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The evolution of formal school science education, in response to changing attitudes toward science, is summarized. The content and structure of the curriculum, including the relationships to technological applications and to the nature of science, are presented. Assumptions about learning, assessment, and science teacher education are given. The evolution, the nature and provision, of informal science education is summarized. The nature and use of research into both formal and informal science education are briefly discussed.
- The Provision of Formal Science Education
- The Evolution of Formal Science Education
- Changing Purposes
- Attitudes to Science
- Content and Organization
- Relationship to Technology
- Nature of Science
- Assumptions about Learning and Their Implications for Teaching
- Science Teacher Education
- Research in Formal Science Education
- The Provision of Informal Science Education
- The Rise of Informal Science Education
- Provision through Conventional Media
- Provision through Electronic Media
- The Relationship between Formal and Informal Science Education
Science education refers to the teaching and learning of the ideas produced by the sciences, to the ways in which these are produced, ratified, and accepted, by the community of scientists, and to the implications of the uses to which this knowledge are or could be put. It is provided both formally, that is within a framework of a prescribed curriculum and a specialized institution( the school),and informally, that is extracurricularly and in a variety of physical situations. The development of formal science education has been one of the most significant events in school education over the last 170 years, whilst informal provision has only recently come into prominence. Some features of both can be illustrated largely with respect to England.
The Provision of Formal Science Education
The early inclusion of science education as an option in the curriculum of some schools took place in the mid-nineteenth century in Western Europe and North America. For example, in England, the subject was being taught in some fee-paying private secondary (high) schools in the 1850s, perhaps in recognition of the growing importance of science in industrial production (Layton, 1973). By 1870, there was discussion at national level about what should be included in the science curriculum and efforts were begun to systematically train science teachers. From then on, the provision of science education expanded progressively but unevenly until it included all primary (elementary) and secondary (high) schools and all pupils, together with the systematic training and certification of science teachers (Jenkins, 1979). The increased involvement of the state led to a national school science curriculum becoming mandatory in 1988, during the subsequent evolution of which the influence of the academic science and science education communities decreased considerably (Fensham, 2013). This sequence of events has been approximately replicated throughout the world, albeit to different degrees and at different speeds.
The Evolution of Formal Science Education
At its inception, there was tension with respect to the aims of school science education. Was it to provide ‘citizen science,’ that is an education that would deal with the contribution of science to the everyday personal, social, economic, and cultural concerns of the general public? Or was it to provide ‘prevocational’ science, a basic knowledge of the most important facts, concepts, and processes of science as a preparation for students to go on to advanced study of a science at university or technical institute? The prevocational emphasis came to dominate the debate, but was continuously questioned for a number of reasons. First, as the provision of science education expanded and became compulsory to below the minimum school-leaving age, an ever-lower proportion of students in a given school class were interested in higher education in a science. Second, the rapid expansion of output from scientific research meant that the prevocational school science curriculum gradually became overloaded with content, such that students were introduced to isolated facts and concepts, being increasingly unable to see the relation between them and their significance. Third, the growing impact of science on the everyday lives of students meant that the traditional presentation of ideas as largely devoid of their applications and implications become ever less interesting to many students. Fourth, the pedagogy most commonly adopted was based on the assumption that the duty of the teacher was to present information in an efficient manner and that of the students was to memorize a mental ‘copy’ of it that was to be reproduced in examinations. This approach proved unsuccessful, in that only a small proportion of students were ever successful in fully meeting its demands. Taken together, these factors led to many students developing negative attitudes not only to science education, which meant that they did not continue to study it when given the option not to, but also to science itself, which was a matter of concern for the community of scientists and industrialists.
Attitudes to Science
Attitudes toward science and science education in schools are manifest in the active engagement of students in science lessons and in their interest in seeking a career in science or technology. Enquiries into such attitudes have shown them to be influenced by many factors, including their personal responses to classroom activities; self-assessment of actual and potential success in science-related activities; perceptions of the quality of the science teacher(s) encountered; and reaction to the attitudes of their peers and parents toward both science and science education. Evaluating the research that has been done into these factors is not easy. Are the identified attitudes toward science/science education in general or are they focused on individual science subjects, e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, and their presentation in the curriculum?
