Secondary Secondary Science

Secondary Science – How can we improve the UK’s PISA score in Science

In Hong Kong for the English Speaking Federation schools Science Conference; talking about Bad Science and sharing the materials.  There’s a lot of interest, not least from teachers running the IB programme as it’s a good way of exploring the nature of science.  Also sharing ideas about literacy and students writing extended written responses; watch this site for more details on practical strategies.

Hong Kong outperforms the UK in the PISA scores in Science and it’s interesting to consider why.  These are based on competence in scientific literacy and an understanding of the wider applications and implications of science.  Certainly the PISA team are keen to identify the characteristics of high performing systems.
Let’s put the comparative scores in context. The UK doesn’t do badly; the scores are significantly above the median, in line with countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Poland and better than the US.  What seems to count for a lot is the extent to which schools and teachers have the ability to customise provision for students.  The school designs its curriculum; the classroom teacher decides the most effective approach to take.

Now, this is both an opportunity and a challenge.  When I’m reviewing a science department I always try to do a student voice activity and discuss with students the quality of the provision.  It has never yet failed to be fascinating, insightful and positive; students are often disarmingly honest about their abilities and clear about what works for them in terms of lesson design and delivery.  I usually steer the conversation around to getting them to imagine that I was going to be teaching them science in the near future, was planning the lessons and they had the opportunity to influence what I was going to do.  What should I do, I ask them?

The answers vary, but not by much.  Yes, there should be some practical work if possible, and some writing as well, though it should be functional and based on students’ own understanding.  I’d be expected to explain ideas in an engaging way and not labour things.  Oh, and I’d be expected to think of a different way of approaching something if the first way didn’t work.

What the PISA analysis also shows though is that high performing education systems work for all students and avoid being divisive.  They respond to different expectations and needs.
Now, if these changes indicate the future for the UK system this is fine and will probably be widely welcomed; we can do this, but a few things need to be clear.  Firstly, we will need to be creative and responsive about effective classroom practice, willing to change our practice and develop new approaches if the feedback indicates that that’s what’s needed.  One of the workshops at the Hong Kong event was on the development of “reverse lesson planning”, in which the introduction of new concepts was done as homework and lesson time used for questions, instead of the other way around.

Secondly, the accountability agenda is not going to go away.  Students want good grades and parents and carers want their children to do well.  Freedom for the teacher is the freedom to find ways of doing this.  Finally, we need some joined up thinking about an effective and appropriate curriculum for students for whom the English Baccalaureate is not an appropriate pathway.  Over half of the current Year 10 students in England are now on such a route but it’s not a universal solution.  An effective system works for everyone.
Ed Walsh
Science Advisor for Cornwall Learning

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