Science Teaching – the continuing crisis?

The long running concerns about science and mathematics teaching and the number of students studying these subjects in this country continues but show little evidence of being resolved at all stages of education. Constant reforms and government interference further exacerbate the situation. Concerns have been expressed over a number of decades but the quantity and quality of graduates and undergraduates continues to decline and is now seriously threatening our ability to compete globally and our future prosperity as a result Having just returned from the Far East I am even more convinced that this country is not producing sufficient numbers of people qualified in the physical sciences, mathematics, statistics and engineering.  In Asia science and mathematics education are highly valued and  flourishing with students leaving schools, colleges and universities  in ever greater numbers qualified in scientific and mathematical subjects. These subjects not only underpin scientific and technological research, and innovation but equally importantly create a scientific and technologically literate society essential to life in a world that is increasingly influenced by these key strategic subjects. A scientific way of thinking is essential now and in the future.

One of the concerns about these subjects particularly in the West is: the sequencing in terms of time, specific topics and structure; how the curriculum is delivered; and how effective and lasting learning is realised. Accepting a possible cultural and historical resistance and hostility to these subjects other key factors are in play. One factor is the wide choice available in the National Curriculum where sadly too many students opt to study the subjects that involve little mathematics and science particularly the physical sciences and mathematical concepts. As has been previously reported many students perceive these subjects as difficult and see ultimately more attractive better paid occupations in law, accountancy, media etc. As a result universities and colleges continue to close or downsize departments in science, mathematics and engineering. The numbers of students studying these subjects post-16 continues to decline and at least remain relatively static. The consequences are manifest in that there is a growing mismatch between demand and supply into occupations that require qualified people in scientific and mathematical professions and craftspeople, technicians, technologists in engineering, manufacturing occupations and other areas that require these disciplines. Equally important is the fact that science is becoming multidisciplinary requiring knowledge and understanding of the physical and life sciences so an effective comprehensive science curriculum is even more essential.  Examples of these overlapping combinations can be readily seen in such disciplines as astronomy, forensic science, geology, metrology, and neuroscience.

In the US one of the current issues is the sequencing of the subjects to be taught in High Schools. At present Biology figures significantly in the first three years and only in the later stages are physics and chemistry introduced.  Many US scientists and educationalists argue that this is a damaging “upside down” approach and seriously weakens the basis of effective science teaching particularly in the physical sciences and mathematics. They argue that mathematics and physics are the foundations for all science and need to be introduced earlier in the curriculum and continue to state that the science curriculum should begin with physics and basic mathematical concepts then progress to the other sciences. Reform in the US should in the future involve the sequence P-C-B and not the current B-C-P.

In England the issues are different although many feel greater emphasis should be placed on introducing the foundations of mathematics and physics in primary and secondary education. Continual dilution of the science and mathematics syllabuses particularly at GCSE level cause additional concerns to post-school and universities who offer scientific and mathematical related subjects. Very low pass rates for grade C in mathematics GCSE (< 20%) cause great concern about the mathematical ability for students progressing onto further and higher education. Sterile debates about the depth, breath and balance of the science and maths curriculum continue at a pace and further raise concern and frustration among teachers. Arguments about single, double and separate science awards along with debates about the value of single and double awards in mathematics further undermine any real, tangible and long lasting solution to this important issue. Other issues include the lack of sufficiently qualified teachers and the relatively small numbers of newly qualified teachers entering the State system that will not be sufficient to compensate for a large number of experienced and qualified teachers who will soon retire. Whilst this issue is unresolved the country continues to fall behind its counterparts in other countries in these strategically important subjects. I rest my case.

March 2009   

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