Students’ attitudes toward school science seem to decrease from the start of formal schooling (Pell and Jarvis, 2001) and to continue throughout the secondary (high) school phase (Yager and Penick, 1986), although it does seem that biology is rated more positively than the physical sciences (Osborne and Collins, 2001). A worldwide study (Sjoberg and Schreiner, 2010) showed that such attitudes declined throughout the span of schooling in industrialized counties (but not in developing countries), with that of girls being particularly steep. Other studies have thrown some light on the influence of specific factors, e.g., the family (Archer et al., 2012) and ethnicity (DeWitt et al., 2010), on these trends.
Content and Organization
Although there had long been calls for curricular change (e.g., Schools Council, 1970), which had been proceeding unevenly over the years, it was the report ‘Beyond 2000’ (Millar and Osborne, 1998) that called, amongst many things, for an emphasis on key ‘explanatory stories’; the nature of scientific inquiry; the relationships between science and technology and their implications for everyday life. The influential Rocard Report (Rocard, 2007) set these suggestions in a Europe-wide context and added emphases on the relationship between the formal and informal provision of science education and, particularly, on that for girls.
The progressive implementation of these changes has been underpinned by three developments. The first of these was the clarification of the distinction between the two types of curriculum: that based on ‘Vision 1,’ drawing heavily on orthodox science and intended to provide prevocational science education; that based on ‘Vision 2,’ drawing heavily on those aspects of the everyday lives of students for which science had relevance (Roberts, 2007). The second of these has been the development of ‘context-based’ courses, in which the learning of key concepts is framed within the study of situations, problems, events, that have meaning for the students (Gilbert, 2006). The third of these was the focus on ‘socioscientific issues’ in which the emphasis was on the social aspects of the nature of scientific inquiry and on the implications of science for the lives of individuals and societies (Sadler, 2009). Taken together, these three developments are claimed to have successfully addressed the challenges faced by science education although they have been rarely implemented in full and therefore cannot have been thoroughly researched.
Little, if anything, has been written about the practical organization of formal science education since the introduction of the national curriculum. While the provision of ‘separate subjects’ (i.e., physics, chemistry, biology) still takes place, particularly toward the end of the high school period, there is little evidence of the provision of ‘integrated science’ courses, the majority being ‘modular,’ with themes from the separate sciences being interspersed. Whilst it is common for all children of primary (elementary) school age to experience the same curriculum, the continuation of that format in the high (secondary) school soon gives way to ‘core’ courses, supported by ‘optional’ courses, enabling students following ‘Vision 1’ courses’ to be progressively distinguished from the majority taking ‘Vision 2’ courses.
Relationship to Technology
Science can be seen as the search for understanding of the world as experienced. Technology can be seen as attempts to meet the practical needs of individuals that arise in a wide range of different physical, social, and cultural milieus. The meaning of the latter has been obscured somewhat by the North American misuse of the word ‘technology’ as equating with ‘computers.’ Science and technology as activities are related, albeit in a number of different ways (Gardner, 1994), all of which have implications for how the two activities are related in the school curriculum.
Historically, most school science teachers have viewed technology as applied science. This has led technology education to be seen as the addition of examples of technologies as appendices to topics in the science curriculum. Although this view does have a very limited validity, there have been calls to take a broader perspective on the relationship (Cajas, 2001). One solution has been to introduce the separate subject of technology into the curriculum, called ‘Design and Technology’ in England and Wales. However, this approach seems unlikely to succeed in the long run because of the time constraints arising from the complex relation between the concepts used in the two subjects, from the length of the school day (technology activities require sustained periods of time), from the lack of clear recruitment lines for suitable teachers from higher education, and because of the large investment in physical plant required, all of which were anticipated by Layton (1993). An approach which seems more likely to succeed is through the provision of modules, prepared by working groups, in which science and technology are brought to bear on themes about contexts of specific socio-scientific interest. An example is the ‘Nature, Life and Technology’ course available to both Vision 1 and Vision 2 audiences in the Netherlands in the form of 66 modules, prepared by groups of school and higher education teachers, and adopted by 44% of all senior high schools.
