Britain Takes Backward Step in Science Education

By Michael Edmonds 11/06/2012 8

According to a report in the Guardian, planned reforms in the British national science curriculum include that “children will be encouraged to learn science by studying nature, and schools will be expected to place less emphasis on teaching scientific method.”

Less focus on the scientific method. You have got to be kidding!

The report goes on to say that “There will be less of a focus on doing experiments. Instead, children will be taught to observe their surroundings and learn how scientists have classified the natural world.”

So, in essence they want to teach children that science is a series of facts, rather than a process of investigation. Sigh.

It seems to me that this is just an excuse to save money on science equipment. Instead of doing experiments children will be sent off to observe their (cost free) surroundings. The long term effects of this ill considered redesign of science teaching does not bode well for the UK. I certainly hope our government never considers changing our curriculum to embrace an approach to science that scientists and science educators have been arguing against for decades.

8 Responses to “Britain Takes Backward Step in Science Education”

  • Sounds like good ol’ nature studies to me -back to the days of a nature table in every classroom & no other science than that.

    mind you, Michael, experiments for the sake of being able to say ‘our students are ‘doing’ science’ isn’t necessarily much better. Not if they’re ‘cookbook’ experiments with everything predetermined. No real learning about the nature of science there

  • Many ancient Greek scientists tried the “observation only” route (doing physical work (experiments) was for slaves and ‘beneath’ the upper class…) – in many cases, their conclusions were wrong (eg: optics, ballistics, gravity…).
    Experimenting and the ‘method’ are the essence of science; without them, you can barely call it ‘”science”. (All science is either physics or stamp-collecting; this barely classes as stamp-collecting…)

  • I’m going to respectfully disagree with you here, Michael. I think that the modern emphasis on learning process rather than learning information sometimes goes too far, and that actually both are necessary. My views are somewhat influenced by observing my own lad, who has no difficulty in absorbing lots of information (historical dates, events, geological time scale, names of dinosaurs and so on) but doesn’t really get much opportunity to use it in his heavily process-oriented education.
    I think observational skills are foundation skills that should precede trying to apply scientific method. I’m not really convinced that teaching children scientific method in isolation from developing a rich understanding of the world around them, built on observational skills, is the way to go.

    Readers here probably already know about the Science Award Trust scheme for enriching science education up to Year 10, but I’ll link to it here anyway. I can thoroughly recommend the Science Badge scheme. The activities are a good mixture of just increasing children’s interest in a particular topic, along with doing their own little research projects, simple experiments, and, yes, good old fashioned observation.

  • Carol, I’m going to respectfully agree with you, at least partially.
    I agree that there is certainly great value in both learning information (including rote learning) and in observation, but we need to get a balance with the understanding that science IS a process.
    Perhaps in the UK they have overfocused on process and left out observational and information learning and this is a measure to rebalance it. If that is the case then perhaps the changes are a good thing.
    And of course observational studies still should apply the scientific method when trying to understand what observations can and can’t tell us
    Thanks for the info about the Science Award Trust Scheme. I tihnk there will be many who are not aware of such schemes. I tihnk there are often lots of excellent science activities going around the place which unfortunately not everyone knows about. Thanks for sharing the link

  • Imagine a group of children out ‘wherever’ doing their observing, but with mobile devices, smart phones or tablets, or with sensors. Today, observation can go hand in hand (no pun intended) with mobile devices that will let children interact with their environment, and with knowledge, in ways that can stimulate their interest and learning making the division between ‘observation’, process, knowledge exploration rather meaningless. Children are growing up in a screen mediated world so science has fantastic opportunities to grow a new cohort of explorers, at a much younger age than previously possible.

  • Stephen Curry, who writes at Occam’s Typewriter, has suggested that this Telegraph (blog) article might be a fair look at it –

    Carol: that badge scheme reminds me of the Australian CSIRO publication I reviewed a while back; my memory is patchy but I must be thinking that they were running something similar.

    FWIW, shouldn’t observational skills and the testing thing go together (it doesn’t have to be formal ‘scientific method’ at early ages).

  • My experience of school science fairs used to have me chomping a bit. The kids had to have a hypothesis, then they designed an experiment to test it, then they decided whether their hypothesis was a good one or not. ie – dare I say – right or wrong. I could not get my head around this as the majority of times the kids had the wrong thoughts about their hypothesis. It seemed to me a lot easier for a kid to go out and observe something, gather the data then have a look at it and then say something about the observations that they discovered. This method means that there was always something to learn from it. And more importantly, they discovered it themselves.

    I hope that that is what the emphasis on studying nature might be meaning.