Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 at school.[10] They find it boring, difficult and lacking contemporary relevance.[11] 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,[12] 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 age group.[13]

  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.[14]

  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 scientific ideas,[15] and

    —  be cross-disciplinary.[16]

  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.[17] It is worth noting that higher education institutions have broadly welcomed the baccalaureate approach.[18]

  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.[19] 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.[20] 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[21], [22]. 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 dimension.

  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.[23] 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.

January 2002

10   Osborne J and Collins S (2000) Pupils' and Parents' Views of the School Science Curriculum, King's College London. Back

11   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

12   Levinson, R and Turner S (2001) Valuable Lessons: Engaging with the social context of science in schools, London: The Wellcome Trust. Back

13   ibid. Back

14   Osborne and Collins, op cit. Back

15   see recommendations of the Beyond 2001 report published by King's College London. Back

16   eg Jenkins E (1999) School Science, Citizenship and the Public Understanding of Science, International Journal of Science Education, 21, pp 703-710. Back

17   Jenkins C, David J, Osmond J and Pierce J (1997) The Welsh Bac, Institute of Welsh affairs. Back

18   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

19   E.g Kolstoe S (2000) Consensus projects: teaching science for citizenship, International Journal of Science Education, 22(6 pp645-664. Back

20   Levinson and Turner, op cit. Back

21   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

22   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

23   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

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