Nature of Science
Calls for school science education to place a much greater emphasis on how scientific knowledge is generated and validated are of long-standing duration (e.g., Schools Council, 1970). The failure to do so that has resulted reflects both the tenacity of ‘folk knowledge’ about science by both teachers and students and the lack of agreement about what the phrase actually encompasses and how it might be taught. Folk knowledge about science stems from two sources: first, from the persistence of ‘indigenous knowledge,’ i.e., those explanations about nature that stem from tenacious belief systems other than those of science (Cobern and Loving, 2000); and second, from the misrepresentations of nature of science that persist in textbooks, e.g., the ideas that scientific knowledge is produced by a process of induction from the results of empirical enquiry, that scientific theories are truthful and unalterable, and that scientists work alone. The persistence of such ideas stems from the failure of philosophers, historians, and sociologists to come to any sort of agreement on the meaning of the phrase ‘nature of science,’ both amongst and between themselves. This uncertainty goes unchallenged as few future science teachers are required to take any courses on nature of science.
The currently available consensus view, which avoids major disagreements and which is used in much science education research, is that science knowledge is subject to change; has to account for empirical observations; is influenced by scientists’ personal views; is proposed by acts of imagination; and in validated by discussion between scientists (AAAS, 1990). Two broad approaches to teaching nature of science have emerged over the years: providing students with opportunities to conduct scientific enquiries and of then reflecting on what they had done; and direct instruction in the main ideas of the consensus model. A review of many studies came to the conclusion that it is a blended amalgam of the two approaches that is the most effective approach (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman, 2000).
Models and modeling is one aspect of nature of science that has made good educational progress. A scientific model is a representation of an idea, an object, an event, or a process, initially produced for a specific purpose in research, the ontology of ‘model’ having been explored (Gilbert and Boulter, 2000). Early work showed that the ‘nature of model’ was not well understood by either teachers (e.g., Crawford and Cullin, 2005) or students (e.g., Grosslight et al., 1991). Systematic interventions to remediate this situation proved very satisfactory in respect of teachers (e.g., Justi and Van Driel, 2005) and students (e.g., Raghavan and Glaser, 1995). Approaches to the development of modeling skills have been proposed (e.g., Justi and Gilbert, 2002) and successfully implemented (e.g., Menonca and Justi, 2013).
A second aspect of nature of science that is making progress – it is not clear how rapidly and successfully – concerns practical work in the context of inquiry-based teaching and learning. Since the outset of formal science education, laboratory work has been defended as a major component of the subject. It has been included in the curriculum for a number of reasons: to provide opportunities to acquire conceptual knowledge, to develop the skills of empirical inquiry, to introduce students to some aspects of how scientists actually go about their work and, perhaps most importantly, to engage the interest of students in the subject. It was perhaps because this array of objectives was indiscriminately addressed that the outcome was a high degree of uncertainty over the educational value of practical work as such (Hofstein and Lunetta, 1982). This is unfortunate given the high cost of providing laboratories and equipment. In the last decade or so, ‘inquiry-based teaching and learning,’ which implies a central role for the laboratory, has become a major element in the national curricula of all countries.
Implementing inquiry-based learning – attempting to replicate the activities of scientists in schools – is only slowly and hesitantly being introduced, for a number of reasons. There is no clear agreement on what that replication entails, although Bell et al. (2010) have suggested that it consists of nine elements in varying order: posing a question; generating a hypothesis; planning the inquiry; carrying out the investigation; analyzing and interpreting the data obtained; producing a model of the phenomenon; drawing conclusions as to the answer to the question posed; communicating that answer to others; and making predictions about the phenomenon based on that answer. In addition to the major problems of identifying phenomena that are suitable for inquiry within the restricted resources available in schools, the behavioral norms and social roles in many schools militate against such an approach to learning. For example, teachers will have to avoid taking the verbal initiative in classes too often, an approach that many will find difficult (Van Zee, 2000), while students will have to acquire the ability to discuss scientific issues meaningfully amongst themselves (Roychoudhury and Roth, 1996). The more authoritarian educational systems will find the introduction of inquiry-based teaching, as many are attempting to do, particularly challenging. In all cases, it may well be desirable to change existing procedures gradually.
