal to another group. Within any class you are going to have some of each type of pupil, therefore I think you have to make sure that what you are offering caters for the different needs of the different pupils and offers a varied experience. Offers them the opportunity to express their own ideas, but also offers them the opportunity to look at some of the established ideas of science. I think we are selling them short if we feel that they can be scientists in the sense that their views on some of the established ideas of science are equivalent to scientist’s views in these areas.
REISS
I’d like to see more of three things in school science. I would like to see more choice both for pupils and for teachers in what the pupils are learning and what the teachers are teaching. I would like to see more diversity in lessons. We are going that way which is good, but the days of one-size fits all are over. And thirdly, I would like to see an assessment system that manages to reward the learning that we really value, and that is a big problem still.
NARRATOR
Challenges and problems there are aplenty and you have the advantage of studying such an important issue in unsettled, challenging times, but all three of our contributors end on an encouraging and positive note.
CERINI
There is a tremendous amount going on, you know, we have seen teachers taking on board new ideas, students are being given the opportunity to have their say, and to contribute more and more to what is going on in the classroom and in the science curriculum, and I think over the next few years, that is going to be an incredibly exciting time as organisations start to pool their resources better, start to communicate better, start to talk with teachers more directly. We got a fantastic new initiative, which is the National Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching which will bring together all the teacher training, and actually provide a much more coherent joined up approach to giving access for teachers to new ideas and materials. So all in all, a very exciting time coming up and we are really looking forward to seeing it and what students and teachers will make of it.
REISS
I am actually quite encouraged at the way in which science education is going. The days when people thought all you had to do was sort out the curriculum, or all you had to do was to get new well-qualified people to teach science are over. We know now it’s a very multi-faceted problem and there are a lot of organisations working at various levels to try and move forward. It is not naively to believe that everybody is going to enjoy every moment of every science lesson from now on, but I think things are moving in quite a good direction and I am encouraged.
SWAIN
I am hopeful. I think one of the key issues is the supply of well qualified, good science teachers, particularly in the physical sciences and the organisation of an assessment system, which can allow for more creativity, more diversity, than we have at present.
End transcript: Part 2 of discussion
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Part 2 of discussion
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
SEH806_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus