Putting Wonder Back into Science Education

Fellow science teacher and blogger Noel Cunningham, from King's Hospital School in Dublin, recently wrote an excellent blog post on the "Wonder in Science - And Why We Hide It". In the post he bemoans the inherent lack of wonder in the Irish science syllabi, both at junior and senior cycle, revealing our science curricula as boring and dull. He later posted an apology to students of second level science everywhere, past present and future, for putting them through the ordeal he so elequently describes here:
We educators take this incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called science and distil it until all the wonder has been removed and we are left with nothing but a heap of dry shavings. We then pour this into our syllabus and textbooks and make our students learn it off by heart so that it can all get vomited back up come exam time. And then we wonder why so many young people don’t like science.
I would like to add my own voice to that apology because I too am "a cog in this horrible machine". I too turned my back on true science and asked my pupils to learn by memorising, regurgitating facts and formulas for tests and exams. I too stifled the wonder in science, in exchange for exam success, "results" if you can call them that. In recent years I have endeavoured to bring wonder back into my science classroom, using the Frog Blog as the main tool, to reveal science as the ever evolving and living subject that it is - not a collection of facts, equations and dull "experiments" as portrayed by the syllabi and textbooks. 

Last week I attended the Atlantic STEM Conference and Leo Enright, the conference chair, made the point that the NCCA were doing "great things" in bringing the science curricula in line with the economic needs of the country - developing the "future skills for future jobs". The extraordinary claim was made during a debate on promoting sciences in second level schools and I simply had to interject. The NCCA's last offering was the 2003 revised syllabus for junior science, which is universally regarded as a dull and lifeless representation of my life passion. The syllabus is too broad, still too exam focused and the practical component is a mere gesture  rather than any concerted effort to bring true investigation into our science classrooms. It is so devoid of wonder and awe that it fails to ignite even the most inquisitive mind. For example, there is no mention of space in the syllabus, no astronomy whatsoever! Why? Are they afraid that pupils might find this interesting and then ignore the section of conservation of matter or, heaven forbid, forget that V = R X I? 

The junior science syllabus needs urgent review - URGENT! It is sapping the energy out of our pupils, making them turn away from science at senior cycle. Unfortunately, those that do make it to senior cycle science pretty much get exactly the same treatment in their final two years.

At senior cycle, the NCCA introduced a "new" biology syllabus in 2001, two "new" syllabi in 1999 (chemistry and physics) and a "new" agricultural science syllabus sometime in the 1960's (no one teaching it currently was around when it was introduced so the date is a little hazy - incidentally a even "newer" ag science syllabus was submitted to the NCCA for review, and according to their website they are still reviewing it, 15 years ago!!). But of course science hasn't moved on in these fields since then, right? Em, no. 

Of course, the advances in science over the past 10 - 12 years have been enormous. A greater understanding of the workings of nature has resulted in new fields of study being developed - genetics, genomics, epigenetics, nanoscience. None of these are reflected in the senior cycle syllabi, despite the fact that Ireland leads the way in many of these fields. The Large Hadron Collider has provided physicists with a deeper knowledge of particles physics but again this hasn't made it into any new revised syllabus (again there is no mention of space in the LC physics syllabus). GM crops are playing an enormous role in food production worldwide yet are not mentioned in our agricultural science syllabus, not to mention the role the EU has to play on Irish agriculture (Ireland hadn't joined the EEC when our Ag science syllabus was written).

We need a way of incorporating new advances in science into our curricula and allowing pupils explore and discuss these advances in class. We also need teachers to keep up to date with current happenings in the world of science and to not be afraid to express their own passion for science in the classroom and remove the "expert" hat that many feel they need to wear in class. No teacher knows everything about their subject, especially in a subject that is continually evolving like science which reveals new discoveries daily and disproves many strongly supported theories annually.

I find science enthralling - it's why I became a science teacher - yet I see what I have done to discredit the subject I teach too. Science teachers have a huge responsibility in revealing the wonder of science to their pupils and it is not fair to hide behind a deeply flawed syllabus and use it as an excuse for dull science lessons. There is no law against going beyond the confines of the syllabi - exploring new fields of science with your pupils and learning along the way too.

I'll finish with one more point and that is our assessment procedures at junior and senior cycle. We are still extremely exam orientated and continually reward regurgitation and memorisation of facts and figures. Our assessment procedures do little to encourage critical thinking, a highly sought after skill by multinationals and the backbone of our government's recovery plan, preferring to ask thoughtless, closed repetitive questions. Why are there so few discussion questions asked in science exams. Why are there so few questions asking pupils to critically assess a passage or a series of results in an unseen investigation? Why aren't pupils asked to review a news paper report on a new finding in science and to ascertain how it could be of benefit to mankind. We need to change how we assess our pupils learning, not by seeing how many definitions they know or if they remember a formula but how they see the world of science working in a real sense and to see if they can cast a critical eye over it. Our assessment at junior and senior cycle is putting our young people off science and putting enormous pressure on our teachers to abandon the wonder in science and focus on exam success.

We need change, urgent and tangible change. We need our syllabi to reflect what is happening in the world of science and match our curricular objectives with those of industry and our government. I made the point at the Atlantic Conference that people like Professor Patrick Cunningham, our Chief Science Advisor, should be advising the NCCA on the content and objectives of our science curricula. But we actually need the entire scientific community, universities, research groups, the media & representative organisations to get involved in creating syllabi that bring wonder and awe back into the science classroom, that get kids excited about science again and that ultimately foster critical thinking and a true appreciation of the wonderful world of science. 


Jeremy Stone said…
What an excellent and thought provoking piece. You echo my sentiments exactly. It is a real case of 'tail wagging dog' when our efforts as honest educators are shackled by an overly prescriptive syllabus and the tyranny of marking schemes.
Roy Wright said…
The remark about turning the "incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called science" into "a heap of dry shavings," and really the rest of your post, are very reminiscent of a little essay titled "A Mathematician's Lament" by Paul Lockhart. You might find it worth taking a look at.
Unknown said…
Thanks for your comments folks - see more comments on my personal blog: http://www.morestresslesssuccess.ie/2011/03/putting-wonder-back-into-science.html (I have taken the liberty of reproducing your comments there too)
Roy Wright said…
I forgot to mention that "A Mathematician's Lament," also sometimes called "Lockhart's Lament," is available as a PDF (with some slight typographical errors) here and there on the web, if you Google the title.

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