Assumptions about Learning and Their Implications for Teaching
The traditional view about how learning takes place, in science as elsewhere in the school curriculum, has been based on the ‘behaviorist’ psychology of Skinner (Skinner, 1971). This assumed that a student was a ‘tabula rasa’ (‘blank slate’) with respect to a specific idea until it had been systematically taught. That teaching would involve the careful and structured presentation of the new ideas, requiring their recitation by students until a perfect ‘copy’ was obtained, this process being supported by the measured use of rewards and punishments. Despite its rigorous and widespread application, attempts at learning by many science students have been unsuccessful when they have followed its precepts. In the late 1970s it gradually emerged that, in respect of many ideas that formed part of the science curriculum, students already had some understandings, albeit somewhat idiosyncratic in nature from the point of established science, before they were taught a specific idea. These came to be called ‘misconceptions’ or ‘alternative conceptions’ and were widespread, even universal, in occurrence (Gilbert and Watts, 1983) and they served to ‘interfere’ with the teaching being provided.
The three main alternative approaches to psychology came into prominence to account for these ‘alternative conceptions.’ They share the assumption that people learn by being mental active, not passively as behaviorism had assumed, and all provide accounts for how new knowledge is related to what is already known. They differ both in the relative importance of the individual in that process and that of the surrounding society.
The long-established ideas of Piaget (1929), which underpin all manifestations of what came to be called the ‘constructivist movement,’ place considerable emphasis on the role of the individual in learning, but do recognize the great educational value of interaction with the surrounding environment, of which other people form an important segment. However, much of his extensive empirical work was framed so as to provide support for his basic tenet: that the quality of understanding achieved was constrained by an individual’s general ‘stage’ (as he put it) of mental capability at any one time, this evolving roughly stepwise over the years of childhood and adolescence. The implication for teaching was that the demands made of the students could not exceed the capability of their current ‘stage.’ It was not clear what could be done to enable students to reach the next ‘stage.’ It was the rigidity of the ‘stage’ caveat, shown to be of doubtful validity, e.g., by Driver (1978), that led to its gradual replacement as the basis for research, initially by the ideas of Kelly and subsequently by those of Vygotsky.
Kelly (1970) focused on the individual as the major agent in learning; hence, his view is called ‘personal construct psychology.’ As he put it:
Constructive alternativism holds that man (sic) understands himself, his surroundings and his potentialities by devising constructions to place upon them and then testing the tentative utility of these constructions against such ad interim criteria as the successful prediction and control of events.
He thus rejected any notion of ‘stages’ in an individual’s development, seeing the pragmatic inclination to engage in prediction plus the testing of ideas as determining what can be learnt. He did accept the significance of other people in the learning process, with the caveat that:
To the extent that one person construes the construction process of another he may play a role in his social process involving the other person.
With the ‘stage’ idea seemingly discounted, the social dimension to learning moved center stage in the ‘social constructivist’ approach of Vygotsky (1986). This saw learning as a process of social enculturation of a learner by interaction with an authority, e.g., a teacher. Only that knowledge which lies within the ‘zone of proximal development’ of the learner, a phrase the meaning of which is much debated, can be learned. One major consequence for teaching of the Kellian and Vygotskian approaches has been the acceptance that, for effective learning to take place, the teacher must identify what a student already knows about a subject and relate to that when introducing new knowledge. This has led to the development of clear procedures for identifying and remediating dysfunctional ‘alternative conceptions’ (Vosniadou et al., 2007). Meanwhile, efforts to locate students’ zones of proximal development have been one of the major purposes for assessment.
