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Rowena Hopkins

Relevance of the science curriculum

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I've already made comment on this (in the section on international schools) but John seems to think my views might provoke debate so here goes :lol:

I spent 3 1/2 years working in Rwanda as a Chemistry teacher before returning to complete a Science PGCE in Oxford. In short I was horrified to discover that I had so many misconceptions of science teaching and students in the UK. In fact I wrote and appologised to my exstudents for suggesting that students in the UK were in any way harder working or better scientists than they were. In fact, in general, I found the situation in Britain to be worse.

In Rwanda the teachers were largely unqualified and inexperienced. Their English was often not exactly top notch either. The facilities were limited (understatement of the century) and the students were used to either copying down notes from the black board or from the teacher dictating from a book.

I inevitably had to do a fair bit of that myself just to ensure that they had the material to learn from, but I dedicated a large part of my time to teaching practical work, thinking skills and self teaching exercises. They hated this of course because it was relatively strenuous and I was far more likely to notice a student sleeping if I was facilitating a practical than scribbling on a board. They slowly came round though and although I felt that i spent an inordinate amount of time just giving them facts they came away from the classes a little more able to think for themselves. A skill particularly useful in a country where hundreds of thousands of people were co-erced to commit genocide simply becasue no-one ever questioned authority.

I came back to England expecting students to be free thinking lively individuals who appreciated their fine teachers and great facilities. I found GCSE students who would rather copy from a text book than perform a practical because a) text book work required less effort and b ) practicals always gave the 'wrong' results. In a test centred society you need to acquire knowledge in the most energy effective way possible and it is far easier to gain the information from a book or a teacher than it is to contemplate a 'failed'experiment.

I would argue that the failure of an experiment would teach them for more about the nature of science than any number of successful ones but they aren't interested in anything that doesn't bear a direct relationship to the marks they get from their multiple choice tests...and frankly who would blame them. 12 years ago I felt the same way and since then nothing has changed.

I was inclined to blame their apparent lethargy on the fact that they are teenagers, but take the same group of teenagers and place them into an English or Geography class and suddenly you've got a group of active interested individuals.

Yes, my teaching could well have been to blame, particularly beraing in mind that I was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of teaching the blast furnace and extraction of Aluminium from Bauxite. However having observed many other classes the teachers who were popular were not the ones who waxed lyrical about scientific discoveries and the history of science, but the ones who made learning the facts required to pass the tests easy.

I ran a series of KS3 lessons on the periodic table where we made predictions based on trends, modelled and experimented. At theend of the two weeks a group of girls approached me about the fact thet I wasn't teaching them properly becasue I wasn't telling them the answers. When I suggested that there weren't any 'answers' one of them nearly burst into tears. This was a top set class.

So the point of all of this waffle is that I believe that we should pretty much scrap science teaching as it stands up til ages 15 and teach them thinking skills, philosophy and the history of science. And ban bloody multiple choice tests! Right now I don't think that we are actually teaching them science in science classes, just factual recal that happens to relate to science. I learnt more about cause and effect, predictions, planning and learning from experience from studying GCSE history than I did from GCSE science and the curriculum has not undergone an amazing transformation since then.

There are of course teachers out there who aginst the odds are managing to teach some genuine science in between all the waffle and the cramming but this should be rule and not the exception.

If we are genuinely trying to train the scinetists of the future then lets teach the kids some science, or even better lets facilitate their own learning of it. However, if we just want to fill in some time 3 days a week lets carry on the way we are but lets call it SIC (scientific information cramming).

Scientists are by nature people who have thoughts which are contrary to norm and yet we are teaching kids to expect the world to follow simple rules and indeed not to question them. This is hardly going to nurture a generation of Einsteins!

I'll end there before you fall asleep :blink:

Rowena

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Guest Adrian Dingle

Rowena

The great strength of this (and other) forum(s) is that it can bring together people from different ends of the same spectrum. I have largely the exact opposite view to you on the science teaching continuum.

In a nutshell here are some of my views. (I should add that I see the merit in all points of view and that individual circumstances clearly dictate ones opinions and methods and that under no circumstances am I denigrating other points of view).

