Friday, 12 October 2007

21st Century Science?

Ok, this is a long post, and I warn you that I'm having a rant. Not quite such a major rant as the ones I have on pc language and heretical hymns, but close. Feel free to ignore this post, and come back tomorrow...

Although I trained as a Science teacher, I found myself straying into the Humanities for a couple of years. This September, I found myself back in the heart of the Science Curriculum. I'm now teaching 21st Century Science (the rather pretentious name given to the new GCSE courses.) The textbooks look very attractive at first glance (lots of glossy photos) and there is an impressive set of notes and lesson plans for teachers to use, with PowerPoint presentations and worksheets...

However, having explored the material for the past month and a half, I have to say that it's rather disappointing. The PowerPoints are uninspiring - no real attempt at interactive stuff, just larger copies of the words and phrases from the textbooks - and the worksheets assume easy access to the textbooks - very few schools, in my experience, would be able to fork out the money for each child to have a textbook to take home - which means that the worksheets are useless as a homework resource. The questions in the textbooks often assume that computer access is readily available, and suggest "research" to find out the answers...

...but that is just the mechanics of the course. And any new course is going to have teething problems as it's applied to the real classroom.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem is the content... or, to be more specific, the lack of content. I'm teaching the Chemistry Units: the first is "Air Quality," the second is "Material Choices" and the third is "Food Matters."

Air Quality is concerned with the main gases in the atmosphere, and pollution. Combustion is the main chemical reaction, and it is used to explore what pollutants are produced when fossil fuels are burnt. The effects of pollutants on health, and the use of technology to improve air quality are also considered.

Be still my beating heart... the excitement is almost overpowering...

I'm currently teaching Material Choices: you can't have all the groups doing the same topics at once because of equipment availability. Material Choices is all about choosing the right materials for a particular purpose, with the emphasis on polymers and plastics. Oh, and the disposal of polymers and plastics. Recycling features here.

Note that the full extent of technical knowledge of the whole of Organic Chemistry has been distilled (pun intended, sorry) down to polymers being long chain molecules, monomers being the molecules which make up the chains, and hydrocarbons being chemicals obtained from crude oil.

The final Year 10 Chemistry topic is Food Matters. How food gets from the farm to the plate. Farming methods and their effects on the environment. Natural and artificial chemicals in food (including food additives.) Possible links between obesity and diabetes.

Quite apart from the fact that most of the fun stuff in Chemistry appears to have been ditched, the amount of scientific content which the students need to learn is laughable.

I've nearly finished the first topic. I explained this to the students, who were aghast at how little they felt they had learned. So, to reassure them (and myself) that I wasn't missing out half the course, I checked the exam paper for the topic which was set in January 2007.

I wanted to cry. The questions were a variety of multiple choice (A, B, C, D etc.), connecting boxes with straight lines (eg. "wool" in one box and "sheep" in another needed to be connected to show wool comes from sheep) or filling in missing words or phrases (a choice of words and phrases was given.)

No explanations. No elaborating. No description.

And not much Science.


gemoftheocean said...

Holy Mother of God and Sweet Jesus!
[What do they do for AS levels? DRAW a sheep?]

I didn't even like Chemistry and this seems like not very much to expect from 15 year olds. [Is 15 about the age they take GCSE?) What's more worrisome, is that I gather your students wouldn't be required to take this, just the ones that may want to go into science. [Am I right? Or do I have it wrong and this would be a required exam, and there wouldn't be other options for bio. or the like?]

Let's "assume" for a moment that a standard college preparatory course in the US in the High school was roughly the equivalent of the old "O" level or the new AS level. [I think our AP levels are about the equivalent of your A levels.]

I'm surprised your students DON'T have a textbook for every student. I'm stunned. Here every kid gets a textbook for every class. Is this common practice, or just for science?

I have at hand my High School Chemistry book called "Chemistry: A modern Course" by Smoot, Price and Barrett. This book was pretty much standard. Back when I was in HS most students took Chemistry in Junior year of high school (give or take a year.) They'd be about age 16 on average. The text is 525 or so pages, plus appendices. (I took the class in the 73-74 academic year.

What your students are doing shows the hoary hand of the politically correct crowd all over it.

We just had questions like this:
How many grams of K2SO3 can be oxidized to K2SO4 by 7.9g of KMnO4 which will be reduced to MnO2?

Write an equation representing the complete combustion of heptane.

For the whole class I scored in the 70%-80% range. A C overall. No great honor, but to look at the table of contents and from my own recollections, chemistry was just one of those subjects you didn't have a prayer in if you didn't do your homework every night.

It's almost a waste of time to teach to the GCSE - why not scrap it and just go back to the old "O" levels? Better 5 or 6 solid "O" levels than 12 GCSEs that don't mean much of zip. At least that's what the bitching on the Daily Telegraph tells me.

