Ed Walsh GCSE Key Stage 3 Secondary Science

5-year Science course teaching: what’s the big picture?

A couple of years ago I was at a science education conference and ended up in the same workshop group as (Lord) Jim Knight, who had previously been a Schools Minister. At the time the new GCSE Science specifications were in the process of development. I offered the opinion that whatever the virtues were of the incoming courses, one of the problems faced by schools was that every time there were changes, it forced teachers ‘back onto the script’. It’s only when people get used to specifications (and, more crucially, examinations) that they know what to place more emphasis upon and can make a really good job of teaching it. Jim’s response was that he recognised the value of the argument but that the instinct of politicians was, if they perceived there to be an issue, to engage with it and ‘try and sort things out’.

I get to speak to quite a range of teachers in the process of running CPD events around the country. Inevitably talk turns to what’s going well and what isn’t. After a while one starts to recognise themes and trends emerging. A common one is that for students to secure good outcomes at GCSE, then KS3 has to be doing its job. Science is a five year course.

What needs to be in the mix then for this to work? Once the dust settles on such an approach, what will it look like?

The first thing is the effective coverage of what we might refer to as ‘cornerstone concepts’. There are a number of crucial ideas that students need to grasp and, in many cases, these need to be revisited to make sure they are embedded. They’re not the kind of thing that students will necessarily get the first time round. A good example of this is the notion that in a chemical reaction particles are rearranged. These ideas need introducing at KS3 and exploring using different examples, so that when students start on a GCSE course it’s a concept that they have a sound grasp of.

The second thing is knowing how to investigate. This should include using equipment but also mastering skills such as looking at a set of data and spotting trends and patterns. Are there any outliers? How can this set be usefully displayed? The actual investigations matter less than the skills developed

The third one I’d go for is language – but verbs as much as nouns. Look at the range of command words now being used in GCSE exam questions – are these reflected in the nature of discourse in lessons? Are we asking students to argue, debate and justify as well as to describe and explain?

As has become very clear, there’s a lot of content in the new courses. Those specifications are pretty chunky. As teachers, making sure that this has been covered is a prime consideration. However, it’s not only what needs to be covered but also the way the ideas are used. A lot of the questions in the new exams are on application and this is a skill to be learned as well. There’s part of me that is actually quite optimistic that these specifications will be around for a while yet (remember that work started on them best part of seven years ago – that’s the kind of lead in time that’s needed). If we do get a bit of stability, what will we do with it? Getting the big picture sorted might be a good answer.

Ed Walsh

Ed Walsh is a freelance consultant, specialising in science education. A teacher for twenty years and a team leader for twelve of those, he now writes and edits curriculum materials, designs and delivers CPD and works with science departments to improve the quality of their provision.

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