I would argue that the failure of an experiment would teach them for more about the nature of science than any number of successful ones but they aren't interested in anything that doesn't bear a direct relationship to the marks they get from their multiple choice tests

1. I do not believe that Science teaching in high school is ANYTHING to do with real science. In real science, experiments are conducted where the "answers" are NOT known, in high school all the answers ARE known. High school laboratory procedures are not research. I've always hated doing any experiments in class that produce "wrong" results. I have to spend so much of my time explaining stuff to the kids that get confused by their results, that the point of the lab is often lost.

2. Standardized testing (exams) are the only way we have of objectively assessing kids. Intelligent proponents of standardized testing (like me) fully understand the narrow meaning that can be drawn from exam results, but nevertheless understand that thy do tell us something that is objective. So much of other (what I call soft) assessment is not objective enough.

In a test centred society you need to acquire knowledge in the most energy effective way possible and it is far easier to gain the information from a book or a teacher than it is to contemplate a 'failed'experiment.

3. Exams matter to society (parents and employers) so it's no wonder that the kids want facts that enable them to pass them. That strikes me as great pragmatic maturity.

And ban bloody multiple choice tests!

4. I LOVE multiple choice tests and exams, they give me hard, real data on kids. Of course it's not the complete picture, but it is objective.

This is hardly going to nurture a generation of Einsteins!

5. I simply don't see it as my responsibility (as a science teacher) to inspire the next generation of Einsteins.

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As you might expect I am torn between these two views.

If you read my earlier submissions to the forum concerning meaningful learning in science you will see that I believe that success in a subject is not a result of teaching students how to pass exams but exploring ways of helping them become more in control of their own learning. The assessment process should support these aims but not dictate the outcome.

That this is the right approach is not always obvious to the learner in the initial phase. Students and often parents want a quick fix. An exercise book full of notes as we all know does not indicate understanding.

Exam technique is important but I have known experienced science teachers advocating a cover the page and reproduce the content approach to learning.

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I know this isn't science but I think this supports my views on testing.

In the past week I have passed two exams. The first was a French vocabulary test. The second was a driving theory test. I passed both with flying colours - so hurrah to that!

However, In my french class I am one of the weakest students. My spoken French is attrocious and my listening even worse. The two 'strongest' students both flunked a test of spelling and short term factual recall but can have a reasonable conversation. My short term recall is excellent and as a teacher I put into practise all the methods I could think of for cramming for this test. they worked. However a week later I have forgotten most of it.

My driving theory test was multiple choice and matching signs. Both had obviously been devised for ease of marking - an important consideration. Neither actually tested my abilities as a driver. The multiple choice test tested my ability to spot silly answers and ignore them and to guess well. The Matching exercise was a joke. There wasn't a single thng in it that could in any way catch me out or test my genuine understanding of what the signs meant. In mean, what is a Ú'turn? What shouldn't I do one? Where would you find one? What should you do if there is a moose right in front of your car and how should you avoid getting a broken neck?

It was guess work and good exam technique that got me through both not the ability to drive well or to speak or write french. I saw the same thing happening in Science exams every day and realistically, when do we in real ife need good exam technique?!?

R

Edited by rownb

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Guest Adrian Dingle

A very simple reply. The tests that you took are significantly flawed, for some of the reasons that you have identified. Just because these tests are poorly designed doesn't invalidate ALL standardized tests. Those that are well designed overcome the problems that you identify.

With beautiful irony, you say;

when do we in real life need good exam technique?!?

....errrrr, when taking French tests and the driving theory exam! It sounds like you are saying that your life is not real!!!!????

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However, In my french class I am one of the weakest students. My spoken French is attrocious and my listening even worse.

Designing good tests for learners of foreign languages is not easy, and a vocab test on its own is not a clear indicator of your ability to handle a foreign language. Four discrete skills are usually tested: Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing. The four skills are, of course, interrelated in real life. Unfortunately, there are a lot of amateurs in the business of producing tests for learners of foreign languages. The professionals have, however, been working on a reliable assessment system for over 20 years. The result is the six-point scale of the Council of Europe's Common European Framework (CEF) for Languages, which is being adopted by member states of the Council of Europe, including (belatedly) the UK:

http://www.coe.int/T/E/Cultural_Co-operati...Language_Policy

The CEF is the yardstick used by the Dialang project, which maintains a free website where you can test yourself in three of the discrete language skills. Speaking is not included because this is the skill where human intervention is crucial - and also in the other skills in order to achieve an accurate assessment of a learner's language competence. The lowest CEF level (A1 or Breakthrough) corresponds to what a reasonable adult learner could achieve after 90 learning hours. See:

