The failure of science education in English Schools

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I was prompted to write this article by a recent telephone conversation with the complaints section of my Electricity Supply company. I won’t bore readers with the details, but if I indicate that it concerned estimated meter readings and the unilateral raising of my monthly direct debit on the basis of flawed projections of annual energy use, then it may strike a chord with many.

The debate was about the relative significance of my actual meter readings compared with the company’s estimated ones. I finally lost all confidence when the person on the other end of the phone started referring to our electrical energy use in ‘kilowatts per hour’. When I tried to correct her it was clear she did not have a clue about the difference between ‘kilowatts’ and ‘kilowatt-hours’ (the proper unit), let alone that ‘kilowatts per hour’ is just nonsense.

This ignorance of basic science in relation to electrical energy is now widespread throughout all sections of society including in broadsheet newspapers and on the BBC. It emerges whenever electrical power generation is being discussed. For example, it is common for the ‘power’ of a new wind turbine installation to be described in ‘kilowatts per year’ in the same paragraph as a statement of the number of households whose energy needs were being met. The correct unit in each case is ‘kilowatts’ (or more likely megawatts). The error is like stating the speed of ship in ‘knots per hour’ (1 knot = 1 nautical mile per hour).

The distinction is between ‘energy’ (what the householder pays for) and ‘power’ (the rate of production of the energy). The latter rises with the number of customers and the power demands of their households/businesses.

I will return to this later, but not before registering my horror at the same misunderstanding being perpetuated and transmitted to millions of school student watchers of the 2016 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, when the presenter compared the electrical power needs of the TV studio with the number of AA batteries needed to provide it. Despite a short statement that ‘energy’ and ‘power’ were different quantities, the programme went on to seriously confuse the two in a series of further comments and energy transfer demonstrations.

Does this matter except to science ‘nerds’ like me? Of course it does. We would not tolerate being lectured on literature by an illiterate who could not string together a grammatically coherent sentence and who misspelled common words like ‘there’, their’, ‘to’, ‘too’, ‘your’, ‘you’re’ etc.

Science and maths differ from many other subjects in that they get very complicated, very quickly. Despite the assertions of popularisers like ‘Carol Vorderman’, none of it is ‘common sense’. Unlike other science popularisers,  Brian Cox to his credit gets this.

That is probably why it has fallen to science teachers like Michael Shayer and the late ‘Philip’ Adey to assert the validity of the work of Piaget and so lead the way in establishing the essential pedagogic distinction between knowledge and understanding.  Despite the necessity of the former, no amount of it guarantees the latter. As with most of my articles we are back in the territory of both Piaget and Vygotsky, whose pithy statement of the distinction between knowledge and understanding cannot be improved upon.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

The English education system is been consumed and corrupted by the marketisation paradigm. This has allowed the ‘behaviourist’ philosophy of the business world to infect and corrupt the ruling pedagogy of our school system.

Nothing can better illustrate the dangers than this article on Local Schools Network, together with my reply to it.

But has our education system got worse in these regards? Ask any science teacher with experience from before the marketisation-enabling 1988 Education Reform Act and they will agree with me that it has. This is what I wrote in this article.

On 21 November 2013 OfSTED published a report entitled, Maintaining curiosity: a survey into science education in schools. They found that dull teaching – accompanied by a lack of practical work in the subject – was putting pupils off the science subjects. In some schools, not enough time had been set aside in the timetable for pupils to do practical work. Girls, in particular, were likely to ditch physics – with only 11,390 going on to do it in the sixth-form in 2011 despite 159,745 getting two good GCSE passes in science. In addition, a minority of secondary schools were ‘pre-occupied with tests and examination results as ends in themselves’ rather than aiming to improve pupils’ deeper knowledge of the subject. The report points out that getting good grades in science is not necessarily the same as “getting” science.

All this is true but the principles are general and relate to all learning. Practical work is not just necessary for developing ‘practical skills’ but for promoting cognitive development that spills over into all subjects and all learning.

Have things improved since 2013? I maintain that they have not. Not only has the decline in practical work continued, but crucially the exam system has been further degraded to make higher grades ‘more accessible’ to students that lack the cognitive development necessary for deep learning and understanding.

There are also increasing problems in recruiting qualified science teachers trained/experienced in devising, planning and managing practical activities and experiments in science, along with doubts that schools may not still possess the extensive range of cleverly designed  equipment that was provided by LEAs to all schools in the 1970s following the widespread adoption of ‘Nuffield Science’, along with the ‘lab technician’ posts needed to maintain it. The consequent science education crisis is being exacerbated by allowing Academy chains to accredit qualified teacher status, when they may have little interest in encouraging science practical work. This is a serious concern given the lack of effective regulation of Academies and Academy Chains. 

