Memorandum submitted by Ralph Levinson
1. There is considerable research evidence
to show that although school students in the 14-19 age range believe
science education to be important they do not like studying science
They find it boring, difficult and lacking contemporary relevance.
This situation persists despite the prevalence of science and
technology issues on the front pages of both tabloid and broadsheet
newspapers and their public policy implications.
2. A research project I directed for The
Wellcome Trust, Valuable Lessons,
reported on the experiences of teachers across the curriculum
when engaging with the social context of science in schools for
students in the age range 14-19. The findings that emerge which
are pertinent to the considerations of the Inquiry are the structure
and content of the curriculum, interdepartmental collaboration
in schools and colleges and the role of assessment/accreditation.
3. The findings of the project show that
science teachers consider the science curriculum to be overloaded.
There are few opportunities to discuss socio-scientific issues
and almost half the science teachers we interviewed felt that
teaching science should be value free. Teachers of English, on
the other hand, cover socio-scientific issues far more frequently
and extensively than science teachers. As one teacher of English
remarked "if a text isn't controversial it's not worth teaching".
This comment stands in stark contrast to science teachers who
tend to avoid controversy. Humanities and arts teachers consider
the substantive science aspects marginal to the teaching of these
issues. There is little inter-departmental collaboration. Given
that decision-making on these issues would involve some awareness
of ethical procedures, science, the role of argument as a persuasive
device, as well as sociology and politics, this lack of collaboration
sadly under-prepares our citizens of the future for a world that
relies on integrated knowledge.
4. Recent events that have captured the
news include the debate over BSE, vaccination for MMR, the implications
of the Human Genome Project and the recent controversy on human
cloning. Central to an understanding of these issues are a grasp
of concepts such as "risk", "uncertainty",
"randomised trials" and the "implementation of
science policy". These concepts are rarely covered with this
5. Our report states that formal assessment
is seen by science teachers as a major determinant of the level
of coverage of socio-scientific issues. Science examinations tend
to reward factual recall, knowledge and understanding of science
concepts rather than reasoned discursive argument.
6. Any assessment system that supports a
rational approach to decision-making should:
include an understanding of science
processes in a broad sense (how is scientific research funded
and carried out, what knowledge do scientists draw on, what defines
science, what does a scientist do, how does scientific research
impact on society and society on research?);
enable an understanding of relevant
7. A system that approaches the last condition
and could well encompass the first two conditions is the International
baccalaureate. The proposed Welshbac is one such model. The advantage
of this system is that it could cover both vocational and academic
work in the spirit of Curriculum 2000. There could be levelled
accreditations so that students could achieve at, say, foundation
and advanced levels but still study a similar configuration of
subjects at different levels.
It is worth noting that higher education institutions have broadly
welcomed the baccalaureate approach.
8. While the baccalaureate structure would
allow flexibility across disciplines, it is vital that understanding
of science processes and of the main scientific theories are built
into the curriculum. One possibility is to use case studies so
that a study of, say, stem cell research or the use of nuclear
power in the UK, would encourage teachers to start from the problem
and feed in the science and other ways of thinking about the issue
as the studies progress.
At a foundation level, for example, the problem or dilemma might
take a personal approach, eg what actions and decision are appropriate
to an individual and their family when considering the potential
outcomes of research or the siting of a power plant. An advanced
level approach might take a more global perspective. Science processes
could be part of a core module or a compulsory segment of a science
module with the option of taking another science subject such
as chemistry or biology.
9. I believe the baccalaureate structure
has much to recommend it in addressing science for citizenship,
however there remains the problem that breadth might be achieved
at the expense of integration. A case study approach, as mentioned
in paragraph 10 could begin to address this problem involving
different disciplines and key skills.
10. A baccalaureate model would only work
if there could be genuine cross-disciplinary teaching. This would
mean joint planning between teachers in different subject areas
and agreed weightings for assessment.
Given the rigid divisions of subjects within many state schools
in England this is unlikely to be achieved either quickly or easily.
