Can children discover science for themselves?

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This essay intends to focus upon how science is presented in schools at GCSE level (14-16) and how this group of students perceives science as it is taught. The main focus will be on comparing and contrasting literature on the subject and considering the methodology used to collect the data therein. The limitations of the information gathered will be analysed as well as the ethical considerations that the authors had to take. Science is meant to be an objective subject. However, due to human error, this is not always possible as all information and viewpoints tend to have bias.

For example, the National Curriculum suggests there are two types of viewpoints: one is based on heroes or individual stories; the other is based upon circumstances and events. There are several teaching techniques used in schools today, such as giving pupils time to think, using stories in science, being aware of anthropocentric views, distinguishing scientific ‘truth’ from other truths, using mini plenaries as well as pupil-speak relevant to age, counting down to the end of activities and splitting groups by surname.

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This essay will focus upon the main methods used to deliver the science syllabus to students at Key Stage 4 by analysing various sources of literature. Preceding the literature review, I thought it best to firstly present my own frame of reference and thinking stance. Having studied in the UK myself to a high level and drawing from my own experiences, students in the 14-16 year old category were taught by rote for many years. The National Curriculum science syllabus was such that students were taught the same topic over and over again depending upon their level of understanding.

This was due to the structure of the National Curriculum and the nature of how the examination system worked. Students were taught specific topics in each year group depending on their abilities and were split accordingly. As they moved up the school system, students were given the opportunity to learn the topics at an increasing level of complexity. This structure helped students pass exams quite well. However, by the time they left school and entered into 6th Form College, many could not grasp the level and depth of study A-level subjects required.

As a result of this, many dropped out of Further Education altogether or went on to study vocational courses such as GNVQs and NVQs to get into University or enter the world of work. Moreover, the National Curriculum was such that it tended to generalise ‘Science’ as one subject and was taught as such in many schools, where one can have ‘Single Award Science’ (graded as one subject e. g. C) ‘Double Award Science’ (graded as two separate subject e. g. C/C) or the three separate subjects of the main sciences: Biology, Chemistry and Physics, similar to the previous O’Level system that predated GCSEs.

The next section is dedicated to reviewing current and past literature on science at Key Stage 4 as prescribed by the National Curriculum. It will briefly touch upon the history of science as it was taught in schools specifically in the UK and I will compare and contrast sources to analyse my own opinion of the topic. Part 2 – The nature of science and how it is reflected in the National Curriculum The 1944 Butler Education Act was established to provide free secondary education for all.

(Moon 1990) Since then, there were many conflicting issues arising mainly between central government and local education authorities. The Act was dissolved at the end of the 20th Century as, according to Moon (1990), it did not provide “clear definitions of either the content of primary and secondary education or the structure of the education system itself. ” Following this, The House of Commons Science and Technology Third Report (2002) has identified the problems with National Curriculum science as I have mentioned beforehand stating “It is clear that the major problems lie at key stage 4.

Though we have met some inspirational teachers and some inspired students it is clear that the curriculum and assessment at key stage 4 is preventing school science from being exciting. The curriculum is said to be inflexible, irrelevant, repetitive and prevents debate. The limited range of courses available fail to meet individual needs. The practical work required for these courses is frequently uninteresting and demotivating. The potential for the imaginative use of ICT is not exploited. As a result, many students lose any feelings of enthusiasm that they once had for science.

All too often they study science because they have to but neither enjoy nor engage with the subject. And they develop a negative image of science which may last for life. ” while the Daily Telegraph article dated 4th March 2009 quotes the headmaster of Eton College, Tony Little saying “Bright schoolchildren are struggling in exams after being asked to ‘wrestle with questions of crippling simplicity’ and many are left agonising over answers because they cannot believe the standard demanded in GCSEs and A-levels is so low. ”

If this be the case, then I am inclined to agree with these arguments as I have myself known students of exceptional ability, who having studied their GCSEs at the highest level, have had a tendency to forget simple topics of a lower level. The Telegraph article also says that Little “called for a cap to be placed on the number of GCSEs pupils are forced to take amid fears they are having a ‘dragging negative effect’ on pupils. ” This strategy seems good for gifted and talented students in schools. However, it does not take into account the full picture and other students of varying abilities.

Moreover, I personally think it may prejudice gifted and talented students coming from state schools who may have more GCSEs at high grades from entering high caliber institutions as their public school counterparts may be given the upper hand. Therefore, it would be very difficult to judge students based on their merits at GCSE level. This argument also leaves out students of lower abilities who may not do so well in exams, so are stereotyped by teachers, peers and others who may in fact be geniuses.

