When #SciTeachJC rules the world…

Let me start by stating, for the record, that I felt no pressure when asked by @alomshaha to write up the second Science Teaching Journal Club session. No pressure at all, despite the fact that the article on the first session was written by one of the authors of the paper we’d discussed, and published in the Guardian. Oh no, I’m fine…

But anyway. The topic for discussion was the Beyond 2000 report, now more than ten years old but credited with changing the direction of UK science education. If you’ve not read it, I recommend it – although I suspect that most practising science educators will find themselves cursing at various points. @Alby has converted the ten recommendations of the report to a simple poster and handout. I have no intention, by the way, of trying to explain or recount all of the posts from the busy Tuesday evening session. If you weren’t there (or even if you were) I recommend reading through the archive. That’s why it’s online, after all. No, I have two aims; mainly to give a flavour of the evening, with a few quotes and summarised discussions, and secondly to share my own personal responses to some of the themes touched upon.

There were some questions suggested as starting points; it would be fair to say that although these may have informed people’s reading, they did not govern the discussion! Most agreed that the report had made a big difference in science specifications, although it was more about changes in policy than in classroom practice. A common theme throughout the evening was a recognition of irony. The report specifically recommends that “No significant changes should be made to the National Curriculum or its assessment unless they have been previously piloted…” This is in sharp contrast to the reality of a politically-driven curriculum which changes unpredictably and according to the whim of parties in power (and for readers now cursing a certain Michael G, it’s not as if the previous government were particularly evidence-based when it came to education either…). @AnthHard suggested that this sort of slow, evidence-based change approach made him think of The Physics Factory, something I’d not heard of before.

It was noted by several participants that there is relatively little mention of new technology in the report – something we thought would need to be addressed if it were to be revisited now. The gaps frequently identified between Science and Technology subjects are still there, which seems a shame when, as the report suggests, it is often the technological interpretation of scientific ideas that enthuse out students. I suspect I was not the only teacher to finish thinking that I should really make a greater effort with my Technology department colleagues.

Several of us did feel that the report was unduly harsh about teaching methods used in science lessons. Of course, this may reflect the self-selective nature of a group like #SciTeachJC! Those colleagues who were active at the time of the report (I for one was still at university, wet-behind-the-ears as I am) assured us that, in their experience at least, a range of pedagogic styles were being used. Many agreed that although the report had changed some areas of UK education more than others (e.g. the IGCSE was identified as less affected), the ideas were well worth engaging with. We were unsure how well-known it now was among ‘chalk-face’ teachers or school science departments.

“It wor­ries me how few LT team mem­bers respon­si­ble for sci­ence in schools have read Beyond2000.” @jo_holgate

Literacy

A central idea of the report was that of Scientific Literacy. Quite a few colleagues (both teachers and those in, for example, science communication) spent time discussing what this really meant and how it applies to our students. A related concept, and one that is addressed by the authors, is that science education actually has two parallel aims; giving students the basic skills needed to live in a world dependant on science and technology, and preparing those who want to be scientists themselves. (As I type this it strikes me that although this could also be said of, say, History, a much larger proportion of those in a GCSE science class will go on to study the subject at degree level.) It seemed odd to many of us that adults didn’t recognise the disadvantage that scientific illiteracy implied. @DavidWaldock shared a link to a report summarising US public attitudes to science and technology, showing similar issues there.

Fulfilling the first aim, it was suggested, means a reduced emphasis on details and a better understanding of ‘How Science Works’. This not only means high-quality investigative work, as Sc1 is often (mis)interpreted as, but knowing the context of scientific discoveries and the philopophy of the scientific method itself. This is not easy stuff – indeed, @alicebell suggested reading Breaking The Mould for one viewpoint of the teaching of ‘Science for Public Understanding’, and there were several comments that the uptake and teaching of HSW had been patchy, not helped by uneven assessment in exams.

