Why Do we Teach Science?

Today’s entry is a bit of a departure from my normal creative focus.  Yes, I am actually looking at logico-deductive reasoning and how it (or to be more accurate, lack of it) relates to our current science curriculum and examination system.

I recently received an interesting article from the Royal Society of Chemistry expressing concern over whether high level of attainment in the current science exams reflects a high level of learning and understanding, or to be more precise, a high level of understanding in the necessary and important areas.

This article isn’t about whether the children of today work as hard as we did in the ‘old days’ (we know that in most cases they work harder than many of us ever did) BUT it does address the issue of whether they are working hard in the right areas.  Please read on …

Science, by definition, includes logical, deductive reasoning and in many cases it involves the dreaded ‘calculations’.  However, it would seem that the level of these necessary nasties in the current science curriculum is at an all-time low.

So two pertinent questions are:

  • Why do we educate our children in science? 
  • How do we educate our children in science?

Is it so that they can score high marks in an examination? 

  or

Is it so that they are equipped to understand new problems, tackle them and come up with a solution?

There does seem to be a great emphasis these days on proving high standards, but a standard is only as good as the measuring stick used to assess it.  I am concerned at times that my children’s education seems to be centred around passing exams, rather than understanding the subject so that they can then tackle the questions set in exams and pass them.

An interesting comment from the RSC article is that whilst the standards (as assessed by the examination system) within the UK are indeed improving, when compared to other countries they are rapidly falling. 

Here are some excerpts that make uncomfortable reading:

‘… on the issue of standards, for the future prosperity of this country, we must put an end to the annual cycle of bland, politically correct statements.’ 

‘The reality is that national science testing has become dominated by what is easy to teach, and what is easy to mark, although the best schools and teachers deliver lessons in the classroom well above this level.’

‘… less than half of science teachers in secondary schools have a degree in a mathematically-based science (chemistry, physics or mathematics).’

‘The deficiencies in GCSEs are part of a bigger picture where the questions set are based increasingly on candidates being able to recall facts or express opinions, while the analytical or mathematical component has been reduced to little more than multiplying or dividing two numbers, often with guidance in the current step-wise format of examinations today.’

‘For the younger age-group, science SATs have degenerated into a test of general knowledge and the ability to read and write, while at university the trend is a wholly unjustified inflation in grades, so that it is now unusual not to get a first or upper-second class degree.’

‘Perversely, there is general agreement that much of the curriculum material throughout science education is good, but so long as the numerous awarding bodies and over a hundred universities find themselves competing in a market-driven sector, the risk of ‘dumbing down’ in the testing or assessment process itself remains high – although the best rise above this and promote excellence as their selling point.’

‘There have been many wake-up calls, from independent observers, and policy-makers must now act quickly. The RSC’s recent 5-Decade Exam Challenge showed that even a bright group of over a thousand students scored an average of just 35% on a chemistry paper based solely on mathematically-oriented questions drawn from recent GCSE exams. The figure fell to 15% for comparable questions from O-Levels set in the 1960s.’

‘As low as a tenth of marks in modern chemistry papers for 16 year-olds have a mathematical component. A ‘good’ GCSE in science (Grade C), which can be achieved with a mark of 40%, could up to last year be obtained with no manipulation of numbers at all.’

‘These and other students, who will be the decision-makers of tomorrow, are being stifled by an educational system that encourages ‘teaching to the test’, and places limited demands on real problem-solving … leading to the proliferation of alternative, more rigorous exams for schools – not all recognised by government – and a revival in universities setting their own entrance exams.’

‘… we continue to slip down global tables of comparability … (in other countries) it is inconceivable that 16 year-olds can talk extensively about the ethical and social aspects of energy supply, without actually knowing what energy is, or being able to undertake a single calculation on this topic.’

‘Unless we stop the excessive self-congratulation and decision-makers continue to be in denial, this country will be storing up an enormous skills problem for the future. It is now time for national agreement on the assessment structure of education that meets the needs of the country, rather than giving individuals and groups an illusory ‘feel-good factor’.

Not easy reading is it?  I guess it will only be with sufficient pressure from such professional and other learned bodies that the Government will bother to listen.  Let’s hope they do.

About waywood

Hi & Welcome to my thoughts. I share subjects that are important to me. As you’ll notice, these subjects can be quite broad & varied. I like variety; I like breadth & I like a challenge. I am passionate about helping others overcome their fears, grow in confidence & succeed. Although many people would label me as an achiever, I have battled low confidence, low self-esteem & a couple of nasty, long periods depression over the years. I can’t say, “I know how you feel” but I can hopefully empathise & offer some of the things that are helping me to turn my life around. Please feel free to comment, share & enjoy. Take care, best wishes & keep well Stuart
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