The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have just published a report on the state and possible future of Science and Maths Secondary-School Education. From a group headed by Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust, it is one of a series interrogating issues in science and society (see also one on engagement from Roland Jackson of the British Science Association, and another on the media from Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre).
I’ve been in and out of meetings most of the day, so haven’t had time to read any more than the executive summary. Well, the executive summary and the news coverage, which was pretty interesting in itself. So, I thought it was worth putting off reading the full report for a bit longer, and doing a quick blogpost pulling out the issues that the press seems to have decided to pull out of the report.
If you want to read the report itself, for yourself, you can download it here, complete with cover-pictures of hair-raising play with a Van der Graaf generator. Ah, where would science education imagery be without Robert Van der Graaf.
First up, BBC online news, with Science and maths exams ‘need shake-up’ . They start by reiterating the report’s point that science and maths education have clearly been priority issues in recent years, but that nonetheless, people are still worried about it. They emphasise the report’s call for specialist teachers and more maths to be taught within science teaching. They also pick up on concern that the science and maths community want a greater say in school science. This is significant, considering a recent trend in science education to curricula that aims to serve the needs of “the public” before professional science. Note it was the director of the Wellcome Trust (which funds scientific research and some education and engagement), not a full-time educationalist, asked to lead this report. But I’m editorialising.
Next, The Times: Science lessons need more explosions and pyrotechnics, report says. This starts: “Science lessons should be more hands-on and exploratory, according to a new report that criticises a dangerous obsession with results that has stripped science teaching of explosions and pyrotechnics”. According to my rather rough Ctrl-Alt F research methodology, the word “pyrotechnics” doesn’t actually feature in the report. They then go onto reflect on the way “teaching to the test” has pushed out more “exploratory learning”. As they quote Walport, the “danger that assessment becomes the tail that wags the dog”. They cover the smaller issue of the report’s call for science and maths specialists to be paid more, before running through quotes from various stakeholders in the area.
I would now like to pause for a little rant. This is directed at the world in general, not the Times in particular, although they inspired it. Exploratory does not equal explosions. Similarly, just because an activity is hands-on, or demonstrated live in the classroom (as opposed to described in a textbook), it doesn’t mean it is an “experiment”. It certainly doesn’t make it investigative or “exploratory”. Simply being hands-on doesn’t necessarily mean the student is allowed to explore. Quite the contrary, some of the most explosive demonstrations are not only done by a member of staff for students to watch, but have exceedingly tightly defined and predicted/ predictable outcomes. The point of an explosive demo is generally that we know what’s going to happen (i.e. it’ll explode – a brilliant big bang of a dramatic ending). They are used to demonstrate why and how science already knows something. They can be exciting, inspiring and explain some aspect of science with immense clarity. By they allow little space for creative exploration. There is difference between expository and exploratory, explanation and experiment. I know they all start with the same three letters people, but get a grip.
Ahem. Rant over, onto The Telegraph: School science undermined by ‘easy’ exams. Their lead paragraph, interestingly I thought, stresses a language problem; that multiple choice questions leave students unable to express their understanding of scientific concepts. They also highlight, early-on, the ways in which examination boards sell their own textbooks to schools (and therefore fuel an exam-driven bite-sizing of curriculum). Like the BBC, the Telegraph are keen to note that science education has been a priority. They also pull out the report’s insistence that science courses have remained popular among young people. The focus of the piece though is (what I read the focus of the report to be…): problems endemic in the curriculum, qualifications and the structure of exams.
Next, the Daily Mail, who’s How Labour’s ‘reforms’ of A-levels have dumbed down exams pulls no punches. Apparently the report is “devastating […] a damning indictment of the exam system”. Content-wise, their emphasis is again on the way the structure of exams and associated bite-sized curriculum effects (/prevents) understanding, referring to worries about the “use of the English language”. They make liberal use of the phrase: “dumbing down”. They also quote schools minister Iain Wright. As with some of the other pieces, this places Wright in a rather defensive position, as if he is only brought in for journalistic balance, to defend himself. I thought this was an interesting positioning: these BIS reports come from groups led by independent(ish) experts, but they are basically government publications, reflecting government desires for change (though they are also from BIS, not the DCSF…). The Mail’s piece ends with a reasonably tame quote from Malcolm Trobe, of the Association of School and College Leaders, underlining the distaste for modular assessment within teaching communities.
Finally, The Independent: Make maths and science exams tougher, says report. A relatively short piece, heavily reliant on quotes from the report itself. As their headline implies, their emphasis is a lack of challenge in the current curriculum (they aren’t clunky enough to use the “dumbing down” phrase, but they breath the sentiment nonetheless). They note complaints that the current system dose not give students enough of a chance to display or develop their depth of knowledge of the subject, that a “tick-box approach” to teaching and assessment lacks depth, and finish with a call for examiner to “devise searching questions for pupils”.
The Guardian haven’t at time of blogging, bothered. Which I thought was odd seeing as they have such strong science and education pages. I’m oscillating being saying this is probably because the issue is just a way to bash Labour (so the Guardian are avoiding it) or that they prefer more nuanced expert analysis on these topics (so are waiting to have a more thoughtful comment is free piece later in the week). Either prediction is largely (rather ridiculous) guesswork on my part though. They’ve likely just got other things to worry about. It’s easy to get your knickers in a terribly self-important twist about science education, especially worries that it’s just not as hard as it was in my day. Whether this generates anything more than rhetoric is another matter.
Before I sign off, I’d also like to note that none of these pieces quotes a child. There are all sorts of very understandable reasons for this, to do with press reporting as much as cultural norms (not to mention legal issues) surrounding education and/ or the voice of children. Still, I hope that as/ if the report’s recommendations are developed, young people are used are more than just cover- boys and girls.