Science teaching must change 1

September 13, 2002

Tony Gardiner's argument against the recommendations of recent reports on science and maths education ("Policy does not add up", THES , September 6), to one of which I acted as adviser, displays such naivety that it cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

Contrary to his views, science is not taught through discovery learning. Rather, if he bothered to listen to the views of pupils - something that we have done in our research - he would find that school science is dominated by facts, repetitive and overuses copying from the board.

Pupils are frog-marched across the scientific landscape with no time to discuss any aspect of contemporary science, and they certainly have no choice at all about what they might study. School science remains, in the words of one witness to the inquiry, "one of the last surviving authoritarian social-intellectual systems in Europe". Confronted with this monolith, pupils are simply voting with their feet.

If Gardiner had bothered to look, he would have found that there is a large body of research evidence that shows that the existing curriculum does little or nothing to develop the knowledge required to critically evaluate those media reports of science that are the point of contact of most citizens with science. Where, for instance, is there any discussion of the underlying values of science by which it is to be judged such as predictive accuracy, coherence, consistency, unifying power, fertility and simplicity? And the exploration of risk, cause and correlation and other important features is non-existent.

All of us engaged in science education need to recognise that it is students' affective responses, their interest and enjoyment as much as, if not more than, their cognitive responses that make the lessons satisfying, memorable and engaging both for students and teachers. Gardiner offers only a more academic science - admittedly needed for the intellectually able and the future scientist - but for the rest, his vision is totally bereft of any understanding of the needs of the non-scientist.

Before he criticises the failings of these proposals for the science curriculum, perhaps he would care to put his own house in order - the recent AS debacle in mathematics having done little to inspire confidence in current prescriptions for mathematics education.

Jonathan Osborne
King's College London

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