This is not a claim for special pedagogic treatment on the part of science and maths. Didactic ‘Instruction’ and ‘knowledge’ dissemination on the Hirsch model, backed by the harsh discipline needed to keep students ‘on task’ while being literally bored stupid, have elbowed out interactive enquiry and peer with peer debate across the curriculum. I comment here on how Education Endowment Foundation research into effective approaches to teaching and learning are ignored by the DfE that funds the research and by the Academy and Free School Chains that the DfE promote for ideological reasons.

I started my teaching career in 1971. In 1975 I was running a science department at The Bosworth College in Leicestershire. This was then a 14-18 comprehensive Community College whose ‘progressive’ teaching methods would today be widely scorned. Students were on first name terms with teachers including the headteacher and there was no school uniform. A surge of blue denim was disgorged every day from the huge number of busses that converged on the village of Desford from its huge, mainly rural catchment area. The boys’ fashion was denim jeans and denim jackets and the girls similar, but sometimes with the substitution of denim skirts. Is the scornful dismissal of the ‘progressiveness’ of the time justified? ‘Discovery’ and ‘project-based’ learning were indeed frequently shallow and insufficiently challenging. And while there were many excellent and inspirational teachers, some were undoubtedly lazy and overly politicised.

But none of this was true of the Bosworth Science Department where we ran a ‘General Science’ CSE Mode 3 course (syllabus and schemes of work designed and assessed by teachers) based on ‘Nuffield Secondary Science’. This was a practically-based course that had nothing in common with the shallow GNVQ ‘vocational scam’ introduced by the Blair government in the late 1990s that was rightly seen off by Michael Gove.

Like the other Nuffield GCE and A Level Science courses taught in the school, Bosworth College General Science adopted a scientifically rigorous approach designed to establish sound foundations and bring about the cognitive development needed to secure deep understanding of the most significant principles of science. There was no setting in the science department, but with year groups of 400+, it was mainly lower ability students that chose General Science rather than GCE courses in Biology, Chemistry and Physics. General Science was not intended as a preparation for further studies in science, but to equip students with sound levels of basic understanding and scientific literacy. The CSE was graded on a scale of 1 to 5. Grade 1 corresponded to a C grade or above at GCE and grade 5 to a GCE grade G. The CSE system defined grade 4 (GCE F) as that ‘to be expected from a student of average ability following a competently taught course of study’.

I analyse the devastating history of the inflation of GCSE grades, largely for political reasons, and in response to ‘market pressure’ in Section 1.10 of my book, ‘Learning Matters

When Bosworth College was subject to a full HMI Inspection in the late 1970s, the General Science course was described by the lead inspector as, ‘The best he had ever seen’.

In conclusion, I had better rehearse how electrical energy and power are measured.

All energy is measured in joules.

1 joule is the energy needed to lift a weight of 1 newton (eg a 100g apple) a height of 1 metre.

Power is the rate of expending/providing energy. It is measured in watts.

A power of 1 watt is when energy is expended/provided at a rate of 1 joule per second.

So watts (power) = joules/seconds and so joules(energy) = watts x seconds

These units are too small to be practical in terms of household electrical energy needs, so kilowatts are used in homes (and megawatts in power stations).

1 kilowatt = 1 kilojoule per second

So the practical unit of electrical energy that you are billed for by your energy supply company is the kilowatt-hour (kWh). This is equivalent to a 1 kW electrical appliance switched on for one hour.

Therefore 1 kilowatt hour = 3,600,000 joules (1000 watts x 3,600 seconds)

So the power of a wind turbine installation is expressed in kilowatts (or more likely megawatts).

The units of energy that your energy company bills you for are in kilowatt-hours (kWhs).

The cost of using an electrical appliances in your home can thus be worked out.

Electricity cost = (power of appliance in kW) x (hours used) x (the unit cost per kWh).

This was just a small part of our students’ comprehensive study of the principles and safe use of electrical energy in the home. Students also learned how to read the electricity meters of the time, with their small counter-rotating dials, calculate the energy use and running costs of various appliances,  wire 3-pin mains plugs (new appliances never came with plugs attached in those days) and calculate the fuse ratings needed for appliances of different power and much else besides.

If the lower ability students of a comprehensive school in the 1970s could learn all this, and delight in the practical and experimental aspects of their studies, then why are so many current school leavers and adults, not to mention the public agents of the energy supply companies, along with journalists at all levels of their profession, so woefully ignorant?

We must assume that this criticism does not also apply to Secretaries of State for Education.

I welcome comments to my articles especially from those that disagree with me.

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