Science teachers are scientists too

Martin Ince on the Royal Society’s Vision for science and mathematics education.

science lessonWhat should science education do for the UK’s school students, and for the nation as a whole? This was the question addressed earlier this year by a high-level group of experts at the Royal Society, the UK’s academy of science. What they came up with was a Vision for science and mathematics education that incorporates a sweeping range of evidence-based answers.

One of the group’s findings is that people don’t go to school for long enough to learn all they need for a successful life in the modern world. So they have called for the school-leaving age to be raised to 18 for everyone, and for science and maths to form part of the curriculum throughout. The idea is partly to enhance the UK’s supply of scientists, and indeed science teachers. But more important is the need to ensure that everyone in society can understand basic scientific facts and scientific reasoning, so they can make sense of everything from climate change to homeopathy.

Perhaps even more interesting are the group’s findings about how science teaching connects to specific disciplines. If you go to a conference of mathematicians or geologists and ask them about their own scientific profession, they will probably not mention teachers in their reply. The Vision calls for far greater integration of science teachers into their discipline organisations. Over time, there would be subject-specific career development for science teachers and technicians. This might also encourage more people with outside experience to become science and maths teachers as a natural stage in their career.

The Vision also calls for the teaching profession itself to build its own capacity and scope, and to enhance its standing in society. All science teachers should be qualified in both science and teaching, and should upgrade their knowledge of both areas throughout their career. They should also be supported by well-paid and properly employed technicians.

More striking still (and taking up a theme expressed in different ways by many Perspectives contributors), the group called for a sweeping depoliticisation of school science, and by extension other school subjects. They want a new system in which both curriculum content and assessment methods are put into expert hands. New professional bodies for England and Wales, and strengthened ones in Scotland and Northern Ireland, would work with the science community and others to stabilise curricula and assessment methods, changing them only rarely. This implicitly means that change would be in response to new knowledge, not political fashion. One beneficial effect would be to allow teachers to carry out their own innovation instead of spending time responding to initiatives from elsewhere. In addition, the Vision recommends involving teachers more closely with their local science centres, so that their enthusiasm can be transmitted to the whole community, not just school students.

The Royal Society is actively taking its message forward and recognises that the solutions it is proposing will have validity well beyond the science and maths arena. It is discussing the findings with bodies such as the British Academy, which represents the humanities and the social sciences, as well as academies covering medicine and engineering.

Martin Ince is a science journalist and he helped edit the Royal Society’s Vision for science and mathematics education.

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