Science education for all

Back in 1976, science teacher turned sociologist Michael D Young suggested science education sorts people into three types: pure scientists, applied scientists and failures. The final group, he went on, would forever feel at a distance from science, alienated by the experience.

Arguably, this view is a tad gloomy and simplistic (not to mention, outdated?) but there is a nugget of truth here. There are social divides around science, and these are probably caused and facilitated by structures of scientific learning.

The problem, at least as I’ve heard it voiced by many people in education, is that the universities demand too much specialisation. They want undergraduates to have arrived in their lectures halls already steeped in several years of specialised study, even at the expense of having done anything else. In making such demands, they support a system which asks young people to opt in or out of science aged 15. Many people would much rather we sacrificed depth for breadth and instead asked 16-19 year olds to take more subjects, perhaps with a large self-directed subject to allow some specialisation. This would mean more people leave school knowing some science, just as it means more people leave with languages, some feeling for history, geography and literature (etc…). But no, the lobby for specialisation win.

With that in mind, it was interesting to see a recent report from the Royal Society argue that we modify the curriculum to allow 16-19’s to study a wider range of subjects. This would expose more students to science and therefore increase the likelihood of them continuing to do so at university (increasing the ‘pool’ of scientists as they put it).

One might argue that such broadening of access to science will serve more than just the Royal Society’s ‘pool’. Indeed, the idea that school science should be for the many who do not take science further, as well as the few who do, is a guiding principle behind the 21st Century Science project. Although there is provision for those who want to take up scientific training, 21st Century Science aims to serve those who will grow up to be ‘consumers’, not producers, of science (I first spotted this metaphor in Hollins, 2001: 22).

I dislike the producer/ consumer distinction between those who will grow up to practice science and those who will not. Aside from the argument that 15 year olds don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, I think that a taste of what it is to train to be a scientist should be a shared cultural experience. 21st Century Science argue this is a ‘courses for horses’ approach which provides targeted learning. I think it’s culturally divisive.

A friend recently said that schools are so important because it’s the only time when everyone is exposed to science. I couldn’t agree more. Not because it means a load of young people will have to sit in a room while a teacher bangs on about some super-important topic or another, but because these young people will have to do so together. Before we go about the ever-so-modern business of specialisation, school is a time where we can build shared experiences and so sow the seeds for trust between those who grow up to be scientists (or historians, or any other specialist) and everyone else.

At this point, it’s probably worth saying that 21st Century Science is a set of GCSEs – exams taken at 16 – but the philosophy goes further than this, and was trialed at post-16 level (for more detail see also the Beyond 2000 report, especially point 4.2 on ‘who is science education for?, as well as Millar & Hunt, 2001, and Miller, 1996).

I also worry about 21st Century Science’s special provision for those wanting ‘applied’ forms of scientific training, a sort of middle path between routes for scientists and non-scientist. It would be overly-cynical to say they offer posh boys a chance play doctor, whilst hardworking girls get to be nurses and those who haven’t the opportunity or inclination can hang around to be treated as patients. However, it is all too easy to imagine how pre-existing social divisions might hook onto such a structure. Something that always annoys educationalists, and helps point us to the politics of references to ‘the public’ here: the first politician to publicly advocate a shift in school-science to focus on the majority who don’t become scientists, was, in 1971, the then secretary for state for education… Margaret Thatcher (Layton: 1994: 39).

If you really want science for all, then forget fights over whether to focus a curriculum for future-scientists or future-publics, and instead teach everyone together. Most teenagers haven’t had the chance to decide whether they want to be a scientist when they grow up yet. Moreover, whether they do or not, adult scientists and ‘publics’  should be able to discuss science together from some sort of common standpoint. Work together, not apart.

Anyway, this is all just my opinion. I’d be interested to hear what other people think.


