Sunday, 22 January 2012

Science in Welsh schools

Wales has been a branch manufacturing outpost for the best part of 40 years. With ever increasing global competition in terms of wages, production costs and skills – Wales needs to adapt faster than ever before and start to think hard about the quality of the products we produce. If we want Wales to attract, create and retain highly-skilled, high-IP potential, high value added jobs in research & development it has to start at the bottom.

We need a critical examination of the science and technology curriculum in our schools to ensure Wales can remain competitive. From a nationalist perspective, this could also help Wales become ever more self-sustaining economically.

In 2010 the previous Welsh Government announced that a "National Science Academy" would be set up, led by the then Deputy Minister for Skills (and current Health Minister) Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham). As a scientist (and a day dreaming idealist), I naïvely thought when it was mooted that this would literally be a bricks-and-mortar science academy that would attract the best-of-the-best from within Wales and abroad.

We didn't get that.

What we did get, was a £2million promotion of science subjects in schools.

"Science Academy" is pushing the envelope as a description. A "proper" National Science Academy would've been nice but even I accept that it's unlikely in the face of budget cutbacks.

The good news is that this modest approach does seem to be paying off to a certain extent. The number of separate science GCSE entries in Wales rose in 2010 according to the Western Mail, with the biggest rise in physics. Science of course isn't just confined to the traditional "big three" but can also be expanded to include maths, IT, engineering, (academic) PE and even subjects like geography and economics – so called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects.

So what else can be done?

In the critical "middle phase" of Key Stage 3 (years 7-9) science should be as engaging as possible if we want pupils to take science subjects beyond GCSE level. If you lose the pupils here, you lose them for good. At present, the science curriculum includes several cross-cutting skills such as use of ICT (Leighton Andrews has been singing the praises of ICT in schools in Twitter recently), numeracy, literacy & communication, as well as Curriculum Cymreig (which adds a Welsh/everyday life element).

Science also helps in PSE, presumably sex education in the main. At KS3 the main focus of study is on the "interdependence of organisms", "sustainable Earth" and "how things work".

The science curriculum has become more about rote learning facts and ticking learner progress boxes – making the subjects appear an awful lot harder than they actually are. While knowledge of theory and scientific facts is vital, what's also as important is developing practical skills, objectivity, logic and independent thinkers. Science is as much about that than equations, diagrams and periodic tables and probably the only reason it's a core subject at GCSE level anyway. Those skills are also transferable to many other subjects.

Science should attempt to answer questions. Open-ended individual investigations, a scientific "question of the week" and regular practical sessions could be one way to keep interest levels high. Only when the subject is taught in-depth at later stages should a more rigid science curriculum come into play. For example teachers could spend a week on "how mobile phones work" – indroducing wave physics, digital signals & technology and geosynchronisity. Go easy on the box ticking and tests, focus on the knowledge.

Science should be fun and hands-on. Yes that means it should be slightly "dangerous" and exciting. I'm not convinced that pupils need to be wrapped in cotton wool to protect school staff from frivolous law suits. Science teachers already need nerves of steel and the patience of a saint to let teenagers near gas taps, animal parts and chemicals. It might come down to a simple case of schools lacking the right resources, staff and equipment. It's great to have brand new science blocks springing up all over the place but not so if the store cupboards are empty. Developing practical scientific skills is as important as the theory. When I was in school (not so long ago) I don't believe we did anywhere near enough practical work. If practical skills aren't up to scratch by Key Stage 4/GCSE then it does seriously hinder your progress through A-Levels, university and employment. There's no better way of learning anatomy for example than actually feeling the structures and seeing what you are studying instead of a picture in text book or on a computer screen.

Science should develop independent thinkers.
Although there are plenty of black-and-white answers in scientific subjects there are also plenty of grey areas. If you can provide thoroughly researched, credible evidence to back up a theory then it's hard to be dismissed out of hand. Those pupils who think "outside the box" or read around the subject, or introduce cross curricular evidence – however wacky - are as good at science as those who know A Brief History of Time by heart. I mentioned open-ended investigations earlier – an approach taken in Scotland – and in younger year groups I think it would be a great way to develop scientific talent and scientific curiosity. That spark of curiosity today could lead to the products that Welsh companies and universities are IP-protecting and exporting around the world tomorrow.