If pain persists, see your doctor!

leutgeb said...

IGCSE ... the exam of choice for the independent sector.

No coursework and better content.

Still banned by the government in the state sector or have they got round to changing that so schools can go back to a CSE/O level situation?

It's not just music that doesn't work without God. Education falls to pieces too.

Anonymous said...

None of the other GCSE specifications are inspiring either. I do know that some teachers are able to provide truly inspirational, exciting teaching for these specs. They have my fullest support, however it is not something I can pull off convincingly. I'm just not sure that what they are providing is science. In my experience, the students these specifications are helping are those who totally detest mathematics and don't enjoy analytical work or practical work. These are the students who will never be scientists.

The specifications (in my opinion)seem to be totally failing, bright, articulate, mathematically literate students.

Then again, even my less bright students were sharp enough to spot the flaws in the units on satellites and gravitation, they were demanding that I teach it properly, so they got an A'level standard explanation and relished it....there may still be hope!

On the side of the angels said...

I did my O and A levels [OEB] in the mid-eighties; where they were increasing the difficulty to reduce the amount of prospective University candidates.
They were hellish - students were sitting in the examination hall crying during the 'O' Level Biology second paper - and the 'A' level organic chemistry paper was written as if it were in a foreign language to the uninformed.
The physics papers merely provided the questions - No equations or mathematical formulae - nothing - it was all expected to be known by the student ; and you had no chance if you hadn't memorised the hundreds necessary to complete the exam.
I am utterly outraged at the systemic dumbing down over the past two decades.
Azo dyes, acyl chlorides,fluid mechanics, projectile equations, a.c. circuits and the experiments from first terms on gravitation; together wih the hundreds of inorganic reactions we had to learn from the periodic table - and now the kids are completely spoonfed or merely regurgitate worksheet material - it's not teaching - it's merely babysitting.

Anonymous said...

Oh Mac - I like it! I failed my 'O' level Chemistry (many, many moons ago) - because I couldn't work out the Mols and the gramms and the K2SO4's from a bull's hoof! But connecting sheep to wool - YES - I CAN do that! I could even draw a straight line using a pencil and a ruler and a calculator!

Seriously though - talk about dumbing down. It's not the kids, they are capable of great things! It's this flippin' government that wants everyone to pass everything with AAA**** and brass knobs on! The only way to do that is to connect sheep to wool! Mind you I'd prefer to connect sheep to roast lamb and mint sauce - would I get extra marks if I drew that in myself!!!!

There is I think a thread running through what you describe though (exhaust gases, degradation of polymers, food additives etc...) to link all this to the new religion of environmentalism!

By the way - I did pass my 'O' level Chemistry eventually and went on to get a BSc in the Biological Sciences!

On the side of the angels said...

If I can't say 2,4,di-nitro-phenylhydrazine without hesitating I know I've had too much to drink.

What scares me more about modern education is they way convinces kids that they actually know a subject - I remember arguing with a jumped up little squirt of a manager [string of GCSE's and A levels ] that just because 100 degrees centigrade equalled 212 fahrenheit , 50 degrees C did not equal 106 F !!! Would he be told ?
I was the lone voice in a crowded room a few weeks ago being ridiculed by everyone for 'laughably' suggesting that even though vat is 17.5% , vat free items mean you reduce 15% from the cost - They called me stupid, an idiot and a lot more !

The answer to one of my son's SATS papers' science questions regarding why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west stated :
Because the earth goes round sun [not because it rotates on its axis ?]!!!???
It also said heating butter over a flame is a reversible reaction, it confused the difference between the acceleration due to gravity and the weight of an object and elsewhere it stated things which were just plain wrong !

But then again my son is studying modern history; and you should see what the examiners' marking guidelines are like.
answering a question correctly with the appropriate facts is not adequate for a good grade - rather one must include a vast array of exigent unnecessary information utterly irrelevant to the question asked !!!???
In other words you get every exam question right and still technically fail - And I reckon that every informed historian who took the test would fail too!
Why ? because because being right is not important - the questions are solely intended for kids to write a little bit of everything they remembered about a subject [irrespective to what the question's asking]; pass; and feel good about themselves that they know the subject !!
It's scary !

Anonymous said...

I am extremely appalled at what GCSE is in this country. I am a teacher from Jamaica now plying my skills in the UK. The kids here that are called A* in science do absolutely nothing to get it. In the eighties I sat the traditional GCE 'O'Level exams. I tell the comparison is cheese to chalk. The Caribbean Examination Council's equivalent to the O level is now what is referred to as CSEC level. 1 CSEC from my experience as a science teacher is approximately 2.5 GCSE. I tell you this ispolitical facade to give the world the impression that education is good in this country. It's crap I tell you, I am truly disappointed.

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