  • Hollins, M (2001) ‘Keeping school science in step with the changing world of the 21st century’, Education in Science, vol.194: 22-23.
  • Layton, D (1994) ‘STS in the School Curriculum: a Movement Overtaken by History?’ Solomon, J and Aikenhead, GS (eds) STS Education: international perspectives on reform (Teachers College Press, Columbia University: New York).
  • Millar, R & Osborne, J (eds) (1998) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future (London: Kings College, London) pdf download.
  • Millar, R (1996) ‘Towards a science curriculum for public understanding’. School  Science Review, vol.77 no.280 pp.7-18.
  • Millar, R & Hunt, A (2001). Science for Public Understanding: a different way to teach and learn science. School Science Review, vol.83 no.304.
  • Young, MD (1976) ‘The Schooling of Science’, in Whitty, Geoff & Young, Michael (eds) Explorations in the Politics of School Knowledge (Driffield: Nafferton Books).

28 thoughts on “Science education for all

  1. Athene Donald

    Although this wasn’t the slant the RS Report put on it, I entirely agree that an additional, concrete benefit of a broader 6th form curriculum applies to those who aren’t going to be future scientists and be part of the ‘pool’, by broadening their knowledge base science a little bit further. The Scottish Highers system works very well for this. However I do worry that the one-size-fits all of the ‘Science for All’ curriculum may actually be a deterrent to some to continue with science because it isn’t rigorous/deep enough (that is my personal view, not speaking with my RS hat on).

    1. alice Post author

      I think part of the problem is the ‘one size fits all’ metaphor – I’m not sure it’s the way to think about things. Maybe one size for all is a more accurate way of depicting what I want. I do think school kids are different, and school sci should provide for such diversity. However, I don’t think we always know what those differences are, and that we should be careful of treating people differently.

      One of the things I really liked about the Tomlinson review idea, as that it’d include a project where students really dig into some topic. I really like this as it allows that bit of depth a student excited by a specialism might want. It also could allow for more interdisciplinary work, or for subjects not often covered by (rather old fashioned) school curricula – by which I mean large chunks of earth sciences as much as things like biophysics.

      Slightly unrelated, but I also think the RS report has other good points in it which might well be of interest to those who normally can’t be bothered with ‘increasing the pool’ rhetoric – school science for science’s sake can often be good for other agendas too! There’s a bit too much fighting between stakeholders in sci ed in my view.

  2. Ed Yong

    You can sort of see a version of this debate played out at university level. Cambridge’s science courses (excluding engineering) are all part of a single degree – Natural Sciences – which encourages students to study broad disciplines in their first two years before finally settling down to a speciailty in their third year. I always valued this – I went into university wanting to do chemistry and left as a biologist. The system stands in stark contrast to the majority of other universities where, somehow, students are expected to leave school at the age of 18 knowing that they want to be a geneticist or a neuroscientist or a biochemist. And I don’t think that Cambridge science grads suffer for their lack of early specialisation.

    I see this as somewhat similar to the debate over whether A-level students should specialise or broaden out, albeit one level up.

    1. alice Post author

      Yep. I see this constantly at Imperial too – you can insert all the ‘should scientists do sci com as undergrads?’ questions into these debates, as well as training/ curriculum extension in other directions too (e.g. do we give enough transferable skills and careers advice to people on specialist scientific degrees). We have an undergrad engineering student doing a research project on similar issues at the moment.

  3. DundeePhysics

    My opinion is that you have to get kids thinking about science long before their subject choices at 14/15. The idea of communal science at 15/16 only really works if there is some understanding by the pupils of what this intends to achieve, and making students who are largely disengaged at this point doesn’t really help anyone. You can actively turn people into the ‘failures’ you mention.

