Subject Identity in the Sciences

This is the third instalment of a highly edited version of a submitted article that I wrote for my Postgraduate Certificate in Education course at Keele University.  The post will look at the identity of the sciences as a subject as a whole, focussing on specifically on chemical education, along with its pedagogy.

The teaching of the natural sciences, i.e., biology, chemistry, physics and geology, has been a major part of society since the start of compulsory education for all young people in the beginning of the 20th century. Through enabling individuals to make sense of natural phenomena, the study of the sciences offers an exciting and ever-expanding exploration into the vast realm of knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live. Indeed, by discovering hypotheses, theorems and predictions made by the scientists of the past and present, including the wide range of experiments they have used (or are using) to justify and explain current lines of scientific thinking, individuals who study the sciences can learn how these ideas can provide us with factual evidence that can be verified and reliably experimented upon by almost anyone who desires.

The Science Curriculum and Perspectives

Science education plays an important role in a young person’s school life and indeed their adult life as well. Students are exposed to the theoretical and practical explanations of currently understood natural phenomena. Wellington and Ireson (2012) discussed that there are three main arguments to studying science: (i) the cultural and historical argument, whereby our society and heritage is founded upon scientific discoveries, (ii) the utilitarian argument, whereby studying science can be useful to an individual and to the wider society, and (iii) the citizen argument, whereby individuals cannot fully participate in a fully democratic society unless scientific theories and practices are understood. The latter has some interesting points as individuals, more often than not it is politicians who are making big political decisions on complex issues, e.g., the advancement of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

The formal teaching of the sciences starts at primary school and students are exposed to natural phenomena. Initially students in the lower years of primary school, i.e., between Years 3 and 4, are predominantly taught biological and physical concepts, such as plants, animals, rocks and light, with perhaps more challenging topics such as sound, forces and magnets, states of matter, electricity, Earth and space being left for upper years, i.e., between Years 5 and 6. Between Key Stages 1 and 2 there is very little writing and the learning is more practical based. Primary school children at this early level should be shown how to identify patterns and groupings, begin to start to classify objects, and carry out simple comparative tests.

At the end of Key Stage 2, students will start their next stage of learning from a wide range of backgrounds, with some primary school students entering high school with little to no experience of science. Indeed, the removal of National Curriculum tests for Key Stage 2 science has resulted in less emphasis in the subject for primary school teachers (SCORE, 2013). This can propose an additional problem for teachers in the science departments. As there is no assessment for science at Key Stage 2, the setting of students into classes to suit their abilities primarily arises from their exit grades in Maths and English, both of which are non-practical based subjects.

At Key Stage 3, students are ‘gently’ exposed to the three main branches of the natural sciences, i.e., biology, chemistry and physics, although the lessons may not be defined specifically to the subject, rather it is often called ‘Science’. At this stage, students are taught the relationship between known natural theoretical concepts and the practical observations and factual evidence that supports it. Students also begin to understand how to conduct practicals safely and learn how to use more complex practical equipment.

At Key Stage 4, the teaching of the sciences is often separated into the three main branches, i.e., biology, chemistry and physics, and are taught by subject specialist teachers. Students begin to link theory and concepts learnt to practicals that support their findings. They will also start to develop ways in which to write scientifically, although as mentioned above, at this Stage no coursework is set.

Changes to the Science Curriculum

Before the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988, science education was not really defined in any meaningful way and students were allowed to study a science of their choice. The teaching of science was up to the subject specific teachers. However, there was growing concerns over the ‘need for accountability’.

Questions regarding the validity of the National Curriculum have continually risen. For example, how broad should the teaching of science be? Should the teaching of the sciences only cover the three main branches, i.e., biology, chemistry and physics? Furthermore, where should subjects such as geology, psychology and archaeology be placed?

With the change of government in 2010, the National Curriculum underwent another change, with the teaching of the sciences now focussing on a more knowledge-based, conservative approach. Changes were also made to the examination of students at Key Stage 4 were also made, whereby students are now only allowed to resit any examination once and all coursework was removed in favour of ‘controlled assessments’, i.e., summative assessments.

Summary and Conclusions

This post has explored and analysed some of the identities and pedagogy of the scientific subjects and has focussed in particular on chemical education at Key Stages 3-5, with a short reflection on the teaching of the subject at Key Stages 1 and 2.

It is interesting to note that traditional science teaching is often primarily focussed on discovering and learning facts that are known, therefore, perpetuating the image that it is the teacher who has access to infallible knowledge. However, what is not really shown to students at any of the five Key Stages is that scientific research combines the discovery of objective and measurable facts about the natural world and provides new concepts to be able to predict and describe those facts. Therefore, the teaching of science must be able to show how an individual can acquire valid and useful knowledge that is always subject to change in the light of new evidence and reasoning. As an example, the development of our understanding of the atom.

With regards to assessments, it is becoming more and more apparent that the type and use of assessments, and ultimately summative assessments, are guiding the content of the subject. This observation is not exclusively related to the sciences. Does this mean that public examination boards are dictating the subject content and if so, what level of accountability do they have with the social and economic development of a country?

It is quite clear that public examination boards have been given greater and greater responsibility in deciding what content should be taught, how it is taught and on what particular timescale. For example, at one particular public examination board, OCR, provides educators with a plethora of teaching resources as well as a scheme of work (OCR, 2015). Consequently, these public examination boards are deciding on what is relevant to society now and in the future.

References

National curriculum in England (2013). Department for Education, United Kingdom.

OCR. (2015). AS and A Level – Chemistry A – H032, H432 (from 2015) – OCR. [online]
Available at: http://www.ocr.org.uk/qualifications/as-a-level-gce-chemistry-a-h032-h432-from-2015/assessment/ [Accessed 25 Feb. 2018].

SCORE. (2013). Primary: Resourcing Practical Science in schools. Report available online at: http://score-education.org/media/11808/score%20resourcing%20primary.pdf

SCORE. (2015). SCORE policy report – The sciences at key stage 4: time for a re-think? Report available at: http://score-education.org/media/17187/des3620_score_sciences%20at%20ks4%20final.pdf

Wellington, J. and Ireson, G. (2012). Science Learning, Science Teaching. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.

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