I don't think there's that much wrong with the underlying principles of science education in Wales. At Key Stage 3 , the focus on sustainability and interdependence is very relevant to the modern World and impacts on pupil's everyday lives. But to get kids hooked on science and pursuing science into higher qualifications, the subject needs to be the highlight of the timetable.

Science shouldn't become a subject defined by political objectives (sustainability). It should be felt. It should be smelt. It should inspire and turn kid's natural curiosity into knowledge and equip them for the economic challenges the rest of the 21st century will throw at their generation and Wales.


  1. Another interesting post, but there are two points which jumped out at me:

    'The science curriculum has become more about rote learning facts and ticking learner progress boxes '

    That doesn't apply to the science curriculum, it applies to everything in education from nursery school to postgraduate study at university.

    Since 1997 (at least) there has been an obsession with trying to quantitatively measure 'performance' and meeting targets, and the who education system has been adjusted to accommodate this.

    When I studied my A Levels, we were taught the subjects in the belief that a good understanding of the subject would allow us to pass the exams. Knowledge was the goal and the exams were just an indication that we had learnt.

    Passing the exams (meeting targets) has become an end in itself, and instead of teaching people the subjects they are trained in how to pass exams. Friends of mine who work in education have confirmed this.

    Incidentally I have also seen this box ticking, target hitting culture at work in the world of work (both private and public sector) where actually doing the job is secondary to meeting the targets, hence the serious lack of resilience in the British economy and the mess we are now in.

    The second point that struck me was

    'Science should develop independent thinkers. '

    Independent thinkers make very bad box tickers, and poor target hitters. With the employment market so heavily weighted in favour of people whose primary talent is 'hitting targets' regardless of whether they actually do anything worthwhile, independent thinkers are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to finding and keeping a job.

    The other main trend in education has been to see it as preparing people to get a job, rather then gaining knowledge for its own sake, so you can see the logic of discouraging independent thinking in schools (obviously excepting the elite schools that teach their pupils to think because they will be running the UK when they grow up).

    There is also the fact that British culture, as promoted by the media and social networking sites prizes conformity over all else, and don't forget the consensus it promotes in broadly anti-science, meaning that there is yet another barrier to promoting scientific and individual thinking in schools.

    I'm not saying I agree with any of the above, I'm just pointing out the extent of the cultural shift we would need to make.

  2. I agree with both points Welsh Agenda and yes it's an uphill battle.

    My year group were the first to be subjected to "Curriculum 2000" and the amount of time we spent going over past papers and the syllabus (however useful that might well have been) in the build up to exams was bordering on the ridiculous. It was as though the teachers didn't really want to do it but felt they had to. They were as nervous as we pupils were about how we would perform and I don't think that's healthy.

    It was completely different at university level from my experience. It was more "here's the material, you're on your own" and I think that spurred us on to put the effort it. It might be harder to instill that sort of attitude in younger children though I admit.

    For some pupils preparation to "get a job" is absolutely fine, especially if they are determined to leave school at 16 or go on to vocational courses at FE Colleges. I don't have a problem with that. I agree with your point that learning should be really for it's own sake. Take university courses for example and encouraging students to do "useful degrees". I posted recently on the computer games industry - computer game design degrees are sometimes cited as examples of "doss degrees" or "mickey mouse courses" - but the contribution such skills could make to Welsh creative industries is potentially enormous.

    I think one of the easiest ways to develop independent thinkers is more self-directed learning, even in schools. I mentioned open-ended investigations as an example where the Scottish Government (and Scotland is reknowned for developing "thinkers") has sort-of introduced it. Less time with teachers being lectured and assessed, more time reading around the subject and presenting findings or arguments - corrected where necessary. I think this is an similar approach to Finland who are often praised.