    I give lots of talks to S2 pupils (aged about about 14) and this year have done so in the run up to the subject choices they take before Standard Grades (Scottish GCSE equivalents). At the start of my talk I ask them what sorts of jobs do scientists do. The stock responses are ‘Doctor’, ‘Dentist’ ‘Vet’ and little beyond that. These are kids who have no real understanding of what science is for in the real world and have not really been given the direction they should have. This comes through a lack of careers advice, lack of (unfortunately) teacher knowledge (often counterproductive ignorance in fact) and simple lack of exposure. Of course the fact that STEM is a huge subject area doesn’t help here either. What then happens is that kids make subject choices, not only without knowing what they want to do, but without knowing what they *could* do. And this seems key to me. Accountants don’t do outreach after all, but scientists have to…

    1. alice Post author

      I think careers advice around science is v important, and perhaps a slightly different issue…? Some good points in the Royal Society report by the way, but there is loads more to say and do on this (including, it should be said, helping show that a science undergraduate degree doesn’t equal a career in science!)

      1. DundeePhysics

        It’s not really just careers advice, it’s knowledge about what scientists and engineers do in society. If you are going to advocate that all students share a collective broad science ‘training’ then they have to understand before they opt-in (or are forced in?) about why this matters. This should, in part, I’d argue, come about through a better understanding of real world science. The ‘beauty and wonder’ part is best sold to those who want to learn more, those who will go on to study science in more depth. Those who are going to become hairdressers, lawyers, accountants, car mechanics, etc need to see a relevance, and this has to occur before subject choices are made.

        Oh, and working in (and having gone through) the Royal Society lauded broad based Scottish education system allows me to comment that a broader educational base through to 5th year (English et al lower 6th) doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to overall scientific literacy (IMHO). You may *have* to take a science subject, but this does not mean that (a) you have to like it, and (b) that you will be any good at it. ‘Science for all’ as a policy could be more divisive than enabling in the way you imagine.

        1. alice Post author

          You might like the debates around the 21st C sci courses then, they are really focused on sci literacy. The Beyond 2000 manifesto is especially worth a read, imo. It might seem really old (and indeed, its central ideas date at least a decade if not two before it’s 1998 publication) but education policy moves very slowly. It’s still relevant.

  4. David

    Interesting article. However, at each stage of education, whether it be secondary or tertiary, there needs to be an outcome that relates to being able to work with a body of knowledge. School and university are not about social homogenisation and giving people experiences (or maybe they are and I’m just very unfashionable). They are about learning, training, and preparing for doing a job. Specialisation is required for people to become practising scientists.

    The issue of trust for scientists is a difficult one. The impression I get is that people will trust a person in a white coat and stethoscope, but not a person in a white coat carrying a test-tube in their hand. But generalising the curriculum for 16-19 year olds to foster this trust is probably not the best strategy. Earlier years (including primary education) would be better for such shared/communal learning about science.

    I agree with your point on pure versus applied science teaching. There should be no division – people should learn both. Certain disciplines of science (chemistry in particular) have always encompassed both.

    But maybe there is a place for basic and advanced science qualifications in the science curriculum (at the same year levels – in parallel). That is not the same as the pure/applied division – it is about level of difficulty of concepts/theory/experimentation. Pretty sure that that has been done for mathematics for quite some time. The curricula could be designed in such a way that the two cohorts of students in any school were together for a small but significant fraction of each year (through some core topics common to both curricula), thus giving a degree of shared learning experiences but at the same time providing a diverging educational outcome: science for scientists and science for public, but with the added benefit of trust built in.

    1. alice Post author

      I don’t deny that schooling is about training people to be able to work with a body of knowledge – I’m just talking about how you do this without also doing rather damaging social action.

      You might find this discussion by Harry Collins useful. Sorry it’s paywalled, it’s ‘specialist’ you see :-)

      Collins, H. (2000). On Beyond 2000. Studies in Science Education, 35, 169-173

      As for trusting “a person in a white coat and stethoscope, but not a person in a white coat carrying a test-tube in their hand” … well, it’s about a trillion times more complex than that. People have thought about this and done research. Maybe try reading this report as a basic primer to debates (big advantage: no paywall).