This ties in well with the proposals set out by the government’s Every Child Matters: Change for Children in schools (DfES 2004a) campaign which identified that student performance and well-being are closely related. The report proposed five outcomes to ensure these factors for all children and young people, stating its aim to deliverers to ensure that children are healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution as well as achieve economic and social well-being. (Cheminais 2006)

According to the Policy paper from the Royal Society of Chemistry agreed by the Education and Qualifications Board (2001), “The last revision of the National Curriculum for England and Wales which was implemented in September 2000 was carried out under the constraint of minimum change. However it was recognised by the Secretary of State for Education that there was need for further work to develop and modernise the curriculum. Since then the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have been involved in an exercise to explore the possibilities. ”

This was followed by The House of Commons Science and Technology Third Report (2002), which looked to implementing the findings of the Royal Society of Chemistry Paper. Furthermore, the latter also noted “The regularity of formal testing at 5, 7, 11, 14, 16 and 18, and teachers understandably therefore teaching to the tests and spending time preparing students for the tests, has led to a reduction in curriculum innovation and a stultifying experience for many children. ” and “there needs to be a greater focus on those things that people might actually use science for outside school.

” From my own experience in education and having had a look back at the state of the school system from the early 20th Century, I believe that these two reports are a crucial step in revolutionizing the way the National Curriculum is structured, particularly at GCSE level. To me, it seems that it were these self-same factors that made science seem inflexible, irrelevant, repetitive and non-debate in the first place. Following this, the QCA (2005) report specifically detailed new changes to the National Curriculum at Key Stage 4, stating

“From September 2006 a new programme of study for key stage 4 science will be introduced in schools and colleges in England. The curriculum has been updated and consists of a smaller core of science relevant to all learners. A wider range of science qualifications will be available. Previous key stage 4 science curricula were criticised for concentrating too much on the needs of future scientists at the expense of science that is relevant to students’ everyday lives…

One of the government’s key aims for the 14-19 phase is that students should have greater freedom to choose programmes of study that meet their needs, capabilities and aspirations. ” I believe it is good that the government has identified flaws in the National Curriculum as it was taught before. However, the implementation of these guidelines can often be a lot harder due to such factors as inertia and the unwillingness of schools to change because of past habits. As Wellington and Ireson (2008) notes

“… how broad should science education be? Should it concentrate on only the three Big Sciences (physics, biology and chemistry) or should it bring in others such as geology, psychology and archaeology? Are the latter really ‘science’? Where do we draw the line between a science and a non-science? What should be the balance between various components? ” On top of this, the same source looks at the debate over practical work enquiring “Can children discover science for themselves?

Does exploratory or investigational practical work motivate children and help them to learn and understand sciences? Or will children discover the ‘wrong science’? Is discovery learning realistic in a 50-minute science lesson when history shows that it took scientists decades to discover vaccinations or develop a working telescope? Can the pupil really be a scientist? ” This question is also depicted by Monk and Dillon (1995) who argue that “Gradual development of skills and knowledge changes the qualitative nature of pupils approaches to investigations…

Qualitative changes in pupils’ knowledge and skills are not to be confused with the openness that teachers build into investigatory work. How a pupil performs, in terms of attainment, depends upon the pupil. Providing openness in investigatory tasks is, by and large, a planning, organization and management problem and thus depends on the teacher. ” My objection to this argument is that it is not so much the pupil or student that is responsible for their attainment but the level of support they are giving from their parents, the pastoral care of teachers and their peers.

These are background issues that may affect a student’s performance in any task and must be dealt with in an appropriate and professional manner. It was H. E. Armstrong who first proposed the idea of ‘learning by discovery’ leading to the concept being rediscovered and implemented by ‘Nuffield Science’ in the 1960s and 1970s. (Jenkins 1979). Nuffield Science emphasized practical work and children’s own discoveries, its motto being ‘I do and I understand’. Wellington and Ireson (2008) argues

“to what extent do children make discoveries in this kind of work?… One related issue is the role of ICT. Many traditional ‘experiments’ can now be done using multimedia, and perhaps the internet. Should practical work be done ‘virtually’, or will this take away the means to develop important skills? ICT is widely used by ‘real scientists’, but will its widespread use in school science, e. g. for data-logging of for simulations, create a gap in science education? ”

My personal stance is that while ICT is a great tool for modeling and gaining knowledge of how things work, it may not necessarily provide the full experience that students need to understand scientific experiments fully. For example, one of the three main aims of science education are to develop psychomotor aims skills, namely manipulative, manual dexterity and hand-to-eye coordination. If all students have to do in an experiment is at the click of a mouse, how would these skills be assessed and developed later on?

In my opinion, it is analogous to one going to Google Earth and boasting they have seen the Amazon forest in all its glory without leaving their chair. The element of real life discovery seems to lose its meaning. That said, perhaps ICT practical work would be better for SEN students who may have problems doing experiments in real life. This brings about the issue of inclusion. I would therefore use ICT only to the extent where students would have the opportunity to gain enough confidence to carry out the experiments safely in the laboratory environment.


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