‘Formative assessment’ is the identification of students’ knowledge about a given topic, the intention being to subsequently take action to improve that understanding. Teachers carry it out continuously during lessons, mainly through verbal questioning, and amend their subsequent teaching in the light of what they find out (Black, 1998). For formative assessment to be valid, the students must trust that the information they reveal – deliberately or accidently – will be used for their benefit. Alas, there is a paradox here, for such information can also be used to comparatively evaluate the performance of the students, which is ‘summative assessment’ and which is the lynchpin of institutional accountability (Bell and Cowie, 2001). Maintaining a reputation for integrity with students – a condition for retaining their trust – poses a professional dilemma for science teachers.
Whilst all educational systems include public examinations at specific intervals in the educational process, there has been a recent growth of very large-scale international systems of student assessment. The ‘Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study’ (TIMSS) of students in the fourth and eighth Grade, was first administered in 1995 and at 4-year intervals thereafter. It is focused on what students know of the concepts of a common core curriculum in the two subjects: an entry into the archive is provided by TIMSS (2013). The ‘Programme for International Student Assessment’ (PISA) study, organized by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), involves eleventh Grade students and is conducted every 3 years, starting in 2000. PISA examines the ability of students to relate what they have learnt at school to real-life situations: see OECD (2013). Both systems publish their results country by country. Students of a few countries/districts, e.g., Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, always do very well in these surveys. All the countries taking part in these schemes view their ‘league position’ as a matter of national pride and introduce reforms intended to emulate the schools of the most successful countries, i.e., in reality the increased use of behavioral psychology. It is a matter of interest that, whilst this is going on, the most ‘successful’ countries are moving away from such approaches.
Science Teacher Education
University graduates who become science teachers do so from a wide variety of academic backgrounds. Given that national curricula are intended to provide a fairly uniform provision of education, intending and actual science teachers normally go through a process of professional development which may be based either in a university or in a school. Whilst that education is often divided into two sections, a compulsory ‘preservice’ phase and a less rigidly managed ‘in-service’ phase, a strong case can be made for a more coordinated provision.
Such a provision can be provided with respect to three components: first, the ‘professional’ element, directly concerned with teaching and learning; second, the ‘personal’ element, concerned with the individual’s perception of him-/ herself as a teacher; and third, the ‘social’ element, concerned with the individual’s perception of him-/herself as a member of a community of teachers. An orchestrated program of ‘teacher professional development’ can provide an evolution of professional identity across the pre- and in-service phases: in well-funded environments, this does take place (Bell and Gilbert, 1996).
That provision should be concerned with four themes. First, the teacher’s knowledge of the subject(s) they are to teach. Many teachers have to work in schools outside their specialized field of undergraduate study. Moreover, they may not have a suitable depth of understanding of key concepts, for these may not have been revisited since their own school days. Second, they will need to be introduced to the wide range of teaching techniques that are now in use. Third, they will need help in adapting concepts into a form that students can understand: they will have to deploy their so-called ‘pedagogic content knowledge’ (Shulman, 1987). Fourth, it will be necessary to ensure that their personal beliefs about science education are compatible with the assumptions of the curriculum they will have to teach.
Successful science teachers – those who remain in the profession for many years and enjoy the experience – will have had such an experience (Gilbert, 2010).
Research in Formal Science Education
The established pattern of research in science education – as in the rest of education – makes use of two contrasting approaches. Qualitative research, small scale, often case study, is intended to establish the nature of educational events and to identify concepts that can be used to represent them. Quantitative research, large scale, is intended to establish the incidence of educational events and the relationships between the concepts that represent those events. ‘Mixed method’ research uses a combination of these two types. For a wide variety of reasons, neither policy makers nor practicing teachers make much use of published science education research (Levin, 2013). Recently, researchers have begun to use ‘design-based research’ as the organizational framework for their activities (Cobb et al., 2003). Design-based research rests on five guiding principles. First, it seeks to solve real-world problems by making interventions into educational systems and evaluating their outcomes. Second, it is theory driven, intending that theory will be advanced. Third, it is interactive, in that the work is carried in a partnership between researchers and practitioners. Fourth, it uses a variety of existing research methodologies. Fifth, the outcomes of such work are context dependent, such that reports of what was done and why it was done must include full accounts of the educational situations in which it took place (Wang and Hannafin, 2005). It will be some time before enough examples of such work will have been published and conclusions drawn about whether it overcomes the established problems of the use of research.
