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Science for personal worth

A necessary condition for successful engagement with science, argues Michael Reiss

Back on 8 September 1994 at 0845 I was sitting, somewhat nervously, at the rear of a secondary school science laboratory waiting for a class of 11 year-olds to enter for their first secondary science lesson. I was at the beginning of a five-year longitudinal study that followed a single class of pupils through their 11–16   science lessons. In the book I wrote from the study1 I ended with the following paragraph:

‘One of my main conclusions is that school science education can only succeed when pupils believe that the science they are being taught is of personal worth to themselves. Here, “personal worth” should not be construed too narrowly. For many pupils, science is of value only in so far as it is of instrumental use, for example for further education. Other pupils, though, search for meanings and may feel that science can help them to understand their place in the world. Such diversity among pupils means that a science curriculum and a way of teaching science cannot assume that there is only one reason for learning about science. But unless science teaching genuinely engages with the concerns of real pupils, they will be more than capable of learning little from it.’  

In one sense school science has always tried to help pupils to understand their place in the world. Astronomy and ecology do so quite literally, while much of physics, chemistry and biology is about enabling pupils to realise that the laws of the natural world apply as much to them as they do to the mythical stones dropped off the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

But in doing this, there is a danger that science can seem to suggest that there is nothing special about humans. The reality is that science education, whether the audience is pupils in school or adults outside of school, can help us to realise that while we are fundamentally, through our evolutionary history and the laws of nature, a part of the natural world, we are also uniquely able to question, to reason, to reflect and to create. Good science teaching can help learners see themselves, as well as the world around them, in a new light. Science is as much about asking questions as answering them; it does not rob the world of its mystery.

Current realities

Media reports often talk about a crisis in UK school science and maths education. We are told that not enough students want to study these subjects after the age of 16, that courses have become simplified or even dumbed down and that there are ever-worsening shortages of specialist science and mathematics teachers.

In reality, though, all is not doom and gloom. If one looks at international comparisons, the UK ranks about fifth in the world in terms of number of STEM graduates per 100,000 of the population. In terms of school attainment, there are various international measures and we rank about tenth in the world in terms of the knowledge and understanding that our teenagers have of science. In terms of the quality and output of our research science, again there are various measures but we generally rank about second, third or fourth in the world and in terms of the quality of our science relative to the amount that we spend on it, we are probably first.

Similarly, for all that we sometimes hear about public distrust in science, the fact remains that after GPs, being a scientist is about the most respected profession there is in the eyes of the UK public. Admittedly if you insert ‘government’ before ‘scientist’, public trust drops a bit; but it is still way ahead of many other occupations, particularly politicians, estate agents and journalists.

Attainment, not engagement

At the same time, the UK does have some specific issues with its school science education that particularly need addressing. Part of the problem is to do with the fact that, since the introduction of the National Curriculum in England and Wales in 1989, too much of the emphasis has been on pupil attainment rather than pupil engagement.

If you work in the world of science education you are regularly regaled with presentations from government ministers or senior civil servants illustrating apparently impressive gains in attainment over the years at ages 11, 14 or 16. However, aside from the endless debates as to whether a particular grade means now precisely what it used to, what matters more to employers and those who work in higher education is whether 16 year-olds abandon science as soon as they get the chance or choose to continue studying it.

Possible ways forward

So what can we do to ensure we have a school science education that enables pupils to believe that the science they are being taught is worth learning? I have argued3 that there are three reasons most 16 year-olds in the UK give up science as soon as they have finished their GCSEs or Scottish Highers.

How people learn

The first is that most teaching of school science doesn’t take enough account of how people learn about science nowadays. Gone are the days when it was quite exciting to do an experiment in a school science lab to show that water boils at 100oC, or that photosynthesis results in the production of oxygen. Nowadays, all of us are bombarded with science stories in the media 24 hours a day. We need to acknowledge that much of where today’s young people will learn about science will not be in the classroom but via such as extra-school sources as the internet, science museums, television, radio, magazines and science centres.

What people want to learn

The second is that the science curriculum doesn’t take enough account of what young people want to learn about. I am in favour of 11-16 year-olds having more of a voice as to what they can study. In certain respects the 2006 changes to the science curriculum at GCSE were a move in that direction and, if it ever sees the light of day, the Science Diploma has the potential to contribute in this respect too by catering for a group of young people who, especially post-16, are not well served at present.

From structures to good teaching

The third is that many science teachers are too constrained in what they can teach. What matters most in determining how well a student learns is the quality of the teaching they receive.3 Too much of politicians’ time, effort and money in education is directed at changing the structures of education, the organisation of schools or the curriculum, important though the curriculum is. Students would learn more if we gave more opportunities – as some other countries do and the UK independent sector is more able than the state sector to do – for teachers to concentrate on teaching well.

Encounters with science which enable people to question, to reason, to reflect and to create can engage them in a way that the mere transmission of information will not.  We need more of these encounters, both within schools and beyond them.

Convincing policymakers

Although we have a good idea of how school science education could be improved, always remembering that compared to many countries the UK starts from a good position, we do not at present know the relative importance of the various factors that encourage pupils to continue with science or mathematics post-16. In the UMAP (Understanding Participation rates in post-16 Mathematics And Physics) projectthat is being undertaken at the Institute of Education, University of London, we are looking at this.

The findings from the UPMAP project will allow us to identify and interpret the range of factors, their relative importance and their interactions that influence post-16 participation in mathematics and in physics. This will provide us with a strong evidence base upon which to make recommendations to policymakers about the kinds of initiatives that are likely to have the greatest impact on different student groups and students’ developing identities, and thus in raising participation and engagement in post-compulsory mathematics and science.

1 M J Reiss (2000), Understanding Science Lessons: Five Years of Science Teaching, Open University Press, Buckingham.

2 M J Reiss (in press), Promoting engagement with science education. In P.Derham & M.Whorton (Eds), Liberating Learning, Widening Participation, University of Buckingham Press, Buckingham.

3 J A C Hattie (2009), Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge, Abingdon.

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Professor Michael Reiss
Professor Michael Reiss is Vice President of the British Science Association and Assistant Director at the Institute of Education, University of London
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