“…think HSW is a great idea but we need time and train­ing to reflect on prac­tice to be effec­tive Sci teachers.” @sciteachcremin

But how can we teach HSW well to those who won’t be studying science in the future, without putting off those who will be our next generation of engineers and doctors? (Not that I’m being stereotypical here, you understand.) @alomshaha pointed us towards his article on this dilemma from 2009, showing that these concerns are not new. Personally I have doubts about the possibility, let alone the wisdom, of deciding at 14 which students belong in which category – even if the courses were not frequently similar anyway and chosen for reasons other than student suitability.

“I think the teach­ing for sci­en­tific lit­er­acy aspect has been lost as we have started to push for more kids to do triple sci­ence.” @26Tim

“Sci­ence courses need to suit those tak­ing them. Not one size fits all.” @doc_gnome

I made the point that like any other kind of literacy, being scientifically literate is important to play any significant part in modern society. This was also made in the report on p2008: “Not to have some under­stand­ing of them [sci] is to be, in a very real sense, an out­sider.” Responses were varied, but I think most colleagues agreed that we should aim for all students to know how science collects, analyses and checks data as a minimum – and this was important. It seemed odd to many of us that adults didn’t recognise the disadvantage in life implied by scientific illiteracy.

“it also defines groups which are not scilit as non-citizens by impli­ca­tion, which is exclu­sion­ary” @DavidWaldock

“Con­sid­er­ing sci­en­tific lit­er­acy, how do we make it socially unac­cept­able to ‘not get / under­stand sci­ence’?” @Alby

The problem is that when one qualification is seen as being more ‘challenging’ than others, it is immediately used as a badge of worth by those who have it, or want it. (The report recognises the issue that theory-based GCSE science courses derived from courses that only a minority of citizens needed, GCEs.) Vocational qualifications such as BTecs can be an excellent vehicle to assess students engaging critically with a wide range of contexts – but they’re frequently not respected, as current changes indicate. Of course students will need facts as well as skills, and the issue will be choosing where to draw the line.

“They need both. A basic under­stand­ing and the skills to learn new info to add to it” @jennjtaylor

(As an aside: it’s often hard to gauge the ‘mood’ of a discussion in real life, let alone one happening in/on/over Twitter. I’ve suggested that there must be some way to get everyone’s responses to a simple question; for or against a simple statement, for example. Perhaps this would work with a Google form, link shared by moderators 2-3 times during the session?)

Narratives

I’m going to digress slightly, so as to set the scene for the discussion of narratives as suggested in the report. It has been suggested that we are not ‘thinking man’, as Homo sapiens would describe us, but Pan narrans, the story-telling chimpanzee. What makes us different from our closest relatives is not living in houses, using tools or thinking big thoughts, but that we share stories to explain, model and so predict future events. I like this idea and now really wish I’d shared it during the evening. Esprit d’escalier and all that.

A second key idea from the report was that, both to aid the development of scientific literacy and to enthuse students, teachers should consider a narrative approach. There was some lively discussion about this, and we wanted to distinguish between isolated anecdotes and a more comprehensive view. There are of course several levels of ‘story’, all of which may be useful when teaching about science.

  • anecdotes and personal recollections not only show teachers to be human, but demonstrate how science affects people on an individual level. This is an excellent way to show how students use and rely on science, and on its offspring engineering and technology, all the time.
  • historical accounts and case studies show how one scientific idea developed, often challenging orthodox thought of the time.
  • science as one narrative, showing the ‘big picture’ so that students link ideas together more effectively.

Concerns were raised that we must be sure to link these smaller stories to the curriculum – and not get lost in history, rather than science. The point was made that the common view of a scientist as a maverick meant it was harder to see how so much of science builds on previous ideas, that we must emphasize the often incremental nature of scientific discovery. This kind of perspective also encourages discussion about the uses and abuses of scientific understanding, by placing discoveries in the context of the time at which they occurred. It was pointed out that if done badly this can make students cynical, as reported in the Guardian.

