The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment have revealed their new syllabi for senior biology, physics and chemistry. The concurrent release of the syllabi is no coincidence and marks a new direction for senior cycle science in Ireland, or so they promise. The NCCA have also formally opened a consultation process on the new syllabi, asking teachers, parents, students and members of the science community to comment on the content and approach outlined in their documents.
There has obviously been changes to the content of each of the syllabi but the biggest change in approach to senior cycle science is the introduction of a practical component in the assessment procedures for each of the subjects. Twenty percent of a pupils total mark in each of the subjects will be awarded based on the completion of mandatory practicals throughout the two years of study (5%) and a 90 minute practical test (15%) where pupils will be asked to complete a series of three or four short set tasks, assessing their practical skills and ability to analyse data and draw conclusions. Some of the material within this practical assessment will be beyond the scope of the syllabus.
A brief look at the syllabi reveals plenty use of "copy and paste" between them (the most obvious of this is in the assessment procedures of each syllabus, which are so alike they all are entitled "ASSESSMENT IN LEAVING CERTIFICATE BIOLOGY"). The key skills targeted in each syllabus are appropriate and laudable (the key skills are identified as information processing, being personally effective, communicating, critical and creative thinking and working with others). I applaud the use of terms like "design", "apply knowledge", "interpret", "discuss" and "analyse" in the learning outcomes of each syllabus but I am concerned that the syllabi is still very teacher driven and exam orientated.
I wrote a post recently in my personal blog, More Stress Less Success, on the need to bring wonder back into science education. I am somewhat dismayed by the lack of wonder in these syllabi and their very tight and confined structures. Where is the scope for research projects or study beyond the syllabus? The new physics course finally mentions the word "space" in the syllabus (four times!) yet there is no mention of astronomy nor any compulsory astronomical study. The space section is so short it is likely to be one of the shortest chapters in the new overly priced textbooks that will accompany the syllabus. The word "quantum" does not appear in the physics syllabus. The particle physics option appears to have been removed (except for a brief note on "the operation and applications of particle accelerators") but an introduction to seismology is a welcome sight.
In the new biology syllabus there appears to a further "dumbing down" of biochemical reactions like photosynthesis, respiration and protein synthesis while the addition of some discussion on the ethics of stem cell research is mentioned (the word stem cell is mentioned once in the syllabus), most of the content has merely been tinkered with. The terms "bioinformatics" and "GM organisms" are mentioned, which is admirable, and there is a great focus on gathering and analysing data.
The chemistry syllabus too has merely been tinkered with, when analysed carefully, and I am particularly dismayed by the listed learning outcomes here. Unlike the biology and physics syllabi, the new chemistry syllabus overly uses the terms "define", "state", "explain" and "outline" within their learning outcomes - terms all to often associated and used in examinations. The only real addition I can see in the new syllabus is a short section on forensic science.
This post is not about putting out my views on a new syllabi - that I will do within the framework of the consultation process. There is plenty good in these documents, principally the methods which they hope to promote and the key skills they wish to cultivate. But I will say that so much more can and should be done to bring wonder back into the science classroom.
This post is about encouraging everyone who is interested in science education to comment on each of the syllabi, using the online surveys provided by the NCCA. Each survey asks if any of the content should be removed, reviewed or if new content could be added to the syllabus. It is so important that the consultation process is open and thorough. Members of the Irish Science Teachers Association will discuss the syllabi in September in their local branches but it is also so important that members of the Irish science community, parents and individual citizens, with an interest in science education, review and assess these in terms of our scientific vision for the future.
Please visit the Senior Cycle Science Consultation page and do your bit to change our approach to science education for the better.
One final thought - it is a shame the NCCA are not rolling out a new agricultural science syllabus at the same time as the other sciences. It would have made enormous sense. The current agricultural science curriculum is over 40 years old and grossly outdated.
We hope to produce and publish a podcast in the coming weeks discussing the new syllabi. If you are interested in taking part please email firstname.lastname@example.org.