The “cutting edge” lecture for schools: help or hindrance?

Like many colleagues, I quite often give talks for sixth form groups about recent developments within my subject specialism. There are plenty of good reasons for doing so: sharing enthusiasm for your discipline; encouraging prospective students to go to university (ideally your University); bring students, and their teachers, up to date on the latest developments in the field.

However, it is in regard of the last of these points that I’ve had increasing concern. These worries are prompted by my experience marking past papers completed by my son during his recent round of exam revision. In science subjects in particular the markschemes are very prescriptive and inflexible, they don’t seem to allow for a candidate to expand upon the expected points. There is no room for crediting knowledge over and above faithful regurgitation of the core content. That would be bad enough, but my bigger concern is that introducing the students to knowledge which more up to date than the specifications might actually lead them to give a rich and factually correct response penalised because it disagrees with the anticipated answer.

What content might fall into this trap? The most obvious examples would be developments in stem cell biology, especially innovations associated with induced pluripotent stem cells. Granted this work has now led to a Nobel Prize, but I expect many markers will not have kept pace with the field. Similarly, other areas of genetics may have moved faster than the “official” A level line.

I will continue to give lectures for schools, the benefits definitely outweigh the risks, but I do carry this gnawing worry. Maybe an examiner out there can put my mind at ease about this (maybe not).

What IS the most important scientific breakthrough of last fifty years?


It seems odd to accuse the BBC of “hiding” a television programme in a prime time slot on their flagship channel, but amidst the hype for their┬áChristmas schedule I saw no advertising whatsoever for the latest Robert Winston vehicle How Science Changed Our World (BBC1, 20:00, 23rd December, 60 mins). This is a huge pity because the documentary shone an engaging spotlight on ten important scientific advances of the past 50 years.

Robert Winston chooses his list of the top ten scientific breakthroughs of the past 50 years

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