SCIENCE EDUCATION IN THE SCHOOL CURRICULUM: ITS RELATION WITH TECHNOLOGY
World Bank/British Council Report
In the 1960s in England and Wales, as in a number of other industrialised countries, there was, quite a massive revision of the teaching of science in schools. The Nuffield Foundation provided hitherto undreamed of financial support for a succession of projects to develop materials and curricula for chemistry, physics and biology (for the "O" and "A"level examinations), for primary science, a combined science for lower secondary, a secondary science course for the "less able", etc.
Although the perspectives of the nature of science that generally informed these projects were not as "pure" or abstract as those that underpinned the corresponding National Science Foundation projects on the other side of the Atlantic, they did establish a strongly conceptual type of science as the science of school classrooms. Indeed, it was a chance for school science to catch up with where university science had been moving in its more rapid recovery and boom period in the 1950s. This sort of ideology of pure science had been established much earlier as the dominant influence in British science education. It is significant to note that these Nuffield reforms of science curricula were underway before the emergence of the comprehensive schools and the possibility that the needs of their quite different clientele of pupils might seriously question this influence.
The Nuffield reformers certainly intended the science at school to be stimulating and attractive to the pupils in schools, but clearly it was also to be the means of preparing and selecting the next generations of students for scientific higher education who, in turn would become the nation's future professional scientists. The massive expansion of post-graduate study and research in university science departments since World War II re-enforced the pure and conceptual emphases in these school science courses. The model for the learning pupil was the research scientist discovering new knowledge to unravel phenomena, and then inventing concepts to accommodate the new knowledge and to describe and explain the phenomena.
Learning chemistry for example, became less the learning of a collection of factual properties of elements and compounds and of the acquisition of practical skills, and more the learning of conceptual ideas like bond types and electronic arrangements and their application to phenomena via kinetic and other molecular-scale models of matter.
Primary science was initially defined rather openly in terms of discovery and enquiry and then more specifically as processes like observing, classifying, measuring, hypothesising, predicting and problem solving. These were seen to be tools of trade of the scientist - a sort of step-by-step scientific method.
Compared with the current interest in the relevance of science to pupils' own lives, these earlier developments (the mainsprings of science education at least until the GCSE and now the looming National Curriculum) can be described as giving more attention to inducting learners into the disciplines of the sciences than to making them aware of their applications in society or in their lives outside of school.
Nevertheless, with support from the Schools Council and other sources, there were, in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of projects in the science field that used other contexts of a more applied variety to produce science materials for teachers to use. Most of this material was of a modular or exemplary nature rather than constituting a framework for teaching a science course as a whole.
Two distinct approaches to the application of science have been used in these projects. The first is to see the modular material as enabling the basic study of the science content to be extended into applications that illustrate the significance of particular concepts for science topics in British society and industry. The Science and Technology in Society project (SATIS) has produced many short modules for study of this type.
The second approach chooses an application of science and develops modular material that allows for more substantive teaching of the science that relates to this applied science context. The Working with Science project was an example of this approach and other modules of this sort have been developed for use in chemistry, physics and biology.
There is a substantial difference in terms of a technology dimension between these two approaches. It can be summed up by saying that science plus applications is not the same as the science of an application. The former tends to have the application of science as an optional extra to the essential learning , which is the science itself. The latter treats the application as the serious topic of study, and in doing so can quite radically restructure the science content to be learnt, its sequence and its relationships of importance.
The second approach has also been the basis for the development of two courses of study which take the interactions between science and society as their areas of study. These whole courses, while remaining marginal to the great bulk of pupils, have provided useful examples of the sorts of learning about the science/society interface to which greater significance is now being afforded under the National Criteria (for the GCSE) referred to earlier and in the National Curriculum. The pupils who have studied Science and Society, or Science in a Social Context (SISCON) have had a holistic experience of the application of science or of technology in British social and economic life - a learning experience that should increasingly now become a component of all pupils' studies in science or in technology more generally. The SISCON course encourages a more critical awareness in its approach to learning about science in society, - an aspect that is more central and explicitly in the attainment targets for Design and Technology in the National Curriculum than it is in the attainment targets for Science.
In the development of actual science courses for the GCSE, it has been left to syllabus and materials developers to encourage individual teachers to choose contexts and approaches to learning that would make the links between the science content and its application clear. The new Salters Chemistry course (from York University), by providing a set of materials for three years of teaching, is probably the best indicator yet of the outer edge of the technology dimension of science education. Its materials encourage teachers:
It is, however, a course of study that is still constructed to teach the criteria laid down for the chemistry content for GCSE. In doing so it does teach chemistry in application, and how chemistry influences societal and personal life. Furthermore, it encourages learning about examples of chemistry in society. It is not, however, a course to develop learners' chemical capability in the sense of using chemical and other knowledge and skills to solve real life problems.
From 1990 onwards, pupils in England and Wales will be taught science under the statutory orders for this core subject of the National Curricula. These statutory orders are based on the Report of the Working Group for Science but do differ in several significant ways from it.
One of these is the omission of the rationale for the teaching and learning of science throughout all the years of compulsory schooling. The Working Group's rationale was based on (a) the nature of science itself, (b) the technological nature of society now and in the future, (c) the benefits to the individual learner, and (d) how learning in science occurs.
The second and third difference relate directly to the interests of this case study. Communication and Action were two learning areas in science education that the Working Group highlighted as novel and important ones which should be identified by their own attainment targets. An obvious reason for this distinction is that either of these have been generally recognised hitherto as objectives or outcomes of science education. The statutory orders have blurred these distinctions by subsuming Communication into the first broad attainment target of Exploration of Science, and by subsuming Action into the sixteen Knowledge and Understanding specific attainment targets.
Consideration of the detailed statements of attainment enables some sense to be gained of the technology dimension of science the new National Curriculum is likely to encourage.
Most of the specific references to communication in the attainment targets for Exploration of Science seem to be to skills and tasks that are within the community and culture of science but some are aimed at societal aspects of science, for example, describe investigations in the form of ordered prose, using a limited technical vocabulary and prepare and deliver a report matched to an audience which incorporates background material from a variety of sources.
Under the Knowledge and Understanding topic headings, there are a number of examples in each of their attainment targets (ATs) that make clear that pupils are to acquire knowledge and understanding of how science is a basis of a number of important applications and technologies in society:
There is much less in the attainment statements to encourage actual practical capability in relation to the wide range of scientific knowledge that is to be learnt. Nor is there a sense of a progression of these practical skills. Under AT 11: Electricity and Magnetism pupils are to be able to construct simple electrical circuits as the fourth level of attainment (out of 10). This skill is not developed any further in the statements for the six higher levels although another practical capability, be able to measure and cost domestic electrical energy consumption by obtaining the electric meter readings does appear at level 6.