http://www.dialang.org

See also the ICT Module No. 4.1 on Computer Aided Assessment and Language Learning:

http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod4-1.htm

School leavers in the UK do not perform well in relation to the CEF scale. A typical German school leaver would probably end up (at 18+) with a level corresponding to CEF B1 (Threshhold) or higher. We turn out a handful of students who reach this level. Most of our children do not progress beyond GCSE, where a lower/middle grade would probably correspond only to A2 (Waystage), a level which is not of much practical use in the real world. It means what it says: Waystage. Threshold is the level at which one begins to communicate with a reasonable degree of competence and confidence. Things will get worse as languages beyond Keystage 3 (age 14) in England become optional. So much for our future generations becoming members of a multilingual Europe!

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[....errrrr, when taking French tests and the driving theory exam! It sounds like you are saying that your life is not real!!!!????]

Well, bearing in mind I've been out of formal education for 5 years and these are the first tests I've taken I'd say that they were pretty 'abnormal' in the general scheme of things. I don't take mulptiple choice tests to get a bank account, physically drive my car, get a mortgage, socialise, apply for jobs, perform internet research or compile databases (my current job), teach, the list is endless. In fact the only times I have taken tests seem to have been an exercise in trying to look official.

I had the misfortune of having to take combined science GCSE at school during which we were tested once every 6 weeks. Standardised government testing. I passed every test with close to 100% and yet when i started to study science 'A' levels I realised that I could remember very little and understood next to nothing. Maybe I'm a strange isolated case but I doubt it.

The chunking and checking approach to teaching science does produce excellent exam results and lots of data but I don't think it produces 'scientists'. Learn, test, forget, learn, test, forget etc, etc

And thanks for the language testing references. It'lll be interesting to see how well I perform. Hopefully as badly as I deserve to...although on a BBC site I tried out recently I was told I was 'A' level standard...this as the result of , you've guess it, a multiple choice test!

Edited by rownb

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Guest Adrian Dingle
I had the misfortune of having to take combined science GCSE at school during which we were tested once every 6 weeks. Standardised government testing. I passed every test with close to 100% and yet when i started to study science 'A' levels I realised that I could remember very little and understood next to nothing

Just another example of one of the following, either;

1. The tests at GCSE were hopelessly flawed (that is IF they were supposed to be A level preparation), or

2. The tests at GCSE are not supposed to prepare you for A levels and stand on their own as assessment tools of your GCSE level material.

You then said;

The chunking and checking approach to teaching science does produce excellent exam results and lots of data but I don't think it produces 'scientists'

As I said in a previous post;

I simply don't see it as my responsibility (as a science teacher) to inspire the next generation of Einsteins.
Edited by Adrian Dingle

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A very simple reply. The tests that you took are significantly flawed, for some of the reasons that you have identified. Just because these tests are poorly designed doesn't invalidate ALL standardized tests. Those that are well designed overcome the problems that you identify.

In my view all such factual recall tests are deeply flawed in that all they test is short-term memory. There is nothing wrong in this as such, for example, they are quite useful if you want to go in for pub quizzes when you leave school. However, they have nothing to do with measuring intelligence or preparing people for life outside the classroom.

This is something teachers and politicians find difficult to grasp. Teachers find it particularly different to understand. There are two main reasons for this. Teachers are invariably successful exam candidates. To attack the exam system is to undermine their own achievements.

Secondly, teachers spend most of their time preparing their students to pass exams. To accept that they are not doing something very important would cause them a severe case of cognitive dissonance. After leaving the classroom Rowena can now see clearly just how ridiculous the system is.

It is only teachers who make use of the skills needed to pass factual recall tests in their jobs. In what other occupations do we have to answer a series of questions while being deprived of reference materials?

Our whole exam system is based on testing short-term memory. The only time in my educational life that ceased to be the case was when I did a research degree at Sussex University. When you reach this level the system finds other ways of testing your understanding of the subject. Only three other people were involved in deciding whether I reached the required standard. As they all had research degrees themselves, the system trusted their judgement.

It would of course be possible to devise an exam system similar to the one used by research students. However, that would involve trusting the judgement of teachers. The government would never allow such a system to be devised. Therefore we have to stick to factual recall tests that makes it easy for the government to compare the performances of students, teachers and schools. It keeps as busy but it has nothing to do with education.