The Provision of Informal Science Education
The Rise of Informal Science Education
Informal science education was first provided for adults in the nineteenth century (Layton, 1973). The development of the notion of ‘museum’ and the availability of cheap paper-based publications were major factors in extension of the genre, first into family-based education, and then directly into the education of school-age students.
Provided for a wide variety of purposes and in an ever-increasing range of ways, informal science education, in its purist form, has a number of characteristics that differentiate it from formal provision. It is voluntary, in that the learner decides what to learn, when, and how; based on experiences and themes that are presented without structure or sequence, so that the learner has to decide what to do; open-ended, in that the learner decides when to start and when to stop; and not certificated, so that any assessments made are only for the benefit of the learner (Wellington, 1990).
With respect to school-age learners, the increased incidence of informal science education can be attributed to the interplay of a range of factors. Science and technology advance at an ever-faster rate, producing ideas and artifacts that are of interest to young people. The development of the formal science curriculum cannot keep up, not least because the new ideas require elaborate and expensive illustrations and equipment, which national educational systems are unable, or unwilling, to afford. Private agencies will afford to do so, often in anticipation of being able to charge fees for access. The element of voluntary choice and decision by a young person leads to their engagement in learning, thus counteracting declining attitudes to science education. Perhaps most importantly of all, a young person can choose to actively learn with somebody else – family member or friend – whilst the formal education system largely prohibits this. Whilst some informal resources are based on behaviorist principles, for example when the direct transmission of factual knowledge is involved, the great majority make use of social constructivist principles, requiring the active engagement of the learner – alone or with others – in order for the experience to advance. This flexibility in terms of psychology of learning has led to a wide range of types of provision. In the next two sections, a sketch of the main forms will be given.
Provision through Conventional Media
Provision of opportunities for science education by museums, botanical gardens, and zoos can be grouped together because they all contain original objects, inanimate or animate, about which the visitor is invited to construct a narrative with the aid of a brief explanatory text. In the case of museums, an innovation in the last 20 years has been the addition of the ‘science center,’ in which exhibits require visitors to take particular actions and then providing feedback on the consequences of the actions taken (Rennie and McClafferty, 1996). Members of this grouping provide the maximum opportunity for visitors to learn together in self-organized groups.
Provision through ‘popular books,’ newspapers, and magazines may be grouped together because they are all paper based and accessible through a wide variety of outlets, e.g., newsagents, supermarkets, and train stations (Afonso and Gilbert, 2013). Their great attraction is that their timing of use is entirely in the hands of the learner.
Provision through Electronic Media
This large and very important grouping includes radio, television, the Internet, and computer games, all provided through electronic media. Of the long-standing media, radio is of particular value in providing access to learning for very low-density populations, e.g., Australia, or for very large and culturally complex countries, e.g., India. The advent of television so soon after the introduction of national radio systems has so far blighted the development of this medium for the provision of science education (Mazzonetto et al., 2005). Film and television may be grouped together because their content and range of program types overlap, e.g., documentaries, news broadcasts, and movies. Television, in particular, has been found to be a valuable source of information and understanding (Dhingra, 2006). Of all the electronic-based media, the newest, the Internet (Hsi, 2007) and computer games (Connelly et al., 2012) are probably having the greatest impact and developing at the fastest rate.
Historically, there has been relatively little research done into the use and impact of informal learning resources, both in general and in science education in particular. The book Learning Science in Informal Environments is the most comprehensive account to date (Bell et al., 2009).
The Relationship between Formal and Informal Science Education
Because of the general underfunding of development for the formal science curriculum, an increasing use is being made of informal resources by co-opting them into the formal system. Where ‘school visits’ are made, for example to a science center, the greatest impact on learning is achieved by careful timing of the visit in relation to the coverage of the curriculum. However, it seems that most use of such recourses is made by students at their own initiative, thus retaining many of the elements of genuine informal learning (Stocklmayer et al., 2010).
In educational terms, the relative significance of the formal and informal systems will swing toward the latter, given the entrepreneurial initiative that drives the latter and the bureaucratic inertia that infests the former.
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