Science in schools: let’s look at the context (not just the content)

Over this autumn school term, members of our Education Advisory Group are sharing thoughts and ideas based on their own experience of how bioethics and debate can be useful in education contexts. This post is written by Annette Smith, independent consultant and former Chief Executive of the Association for Science Education.

Taking it nice and easy

It’s a new school term, with the usual combination of hope, trepidation and anticipation on the part of teachers and students. By now, the training days have happened, timetables have been compiled and the courses have been chosen.  In England, many of the proposed changes have now become reality – we’re coping with recent changes to the external examinations, with more to come, and we have a new National Curriculum.

Early planning will have focused on the requirements of the new curriculum, OFSTED priorities and the external measures and will have been based to some extent on this year’s exam results. As an example, in science, which is my interest, terminal exams are a big issue in England as we reintroduce the requirement for three sets of exams in the summer of the final year, just for science, for some students.

There’s a real temptation, under these pressures and within subject teaching, to plot a route which leads directly and obviously to the end result, forgetting that there are objectives beyond the exams, such as those often proudly stated in the school vision. In making sure that students understand the concepts and facts that form our current understanding in science it is possible to inadvertently keep the learning but lose the context. This may, unfortunately, have the twin outcomes of reducing the interest in the subject and failing to capitalize on the opportunity to contribute to nurturing those “responsible citizens” that are often part of the school’s stated priorities.

So this is a plea, not so much to the science teaching fraternity. Those who are directly involved with young people know the motivating effect of good investigational science, grounded in students’ interests and reflecting the processes of science in the real world. They also know that there can be great benefits in engaging students with the importance of what they’re learning – giving them real examples of the dilemmas which face society and which an understanding of the workings of science will help them to unravel. The data experts may need reminding that a class full of students who appear to be having passionate disagreements may in fact be engaged in a complex ethical debate. Senior managers may need convincing that what appears to be a group of students messing about with equipment and chemicals is actually maintaining those students’ curiosity about their world.

As the song says, let’s make all the stops along the way – perhaps our students will then be a bit more likely to fall in love with the subject and take a further step towards that “responsible citizens” vision.

(Please note that the resources for helping with those ethical debates are on these Nuffield Council on Bioethics webpages http://nuffieldbioethics.org/education and those for practical science can be found on the Nuffield Foundation website http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/practical-work-learning).

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