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I've worked with colleagues in Italian universities. Most testing there is done by oral examination - as with research students in the UK. It makes sense, as an interview with a student quickly reveals what they understand about a topic. It also explains why Italians prefer to communicate by telephone rather than send emails or faxes.

I have examined numerous MA, MPhil and PhD students. It is usually evident in the first 10 minutes if they really know what they are talking about. In modern foreign languages at all levels, we mainly examine skills, e.g. communicative competence. Factual knowledge is part of the language acquisition process, of course - you have to learn vocab, as walking around with a dictionary dangling from your forehead is a bit inconvenient. But in the end it's how you apply your knowledge that determines how well you perfom as a linguist - and I guess this is true of most subject areas.

I'm a pub quiz addict, but I perform best when questions call upon my long-term memory, e.g. in pop music sections relating to hits of the 50s and 60s.

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Guest Adrian Dingle
Secondly, teachers spend most of their time preparing their students to pass exams. To accept that they are not doing something very important would cause them a severe case of cognitive dissonance.

I certainly spend a huge amount of my time preparing kids to pass the AP chemistry exam here in the US, and I would say this;

1. I have absolutely NO illusions about what I am doing, AND I am certain that it IS important for these kids. Without it they won't get into the College's that they want to. That's a pragmatic fact of life.

2. If my students do get a high score on the AP exam - by definition they DO know a lot of chemistry.

3. We're not all trying to "mend" the system. Some of us teachers are pretty non-militant and are quite happy working in it, no matter how flawed it is. I am quite content that I make a positive difference to my students lives every day, even if I am preparing them for exams as opposed to "educating" (whatever that is).

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I suppose that as a teacher working in a country post genocide I found it difficult to limit my role to that of purely someone who helped her students to pass exams. There are several reasons for this which I will try to list briefly.

1. Firstly I refused to allow my students to blindly accept what others told them. This is the standard format of science teaching in most countries. The teacher, as a leader, tells the students what to think. The students, as followers, accept it without question. Any student who does question the teachers judgement is deemed a trouble maker.

Now if you consider the example of Rwanda, the people were followers who did, unquestioningly, what the leaders told them to do. This passive nature resulted in the death of 800,000 people.

This is not something that could happen only in Rwanda. It can happen in any country where people do not question authority, even the United States. Psychological tests have been carried out to establish that people will inflict huge amounts of pain on a fellow human beings if instructed to do so by an authority figure.

As teachers we do not simply impart information. We have a social role to play as well and I'm not prepared to overlook that for the sake of exam grades.

2. Secondly, the majority of my students would not get into university anyway. Thier english was poor, the exams were full of errors and the examiners did not know the answers anyway - I know I worked with them for 3 years- and most importantly bribes were more important than knowledge.

How can I dedicate my life to helping students to pass exams that they will fail anyway?

3. Thirdly, and this is a bit of a combination of 1 and 2, we spend the vast majority of our young lives in educational establishments. This is the period of our lives when we should be learning how to be well balanced caring socially conscious members of a positive society. Parents play a huge role in socialising their children but in this day and age when kids get home to an empty house and watch TV the role of teachers 'in loco parentis' becomes more urgent.

We can teach the kids exam technique, or we can help them gain important life skills through studying science, or we can do both. In Rwanda I tried to do both, but I dreamt of a day that I could throw the exams out of the window and focus on helping the kids grow up strong and confident and able to cope with post academic life.

4. Fourthly exams stigmatise and put emphasis on skills which are not important out side of the classroom. Will the 'brightest' kid always be the most successful in life? Will they have a great career and a happy homelife? Why should some kids live with being labelled 'geeks'and 'spods' whilst other get labelled 'stupid'. Take the exams away and these roles don't get reinforced so strongly on such a regular basis.

5. When I started writing tests in Rwanda I tried to make them probing of the students understanding of the subjects. They all failed miserably and I spent literally days marking their depressingly awful work. As time wore on my exams became less probing and more styalised. I spent less time marking, my log book was full of data and the students marks improved. I wasn't dumbing down the content, just using more multiple choice and short answer questions.

