Science Beyond 2010

Science Beyond 2010

Science Beyond 2010

My friend and colleague Alom Shaha drew my attention to a document written at the start of the current attack on GCSE Physics. The document was called Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future: A report with recommendations (31 page pdf document) . The document has apparently been very influential and as one reads it there is a great deal to agree with. However, there are a few critical areas in which, with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see how failings in the report have been translated in catastrophic failings in our exam system.

I hope to comment more on this in future weeks but one quote is central to two profound failures of our currents system:

FOR THE MAJORITY OF YOUNG PEOPLE, the 5–16 science curriculum will be an end-in-itself,which must provide both a good basis for lifelong learning and a preparation for life in a modern democracy. Its content and structure must be justified in these terms, and not as a preparation for further, more advanced study.

To say this is not, however, to disregard the needs of those young people who choose to pursue the formal study of science beyond age 16. The curriculum needs to cater for this choice, as it does for other personal and socially valuable choices and interests.

RECOMMENDATION ONE The science curriculum from 5 to 16 should be seen primarily as a course to enhance general ‘scientific literacy’.

One can see how this concept of education for scientific literacy is the central hub of modern GCSEs. However, it is a task at which the exams and the courses fail dramatically. And additionally they profoundly disregard the needs of those young people who wish to pursue the formal study of science beyond the age of 16. Summarising, this well meaning report has been badly implemented.

Later in the report there is talk about the importance of narrative. And this is something with which I profoundly agree. The difficulty is that the real narrative of science – which is powerful and compelling – has been replaced with a series of tales barely more coherent than the ‘Just So stories‘. Real narrative has been replaced by Fairy Stories which provide no coherent framework for understanding science.

I will try to provide more commentary on this in the coming weeks. But for the moment I invite to read the report. And weep.

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4 Responses to “Science Beyond 2010”

  1. Melindwr Williams Says:

    Michael, the report to which you refer is actually Beyond 2000, a science education for the future. It was written following a series of seminars funded by the Nuffield Foundation in 1997 and 1998 and, as you point out, it has been influential in informing subsequent developments in the science curriculum, but has not been entirely taken up. In particular it recognises the need for the population, as a whole, to receive a science education that promotes what the report calls “scientific literacy”, while at the same time allowing a proportion to follow a more academic route that will prepare them to become scientists. It identifies that the time for this to happen is the 14-16 phase, Key Stage 4, and that GCSE’s would need to be structured to provide for these two routes. The dichotomy isn’t working effectively yet, and that requires continuing, urgent attention.
    The aspiration to provide an interesting and approachable scientifically literate education for the general population, taught with rigour and enthusiasm, is being pursued – but that, too is an ongoing campaign.
    I am interested that you accuse the report of reducing science to Fairy Stories; perhaps you will enlarge upon this topic in later posts.

    • Michael Says:

      Whoops. Thanks: I have corrected the title of the report. I had just spent some time designing the header of the posting to imitate the typography on the original report.

      Regarding the issue of narrative, this is something I feel passionate about. Indeed I raised the issue of ‘bullet point culture and lack of ‘narrative’ with QCDA at the meeting last month. The issue with ‘Fairy Tales’ is not an issue with this report – I sympathise with the views in the report in this regard. It is an issue with way the GCSE curriculum is taught and examined.

      The point about the scientific narrative is that there is a cast of relatively few ‘characters’ which appear again and again. And they behave in consistent ways in different tales. So for example there is a ‘family’ of atoms – light ones and heavy ones and middle-sized ones. Atoms only interact with each other electrically – and no other way. With this cast of characters and behaviours one can achieve amazing insights into the way the matter in the world behaves.

      However the narratives that I have seen examined in GCSEs are literally like fairy tales. They involve unbelievable and arbitrary ‘characters’ who do just the thing to explain the phenomena being ‘explained’ and then disappear.

      Compelling narratives are not an effort to remember. Indeed the opposite is true – they are hard to forget! But the narratives at GCSE are pathetically naive.

  2. Emma Says:

    I am learning a lot from you two having all these discussions – I should introduce you to each other in person some time!

  3. Melindwr Williams Says:

    Thankyou for clearing the Fairy Tales issue up. I thought that you were referring to the examples of science narrative in the report itself (which seemed quite powerful), but if you’re referring to the GCSE syllabus and its subsequent tests, then I can see what you mean.
    There is a real problem with science teaching (akin to maths teaching) in that a high proportion of the teachers who are involved in it, particularly at Key Stage 2 (7yrs – 11yrs) have not followed an education in science themselves. The result is that they sometimes unwittingly reinforce misconceptions. At Key Stage 3, 11 – 14 yrs, on the other hand, most teachers of science have science degrees, but they are often operating with one eye on the GCSE syllabus, and so they end up teaching “stuff” instead of narrative and concepts.

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