Why do we need a science education?

Next week I am going to be spending a lot of time re-writing, updating and improving schemes of work, which will set out our approach to science for the next academic year and beyond.

Before doing this I wanted to take a step back from it all and ask ‘why do we need to learn about science?’ Here are some things I found, and what I think about them. I would love to hear your views too.

Firstly I asked the experts. From a group of year 8s I heard that science “… can help me get a job” and that “nearly everything in life needs science”. I agree with them:

  • Knowledge: Modern society is built on scientific ideas and progress. Having an understanding of science enables people to shape and contribute their views about how our society should be. This includes taking part in debate and voting.
  • Opportunity: The skills developed through science lead to a lot of job opportunities. There are all the jobs that science leads directly to (think doctor, pharmacist, nuclear physicist, medicine, manufacturing), and additionally the problem solving skills make science graduates suitable for a huge range of jobs from agriculture to politics.
  • Life skills: Developing the ability to apply a logical, rational approach to problems equips students with functional skills for daily life.

My favourite answer to the question came from a year 12 physicist who said “… our world wouldn’t be as awesome without science”

But do the majority of students feel this?

What stops students engaging with science?

My first thoughts, and those of colleagues I asked, was that students were less interested in science, and generally fail to see the relevance of a science GCSE. This view is supported by a UNESCO report which said that “…while the position of mathematics is well established with its own logic and approaches, the case of science in basic education is rather different … its position in classroom practice is less well established…”

A quick survey of science teachers I know came up with the following reasons for the apparent lack of engagement:

  • Science is difficult. Those that can’t do it well get disheartened
  • There is too much content to remember
  • It is hard to find a central theme to science (it seems ‘all over the place’) especially compared to English or Maths where students are more aware of the key skills and knowledge they need
  • Lessons seem unrelated to each other as science is such a broad subject
  • Pupils become unengaged by tasks that do not link clearly to the topic (eg experiments that do not really show anything)

I wasn’t so convinced that students are really that unengaged by science. Is this backed up by evidence? The first step was to conduct a quick survey of attitudes to science in my own school (inner-city London).

LikertUsing this Likert scale, the responses showed that students agreed with the statement ‘I think that it is important to know about science in the modern world’ with a score of 7.5. An interesting finding was that for the statement ‘I enjoy learning about science’ set 1 overall agreed with a score of 6.9, whilst set 3 were more neutral with 5.6 average response. Although not overwhelmingly, the results do suggest students have a generally positive view of science, and that the most successful students enjoy the subject more.

The National Foundation for Education gave me further reasons to be optimistic with their report ‘Science education – have we missed what we are good at?’  which found that “… in the recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results England is clearly in the band of countries doing well” and interestingly that “… nearly all year 9 students who answered the TIMSS background questionnaire in England (92 per cent) agreed that it is important to do well in science.” which compares very favorably in international comparisons.

The Wellcome Trust Monitor (2010) results were even more promising, finding that “… over half of all young people surveyed thought that science was more interesting than English and maths, and the majority found science lessons interesting”. They also found that over 40% of students found science ‘boring’ and that there was a link between those who found it boring and those who found it difficult.

From this reading I strengthened my view that the system of science education is not ‘broken’. Radical changes are not needed. What we do works. However, we do not do it consistently enough. Ensuring higher level of consistency and improving standards in what we do will have a bigger impact. The areas of concern from the report are that uptake of science falls post-16, and that 7% of our students fail to hit the minimum expected standard in science at GCSE level, which is an unacceptable failing.

One of our year 10 students summed up what we need to remember when planning schemes of work for next year: “Some things I do not understand in science make it harder for me to like and learn science.” Addressing this and helping students to recognise their successes will enable all our students get the science education they deserve.

To end, here is a great video by Alom Shaha asking “Why Science?”

Let me know what you think: @Mr_Gillett or below

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious – the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
Albert Einstein,

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.”
Claude Lévi-Strauss


4 thoughts on “Why do we need a science education?”

  1. Agree with much of what you say. Recommend completing masters in science education at UCL IOE or King’s as IMHO the intensive teacher training course you did would be even better if you all learned more about the field of science education.

    1. Glad you agree with this in the main part – interested in what you specifically agree or disagree with? My ITT worked well for me – and continued support, CPD, reading and ongoing learning about science education over the last 5 years helped my pedagogy to really develop.

  2. An interesting read, thanks. As a science teacher I would obviously wish to make a strong case for the importance of science education, and I would be interested to read more about your planned changes to your curriculum. I also wonder what your views would be on courses more geared towards science literacy, for those students who really felt that a career or further studies in science weren’t for them.

    1. Thanks for the comment Adam. The latest blog entry (A science mastery curriculum) is about how we are approaching the curriculum changes, so have a look at that. Even students who dont want to do science beyond GCSE will benefit from the skills and knowledge they will gain.

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