Were the students getting smarter? Well, on the one hand it may have been a better idea to use this kind of testing with students studying in their second language. Just becasue you cannot express something clearly in the examiners language of choice does not mean that you do not know or understand the answer. However, I would suggest that were I to set the essay style questions in Kinyarwanda they would still have flunked their exams. It is far easier to tick a box containing a word that you recognise, than to actually explain something in your own words. But it does make it so much easier to mark.

6. Finally, I have to agree that as teachers we do often have this deep seated belief in the importance of examinations becauce we were so successful when we took them. They made us feel good about ourselves (though possibly rather embarrassed and it certainly causes problems socially if your friends did not perform so well), they got us where we are today. However, we forget that there are huge swathes of society for whom exams are a complete nightmare and that even though they are really nice people with great social skills and common sense who have the capacity to go far in life, they will still feel stupid when they get only 50%. And its the 50% that counts because how many students actually bother to check back through their exams to see what they did and did not understand? Testing is a useful learning tool, but take away the grades, the percentages, the letters or they become more important than the knowledge itself.

I do believe that we are here not only to support a future generation fo Einsteins, but also a future generation of caring and compassionate human beings, of all abilities, who aren't obsessed with who 'did better than' who.

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Now I know that this is really going off at a tangent, but I believe it is relevant.....

My baby sister is currently studying an NVQ in Travel and Tourism. Selected largely becasue it did not involve any testing - unlike me she did not derive much please from her test results at GCSE.

A few weeks ago her class went on a Carribean Cruise for the experience. They spent a week on board the ship visiting 5 different islands. They had a mandate to compile enough information to complete a project about the Cruise Ship Industry on their return to Britain.

Needless to say she had an amazing time, caught a brief glimpse of life on five different cultural diverse islands, learnt about the day to day life of staff of a cruise ship and established exactly which job was going to be hers in 2 years time!

A couple of days after their return one of the parents announced that she would be writing a letter of complaint to the college about this pointless experience. Her major gripe? That they were not tested in any formal way about the knowledge and experienced gained during that week.

Suggested questions.

1. Where is the stern of the ship

a ) at the front

b ) at the back

c ) on the left

d ) on the right

2. What are the dimentions of the ship in metric

a ) 50m by 200m

b ) 250m by 400m

OK, so you get the idea.

It demonstrated to me how utterly embedded in our culture testing has become. It isn't enough to complete a project, they must also be able to quote parrot fashion information which they could easily look up in a book or on the internet, provided that they have the right life skills...which sadly so many kids lack having got used to the information being delivered directly to their desks.

This was an exercise in initiative. They had the choice of producing something amazing or something less so. Imagine that you run a travel agency. Would you rather employ someone who can demonstrate initiative, or someone who can quote the gross national product of the Dominican Republic?

Edited by rownb

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Guest Adrian Dingle
I suppose that as a teacher working in a country post genocide I found it difficult to limit my role to that of purely someone who helped her students to pass exams.

Absolutely correct! You may recall me saying in my first post of this thread.....

I should add that I see the merit in all points of view and that individual circumstances clearly dictate ones opinions and methods and that under no circumstances am I denigrating other points of view.

Also;

Would you rather employ someone who can demonstrate initiative, or someone who can quote the gross national product of the Dominican Republic?

All socities need both.

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QUOTE

I should add that I see the merit in all points of view and that individual circumstances clearly dictate ones opinions and methods and that under no circumstances am I denigrating other points of view.

However I would argue that whilst my circumstances hightened my awareness of my social responsibilities, they are in fact irrelevant and that students in America would benefit from learning to questions authority as much as students in Rwanda as the psychological tests I mentioned argue.

We spend too much time as Science teacher teaching 'Facts' which the students take to be true and never question. This causes problems when a

a ) we make a mistake (none of us are infallable)

b ) The scientific community makes a mistake.

Thanks goodness there were people out there who didn't accept that the world was flat, that the sun orbitted the Earth or that objects with a greater density fall to earth more rapidly that objects of a lesser density.

Cutting edge scientists are anarchists who break the mold instead of conforming to it.

As for all those poor students who don't wish to become scientists but still have to study science, a huge number of life skills can be gained through the subject. In the same way that studying history GCSE is less about quoting the dates of the world wars and more about understanding about Bias, primary and secondary sources and learning from experience, science could be about questioning and seeking answers to questions, thinking about our results and their accuracy, thinking about bias....and thinking!

Who needs to memorise Avagadros constant when they have it programmed into their computer?

Rowena

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