      1. David

        Thanks for the reading tips. And I’m sure the trust issue is much more complicated than I can imagine (I’m just a humble person in a white coat with a test tube :) ). However, at the launch of the International Year of Chemistry down here in Australia, it was a topic that got scant attention (from an audience of politicians, academics, and industry people) . There was much debate about what science/chemistry can do in the future, and lots of questions about how to get the public to engage with chemistry through education. But trust was the elephant in the room.

        But that is a bit off-topic. I admit that education is about more than just producing people who can do a job. It is also about preparing people for participating in society. I guess the problems come when the curriculum pendulum swings too far in one direction or the other.

  5. Joe Dunckley

    “Many people would much rather we sacrificed depth for breadth and instead asked 16-19 year olds to take more subjects, perhaps with a large self-directed subject to allow some specialisation.”

    Indeed. I haven’t been following science education discussions (would love to follow every topic in the universe, but sadly, must specialise if I’m to leave a few moments each day for eating and sleeping!) but has anybody suggested that this self-directed study might lead not to boring standardised exams that can’t tell A* students apart, but to some sort of portfolio? Could be anything, whatever interests the student — a set of old fashioned essays, a blog, micrographs, podcast segments, posters, science visualisation ideas, short paper reviews, a set of ideas cleverly laid out on index cards. Anything unique that tells students apart where exams have failed to do so…

    To be a great scientist requires an amount of creativity, but we have a system that currently does little to encourage or select for it…

  6. Andrew Maynard

    This is a tough one because innovative science (forget the distinction between pure and applied – it’s not a helpful one) demands deep knowledge and training – and the sort of background that students probably won’t get without some form of science-centric curriculum early on in their education. Yet I have huge sympathy for the need to expose more students at school to science – not to teach specifics necessarily, but to provide the opportunity to see and appreciate the world in a different light. I also have great sympathy for the need to expose students on the science track to a wide range of information that will help stimulate integrated and possibly more “tolerant” thinking.

    But it’s hard to ignore the reality that if you are going to play an active role in science today, it helps to have a deep grounding in the basics.

    I must confess that I am very grateful for the science education I received in the UK, beginning to specialize from the age of 14 – it gave me a foundation in basic principles that has enabled me to develop a highly cross-disciplinary career that goes way beyond “hard” science. And this gratefulness is re-enforced as I watch my kids receive a demoralizingly poor science education in the US.

    So how do you respond to the needs of the many rather than the few when it comes to science education? I’m not sure I know – although I would hesitate to go down the route of “teach everyone together.”

    My guess is that there must be a middle way, where cultural/interest polarization is minimized, but those with the interest and ability are given the foundations they need for a future career in science. But for this to occur, I suspect that there needs to be more awareness of the importance of contextualizing science, the opportuities for some to delve deep into the basics at an early age, and the avoidance of early vocational training in applied sciences and technologies.

    1. alice Post author

      You are right that science asks for deep knowledge and training. I’m just not sure that forcing this on teenagers is a good idea, in the long run.

      However, as I say to Athene above, some provision for specialism within a broader shared curriculum would, I think, be both possible and useful. As you say, a middle way. The contextulalising point is good, and pulled out a lot by the ‘science for public’ people like 21st century science. Their Beyond 2000 manifesto really is worth a read.

      (I doubt the sci education you had in the UK was what I had in the 1990s, or what kids today get)

      1. Andrew Maynard

        Ah, falling into the “sin” of nostalgia there! Although it would be interesting to do a comparative study of the essence of school science teaching over the past 40 years to see what has changed and what has not – surely this has been done by someone already! It’s also interesting to reflect that the teaching I had in the 1980’s still has a marked influence on my thinking these days – although I was subject to the Nuffield science curriculum, which probably colours everything I have to say on the subject.

  7. Tom Whyntie

    For me, the interesting question this post suggests is “what should students know before they get to university?” At the heart of this is the point David (above) touches on – the purpose of post-16 education. Is it to give students the tools to work in a given field/take study further, or is it more like the French educational ideology of making citizens? (Sorry, no citation for that…)

    I’d wildly speculate* that any perceived “problems” in the system stem not from following one or other per se; rather, there is a lack of a coherent strategy that chooses either.

