Science Education in Europe: Plotting a course for the future?

Somewhat belatedly I have been catching up on a couple of reports about the future of Science teaching in Europe. Both were prompted by widespread concern that school science in its present form is not meeting the needs of society for the 21st Century. The decline in students’ attitudes towards science – apparently universal across Europe – is a particular worry.

Science Education Now: A renewed pedagogy for the future of Europe was published in 2007 and Science Education in Europe: Critical reflections in 2008

Published in 2007, Science Education Now: A renewed pedagogy for the future of Europe was written at the behest of the European Commission with the specific objective “to examine a cross-section of on-going initiatives and to draw from them elements of know-how and good practive that could bring about a radical change in young people’s interest in science” (p2).

The second paper, Science Education in Europe: Critical reflections follows on from two seminars held in 2006 at the Nuffield Foundation in London. The final report was published in January 2008.

It is not my intention to analyse the documents in detail; both are written in a clear and accessible style, and at only approximately 30 pages each they are eminently worthy of your direct consideration. Here instead I will reflect on a couple of the major issues that struck me as I read the reports.

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What is the purpose of science education?

A fundamental problem relating to science education is apparent from the outset; namely the objective of the whole process. There has long been a tension between ‘school science as foundational knowledge for future scientists’ and ‘school science as a mean of equipping the general citizen for engagement with science as they will encounter it in everyday life’.

In most countries science is now compulsory and as such, it is argued, the emphasis must be on the second of the two aims – i.e. promoting scientific literacy for all. Osborne and Dillon, authors of the Nuffield report, see this as warranted on both moral and economic grounds – it is poor management of resources to flog the majority for a programme geared for the minority who will take science to a higher level.

This was the motivation of the major GCSE curriculum changes that took place in the UK from October 2006, with much more emphasis placed on the understanding the process of science  – “How Science Works” – than on fact regurgitation. Advocates of the changes point out that the new curriculum benefits both the general student and the future scientist, though the latter will need additional instruction to establish the core knowledge necessary for higher study.

Critics have suggested that the baby has been jettisoned with the bathwater, that the new approach is “more suitable to the pub than the classroom“. I suspect that many of my science colleagues would intuitively feel nearer this latter position. Of course no-one is yet able to measure the effect on future scientists; the first students that took the new GCSE specifications will not start undergraduate courses until September 2010 at the earliest. I have genuine expectations that we will encounter a new breed of more science-savvy students from the autumn.

Of course one of the perennial dilemmas in education in general,but particularly science education, is whether we will be afforded time to see the current developments through before some new government initiative will force additional changes to be made. Like incoming Students’ Union sabbatical officers, new political leaders have an overwhelming desire to do something differently and thereby leave their legacy, but it does make it difficult to tell which innovations were genuinely beneficial when nothing is left to run its course.

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Induction v Deduction, Inquiry v Instruction

There are some nice metaphors in the reports; I particularly like the analogy given by Osborne and Dillon that much traditional science teaching is like “being on a train with blacked-out windows – you know you are going somewhere but only the train driver knows where” (p8). Both documents hold that this type of deductive, “top-down” transmission delivers fragments of knowledge whose relevance does not become clear until you have got to your destination; if you fall by the wayside before reaching that point then it will never make any sense. Apparently random snippets of information hold no appeal for all except quiz addicts, and thus the majority, especially girls, switch off.

Instead, inquiry-based science education (IBSE) is advocated, a model in which a structured problem, ideally with a hands-on or practical dimension, comes first and then students are encouraged to develop their critical thinking and reflection skills whilst formulating an understanding of what is going on.

This latter approach has much going for it, but there are significant difficulties in adopting pedagogy of this kind. One problem is the fact it is fundamentally different to traditional approaches – you cannot get to it by minor tweaks of current practice. Secondly, ‘correct’ scientific interpretations do not always flow intuitively from observation. Thirdly, if IBSE is to avoid descent into “the blind leading the blind” it requires the science teacher to feel confident in their own underlying knowledge of the subject and in their classroom management skills, such that they will allow free-flowing discussion to occur before pulling together the salient points at the end.

This is a major sticking point. Combined with research that shows attitudes towards science are frequently cast in stone before the age of 14, a pivotal role is played by the primary school teacher. We know that relatively few primary school teachers have science backgrounds and many feel uncomfortable with even straightforward scientific experiments. There is thus a vital role to be played in equipping primary school teachers for this task. Good work is being done – both papers put a spotlight on the POLLEN programme, an initiative in 12 European countries trialling continuing professional development for primary school teachers in a way that will be scaleable across the wider community.

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Careers from Science > Careers in Science

The final point that struck a chord with me was the need to convey to students that studying science can lead on to more varied (and more interesting) careers than simply wearing a white coat and working in a lab. Osborne and Dillon talk about an emphasis on Careers from science not just Careers in science. This is one of the things I am trying to convey to undergraduate scientists through the Careers After Biological Science seminar programme where we try to include a blend of ‘obvious’ and less obvious careers that can follow advance study of science (see our sister site biosciencecareers for more details). A rung or two further down the educational ladder I take it that this is also the goal of the scienceandmaths.net programme currently being advertised in cinema trailers before the feature film.

Development of appropriate curricula, appropriate pedagogy, appropriate assessement tasks and appropriately-trained teachers are going to be crucial in producing scientifically-literate societies and socially-literate scientists in the 21st Century.

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3 Comments

  1. What about the thought that promoting “science” in any sort of academic context (primary, secondary or HE) is in conflict with the general lack of regard for science/scientists in most western societies – surely some disconnect here? Like incoming Students’ Union sabbatical officers, I wouldn’t expect politicians to be guilty of joined up thinking, but surely not much will be achieved unless this discontinuity is resolved?

    • Is this a chicken and egg situation? Is science held in low regard because it is poorly understood?


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