“I too like empha­sis on sto­ries & ‘big pic­ture’, but have some con­cern about focus on history/sociology of sci­ence.” @audm

“I like sto­ries in sci­ence too. Helps con­nect to per­sonal side of how sci­ence pro­ceeds.” @tonyperry

“My con­cern with sto­ries is that if you only give a broad pic­ture the stu­dents miss the details that may help explain a concept.” @jennjtaylor

It was suggested that using this kind of narrative approach was a good way to engage female students – those who have often become disenchanted by science. This concept was also discussed during the first #SciTeachJC, and I’ve read before that girls are more likely to prefer to ‘set the scene’ for work before considering new concepts, instead of fitting them into a framework afterwards. @Alby mentioned a report which collected data to show different preferences for male and female students, but I can’t find a link. It was pointed out that if we change the delivery to suit one group of learners it implies others, boys in this case, are less well catered for.

“I think that human­iz­ing sci­ence with sto­ries is par­tic­u­larly impor­tant for get­ting girls inter­ested.” @26Tim

“Which rather links into the pre­vi­ous JC — I’d say anec­do­tally I’ve noticed the same re girls pre­fer­ring per­sonal inter­est.” @morphosaurus

The advantage of adding relevant stories and anecdotes to a big picture – rather than building a syllabus around current ideas – is that as scientific understanding changes, so can the chosen stories. The very fact that you have changed the stories is worth sharing with students, as it illustrates the evidence-based nature of scientific ideas. @PhysicsChris shared a link to some narrative-style textbooks. I didn’t share the link, but I also like these books (and I’ve lost the URL to another set, Spanish author – answers on a postcard).

“IGCSE peo­ple sug­gest you fit your own sto­ries in to their con­tent. keeps it rel­e­vant. 2006 con­tro­ver­sies don’t last.” @gwiff

Summary

“my feel­ing — report suc­cess as far as went, prob­lem was lack of polit­i­cal will and patience to wait for *teach­ers* to address.” @teachingofsci

“Report made me think about what sci­ence skills/knowledge really are useful/engaging to my students rather than what *I* think they should find useful/engaging.” @Arakwai

“Surely main prob­lem of the ‘Beyond 2000′ report is that most sci. teach­ing staff have never heard of it or read it?” @Alby

“I’d sum­marise by say­ing that we’re going in the right direc­tion, and could do with­out a mas­sive reor­gan­i­sa­tion right now” @26Tim

So the overall feeling seemed to be that the report, despite weaknesses such as lack of detail for assessment and slight lack of clarity for HSW, was strong. I don’t think I was the only person to recognise, with frustration, that the issues are often not ones that can be addressed in the classroom. Some can be – and I will certainly be thinking about displays and electronic formats (perhaps a wiki?) to show students how what they are studying fits into a bigger picture. I’ve used newspaper articles and online blogs to show students how scientific research can be ‘deciphered’ (for example by using “How to read Health News” from NHS Behind the Headlines). But the issues are bigger than one teacher, or even a group of us, can solve. They are problems that a department must consider. And more than anything, the concerns identified must be recognised by administrators and government ministers, who must then be able to listen to business and academic leaders without kowtowing to them. Above all, those who make decisions about exam specifications and league tables must be able to choose what is right, rather than what is popular.

And so we return to the title of this post; when #SciteachJC rules the world…

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2 thoughts on “When #SciTeachJC rules the world…”

  1. Great write up!

    Although HSW might be hard to assess I think is isn’t just central to science education it is science education! As Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    e.g. Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan place HSW at the centre of their writings and lectures. I think they are among the most visionary scientists of the 21st century. The idea that their approach somehow dumbs down the science I think is bullsh*t!

    Scientific facts are often changed or refined e.g. everything taught about electrostatics over the last 100+ years has recently discovered to be quite wrong :-).
    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2011/06/static_electricity_isnt_what_y.php
    I know some psychology studies have shown people to respect and pay more attention to points of view if they are made with confidence and certainty but as scientists we would be betraying our training to do that.

    As soon as we recognise science for what it really is – a simple a way to help ourselves think more critically, better understand and investigate the beauty of the cosmos and most importantly remain humble, the better!!

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