    *Technically, this sort of comment should only be made in a pub. Apologies.

    1. alice Post author

      pubs/ blogs = tom-ay-to/ tom-ar-to

      I think you are right that this is an interesting question, although many would also argue it is a red herring, because as soon as you build a school curriculum to serve unis, you loose other foci it should have (personally I think it should try to serve this aim and other things, but thought it was worth saying).

      The other stumbling point with this question is that universities exist in a multi-national context, increasingly so at the UG level. So universities feel they should be asking (and providing) specialisation asked/ provided elsewhere, which has a knock-on problem for individual national education systems… if that makes sense?

      … and as Ed’s comment implies, undergrad degrees have huge debates and concerns within themselves about what they’ll teach (which connects to what they want from students in advance).

      1. Tom Whyntie

        My point was more that we should question the assumption that students should know anything before starting a given university course. For example, should an undergraduate starting a Media Studies degree have done an A-level in Media Studies? Or are the “facilitating” subjects enough? ;-)

        1. alice Post author

          Well, uni tutors often complain about lack of prior knowledge. I think it’s fair to see BSc as a step on from school, etc. But then again the multi-national issue makes this harder too. Maybe this is why unis are increasinly threatening to set their own entrance exams.

          I guess many first term courses are refreshers of a-levels, partly to check for gaps between syllabi but also just to return to basic concepts while students are settling in, but they do expect everyone to have done a fair bit of whatever they are studying.

        2. Tim Jones

          I think the answer to that really depends on the subject. For example, students undertaking physics and engineering degrees (particularly, but also other sciences to differing extents), require a certain level of mathematics that, if it’s missing on arrival, needs teaching before the course proper can start; it’s about the need for tools to handle certain subjects. (This was how I read part of Andrew Maynard’s point above).

          1. Tom Whyntie

            Perhaps; of course, mathematics isn’t taught in science lessons ;-)

            One may compare and contrast with the approach of (some?) music colleges [1]: often, all that matters is the audition. This allows “potential” to be spotted; once you’re in, they break you down and build you back up again from scratch.

            [1] My brother, who went to music college. #PubCitation

  8. Liz

    I don’t know about depth vs. breadth, although I do think that the Cambridge way of doing things at an undergraduate level is brilliant – like Ed, I started out wanting to be a chemist and will be leaving as a biologist. What I think would be really useful is for school students to learn not necessarily more science, or a wider range or science, or more ‘relevant’ science, but to learn more about the process of science and the concept of ‘significant’ results. In my opinion science GCSE courses could really benefit from the inclusion of some philosophy of science, and some stats.

    For those who go on to do science at university and beyond, an early introduction to the idea that science doesn’t always give definitive results, and that models are just models and are invariably wrong, would be really useful. And knowing some stats (rather than just the difference between mean, median and mode!) would be useful for everyone, particularly in enabling people to take a more sceptical look overhyped science stories in the news.

    1. alice Post author

      yep, this sort of stuff is central to the science for public understanding approach – worth reading that Beyond 2000 report and some of the 21st century science rationale if you are interested.

  9. Humphrey Jones

    Great post Alice. As an Irish science teacher, where our 16-18 year olds study seven subjects in their senior cycle, I agree with the sentiment that a broader education would improve access to science. In Ireland the majority of senior pupils would study at least one science subject for their Leaving certificate. However, the standard of science and the depth in the syllabi is lower as a result.

  10. genegeek

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been dealing with similar issues in the development of a science education program for high achievers. The funders want the students to specialize right away (at 14/15) and I’m pushing for a year of introduction where they are exposed to various fields and we stress the ideas behind science. I’m hoping to include science communication/knowledge translation so these future scientists realize the importance of communicating their work to all audiences. This post and the comments provide some great stories to help them see the importance of breadth before depth.

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