How should we teach science at secondary school?

Some numbers: This year there were about 76K applications to Irish universities and institutes of technology. At any given time there are about 11K enrolments in science and maths courses in the universities. About 40% of science and maths grads will go on to further education. About half of these will do PhDs, meaning that in a typical year, there will be about 2300 PhD students in maths and science. Given that a PhD is a pre-requisite for becoming an actual working research scientist that means that about 3% of school-leavers will eventually become research scientists. (A little more if you include the IoTs.)

So what are the implications of these numbers for teaching science at secondary school?

Fundamentally, I think it means that we need to pass on enough knowledge about the physical world for school-leavers to be able to make sense of their environment even if they never study science again. If students lack fundamental knowledge they will not be able to make rational judgements about all sorts of issues that they will be confronted with in their daily lives. For example, if you don’t know what the liver and kidneys do then you’re likely to be a sucker for quacks selling ‘detox’ diets.

These days, acquiring knowledge is often portrayed as little more than rote learning a bunch of disjointed set of facts, facts that are easily found with Google. However, in a well-taught, knowledge-rich course in science, the student will also acquire a good appreciation of the scientific method and the role that evidence plays in that method. The history of science is full of fascinating stories of dominant theories being overturned by new evidence; of personality clashes, of chance discoveries, of painstaking research that leads nowhere. All of these stories can be incorporated into the curriculum not just because they will engage students but because they will simultaneously serve to explain the scientific method.

Crucially, this ‘integrated’ approach, is an efficient way of explaining what science actually is to students. In contrast there is a trend in science education these days to emphasize the ‘doing’ of science as a way of explaining what science is, all with the laudable aim of turning our students into rational decision makers. Take the following examples from the new Junior Cycle science curriculum (an SOL is a ‘statement of learning’):

SOL 9. The student understands the origins and impacts of social, economic, and environmental aspects of the world around her/him.

Students will collect and examine data to make appraisals about ideas, solutions or methods by which humans can successfully conserve ecological biodiversity.

 SOL 10. The student has the awareness, knowledge, skills, values and motivation to live sustainably.

Students will engage critically in a balanced review of scientific texts relating to the sustainability issues that arise from our generation and consumption of electricity.

 SOL 13. The student understands the importance of food and diet in making healthy lifestyle choices.

Students will collect and examine evidence to make judgements on how human health can be affected by inherited factors and environmental factors, including nutrition and lifestyle choices.

 SOL 15. The student recognises the potential uses of mathematical knowledge, skills and understanding in all areas of learning.

Students will participate in a wide range of mathematical activities as they analyse data presented in mathematical form, and use appropriate mathematical models, formulae or techniques to draw relevant conclusions.

 SOL 16. The student describes, illustrates, interprets, predicts and explains patterns and relationships.

Through investigation, students will learn how to describe, illustrate, interpret, predict and explain patterns and relationships between physical observables.

 SOL 17. The student devises and evaluates strategies for investigating and solving problems using mathematical knowledge, reasoning and skills.

Through planning and conducting scientific investigations, students will learn to develop their critical thinking and reasoning skills as they apply their knowledge and understanding to generate questions and answers rather than to recall answers.

 SOL 18. The student observes and evaluates empirical events and processes and draws valid deductions and conclusions.

Students will engage in an analysis of natural processes: through observation and evaluation of the processes they will generate questions as they seek to draw valid deductions and conclusions.

SOL 19. The student values the role and contribution of science and technology to society, and their personal, social and global importance.

Students will research and present information on the contributions that scientists make to scientific discovery and invention, and the impact of these on society.

The underlying philosophy here seems to be that in order to be able to make rational judgments – to be able to think scientifically – you need to spend a large amount of time being a sort of apprentice scientist. This is an extremely inefficient way of doing things but, more importantly, it would seem to be an ineffective way of doing so.




About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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