The keynotes explore the conference theme of a 5-year plan. In the morning, Tony reflects on reshaping the whole curriculum so that it’s more fit for purpose. In the afternoon, Stella looks at how an approach focussed on examination success can still lead to an enlightened science education.
Science Done Right
In business, companies who focus on immediate gain and fail to invest for the future, often lose out to those who play the longer game. In education, most schools are driven by the short term goal of exam results rather than the longer-term vision of fulfilling students’ potential. However, many thinkers have noted that time is running out for a system that justifies content-heavy curricula in terms of qualifications that guarantee good jobs. In a competitive world, when all the students have high grades, it’s the one who demonstrate transferable skills and habits of mind who gets the university place, higher apprenticeship, or plum job.
The way that exams drive the science curriculum leads to teaching by coverage and uninspired lessons (not to mention the effect on recruitment and retention). This short-term focus can also create negative long-term consequences for students. Consider a 11 year old interested in a STEM career who gets put off by secondary science. They have missed out on one of the best areas for graduate salaries, and demand for STEM is only likely to increase.
So what would a more long-term approach look like ? First, we need to replace the vague aspirations at the beginning of a specification with clear statements of accomplishments at the age of 16 that will equip students for using science in their lives. In my view, this can be crystallised into just three kinds of activity:
- Design – solve problems
- Discovery – investigating phenomena
- Decisions- judgments about issues
Engineers need to be good at Design, research scientists and curious people do Discover, and everyone in society should be able to do Decide.
To imagine a curriculum for these long-term outcomes, let’s look at how sport is taught. First students get to play the real game. Contrast that with science education. Students learn about the game, they know all its elements, but they rarely actually play it. If we’re serious about wanting students to excel at Design, Discovery and Decisions, they need to do them regularly. Most teachers would agree that problem-solving, investigations, and using issues are worth doing. The sticking point is the amount of curriculum time they takes. The UTC model where students spent a day doing authentic project work may be a step too far.
The solution might be ‘junior versions’ of the games. It turns out that most of Brazil’s great footballers honed their skills using ‘Futsal’. It has many of the elements of the real game, but fewer players, a different ball and modified rules. The combination produces an ideal training environment, challenging players skill, speed and awareness.
Junior versions of Design, Discovery and Decisions might be one lesson challenges that are designed to get students to transfer knowledge just after it’s taught, and capture the engagement and the essential thinking of the real games. Engage, in fact is a junior version of the Decisions game. Does this approach work? The evidence suggests that context-based curricula, which put more emphasis on students applying knowledge, are just as good as traditional approaches for getting good grades. In addition, they are likely to increase the chances that students will enjoy learning science. And that might matter more when it comes to their future career.
A 5-year STEM curriculum
We live in a STEM World where STEM skills are survival characteristics. 21st century citizens need to be able to make evidence based decisions that increasingly require higher order, analytical skills. The question ‘Which power company should I switch to?’ requires cognitive processing of different datasets and decision making that involves evaluation of several elements.
The reformed UK A level and GCSE science qualifications also place a greater emphasis on critical thinking skills Stella will argue that teaching to the test is not the best way for students to develop a thorough understanding and develop these sorts of skills. It is not easy to teach or easy to learn these skills and it requires a long term approach. She will demonstrate how the 5Y science plan will support deeper learning and help young people realise their potential.