Britain is a major player in scientific research. We have less than 1% of the world’s population, but 12% of scientific citations come from us. Yet with fewer people studying sciences in comparison to other countries, and critics constantly pointing out flaws in the science education our children receive, this may be under threat.
I have here outlined the changes in approach that I feel are necessary in order to retain our relevance on the world stage of scientific research.
Initially, focus needs to be placed upon getting children to take an interest in science from an early age. In primary schools, it is more important to develop a child’s interest in the subject than to stick to a rigid curriculum; it’s pointless to teach a syllabus if the class are falling asleep. Personally I don’t think it should be difficult as kids have a natural curiosity about the world we live in. Teachers are fully capable of tapping into this curiosity and explaining how science can answer our questions, but only if we let them.
There are plenty of good science books out there – giving pupils time in lessons to read them and then encouraging them to continue them at home is a good idea. For younger pupils the Horrible Science series is highly recommended. For older students, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything basically summarises GCSE science (plus more) in an enjoyable read. BBC iPlayer showcases many fine science programs; watching David Attenborough in class would be far more engaging then a boring revision guide. But the main focus should be on practical work – it is more obviously ‘fun’ than written work, more memorable, helps students learn kinaesthetically, and emphasises the notion that science is a practical subject, not an exercise in learning bullet points from a whiteboard.
This is the most important step: students must be given the freedom to discover things for themselves, and GCSE and A-level science syllabuses need to be broader. It is no good redesigning a curriculum for GCSE and A-level if there is no one interested enough to be there to learn it. When doing my Chemistry A-level, I used a textbook from the late 1980s. In its forward it recommended to teachers that certain chapters be self-taught by the student, so that they had enough time to cover harder sections. In our world of continuous testing and judgement, few teachers feel confident using this method today.
The exams themselves should be set in such a way that students who read around the topics (not limiting themselves to remembering a syllabus) have the opportunity to demonstrate that they have acquired knowledge on their own accord. These are the students that deserve the top grades, not those who memorise past mark schemes.