Nonetheless, such models of integrated teaching that do exist
could be evaluated, trialled and disseminated. It would require
a concerted push from government and such bodies as the DfES and
QCA to promote cross-curricular collaboration. Schools are unlikely
to move voluntarily in this direction given the present constraints
of examination results and league tables.
11. The curriculum structure that underpins
the assessment is important but so are the ways in which students
are assessed. The new Citizenship curriculum would be interesting
to evaluate in this respect but it by no means addresses all the
challenges. Probing a student's ability to conduct a convincing
and informed argument must allow the student the opportunity to
do a piece of extended discursive writing,
Debate and discussion are also integral to decision-making and
instruments to assess understanding of an issue in dialogue could
be developed. It is interesting to note that school students in
Hackney, East London, using the facilities of Highwire have made
short films on the new genetics which combine opinion with a presentation
of the underlying science. They also raise stimulating questions.
Assessing students' understanding and decision-making ability
on these issues solely through the written word under examination
conditions would not be a fully valid measure of what the student
knows and understands. Assessment could incorporate a multi-media
12. I do not under-estimate the demands
this approach to assessment and the organisation of the curriculum
would make on teachers. Evidence from my own pilot research suggests
that it is difficult for science teachers to incorporate discussion
about socio-scientific issues into their classrooms even when
the curriculum advocates it.
Few teachers of any discipline have training in explicating ethical
arguments and teachers often do not feel they have a grasp of
the science or of the manifold social, ethical and legal implications.
This type of teaching often implies different ways of organising
the classroom to promote discussion. Teaching about the digestive
system when you have knowledge and experience of the science and
feel confident about anticipating any questions is very different
to teaching a topic where the questions are unknown and the responses
tentative and uncertain.
13. There is therefore a need for inservice
professional development to enable teachers in all subjects to
teach socio-scientific issues. This professional development could
incorporate elements of moral philosophy, bioethics, and strategies
and approaches to teaching controversial issues. Some of this
training could be within the schools where teachers of English
with experience of running discussions could work with science
teachers in devising appropriate strategies. However there would
be a need for external input too.
14. Under the baccalaureate type structure
I have discussed it should be possible to maintain intellectual
rigour while enhancing the appeal of science to students. However
there will need to be accompanying structural shifts within schools
and within the assessment system.
10 Osborne J and Collins S (2000) Pupils' and Parents'
Views of the School Science Curriculum, King's College London. Back
Simon S (2000) Students' attitudes towards science in Monk M
and Osborne J (eds) Good Practice in Science Teaching, pp 104-119,
Buckingham Open University Press; Hacker R.J and Rowe, M.J (1997)
The impact of the National Curriculum development on teaching
and learning behaviours, International Journal of Science Education,
19(9), pp 997-1004. Back
Levinson, R and Turner S (2001) Valuable Lessons: Engaging
with the social context of science in schools, London: The
Wellcome Trust. Back
Osborne and Collins, op cit. Back
see recommendations of the Beyond 2001 report published
by King's College London. Back
eg Jenkins E (1999) School Science, Citizenship and the Public
Understanding of Science, International Journal of Science
Education, 21, pp 703-710. Back
Jenkins C, David J, Osmond J and Pierce J (1997) The Welsh Bac,
Institute of Welsh affairs. Back
Black C and David J (2000) Beyond the Border: the acceptability
of the WelshBac to Higher Education Institutions Outside Wales,
Institute of Welsh Affairs. Back
E.g Kolstoe S (2000) Consensus projects: teaching science for
citizenship, International Journal of Science Education,
22(6 pp645-664. Back
Levinson and Turner, op cit. Back
Ratcliffe M (1998) Discussing socio-scientific issues in science
lessons - pupils' actions and the teacher's role, School Science
Review 79(288) pp 55-59. Back
Rivard L (1994) A review of writing to learn in science: implications
for practice and research, Journal of Research in Science Teaching,
31, pp 969-983. Back
Levinson, R (2001) "Ethical implications of the new genetics:
a preliminary study of a pedagogical challenge", in Valanides,
N (ed) Science and Technology Education: Preparing Future Citizens
Volume 1, 1st IOSTE Symposium in Southern Europe, pp 62-75. Back