Are we testing the right science?

Written by: Gerry Mallaghan | Published:
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Do current methods of external assessment accurately measure the skills and abilities of science students? Or more simply, are we testing the ‘right’ science? Gerry Mallaghan asks the question...


The use of modern technology and social media are a common part of today’s society with an estimated 2.95 billion people using social media across the world in 2019 (Clement, 2020).

With more users there is an increase in the number of cases of social media abuse. The term “fake news” has now become a common phrase, partly due to its frequent use by the out-going US president.

Social media is a prolific conduit for the spread of fake news and has been so convincing that it has even infected the mainstream media, such as the now debunked Momo challenge of early 2019 (Moore, 2019). More recently investigations have been launched into links between arson attacks on mobile phone masts and conspiracy theories on social media platforms linking 5G phone networks to the rise of coronavirus.

On a personal note I have lost count of the number of times I have had to address comments made by my students in my classroom as “facts” that are nothing more than stories on Facebook, e.g. coughing CPR (BHF, 2020). The importance of teaching science, scientific method and the skills needed by students to evaluate information is more critical than ever.

In the UK, the hours that make up the average academic week provide a narrow window of opportunity in which science can be presented to a developing mind. Science is placed in the national curriculum alongside the requirements of reading, writing and mathematics.

By key stage 4, students spend more time in science lessons – 240 hours double science to 360 hours in single/separate sciences – than mathematics or English – 120 hours each (UCAS, 2018). When added to the fact that science is a compulsory subject until the age of 16, a significant part of a student’s education will be science-based.

Teaching science incorporates a range of skills and subject content from other subjects. For example, the recording, analysis and evaluation of data is a cornerstone of science and is common to many other GCSE subjects.

Many of the current health problems, such as obesity, smoking, sexually transmitted diseases, and cancer are discussed with students as part of the science national curriculum at various levels. Science involves students learning and implementing a complex assortment of activities, mental processes, routines, and protocols. When a student is working scientifically, they try to make sense of the world through investigation and effective communication.

Science is based on a system of learning by discovery, by comparing, by accessing technology, by discussing, by presenting findings and challenging the findings of others in a variety of ways (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009; Nature Methods, 2009). This is why science is a core subject in the national curriculum framework alongside English and mathematics.

The current structure of teaching science within the national curriculum framework has its own limitations, such as presenting concepts as oversimplified half-truths. What is worse is that these half-truths then must be unlearned before the true information can be learned.

An example of this is the concept of electron orbits. Many students and teachers think that electrons orbit atomic nuclei like planets around the sun (Donnelly, 2000).
Or the fact that for years students have been taught to link the words breathing and respiration, bringing a tear to the eyes of many GCSE biology teachers.

The fact that students only study science to the age of 16 means that they can learn incomplete truths and develop misconceptions which they carry into the real world. This can have significant implications for wider society.

While it is a complex issue, it could be argued that a driving force behind this teaching of half-truths is that schools and individual teachers are held to account for exam performance and there may be a mentality of “as long as they pass the GCSE exam” (NEU, 2019).

Perhaps science should be split up into a range of topics that students can select from with a underpinning skills-based programme that is common to all of the topics. This would mean students would be able to study the aspects of science most applicable to them while still learning the key skills relating to scientific method.

Science education clearly has an important role within the curriculum. The question I am posing is: do current methods of external assessment accurately assess the skills and abilities of science students? Or more simply, are we testing the “right” science?

With the shift to teacher-based assessment after the cancelling of the 2020 examination period, it is likely that the debate about the role of terminal external exams will be re-opened.

Perhaps, in science, a core skills-based system in which teacher assessment and professional judgement is used as the method of assessment is more important than a system based on memory.

As most people have instant access to information online through smartphones is it time for a more skills-based method of assessment and there is less need for a written fact-based exams.

Maybe a new system which encourages students to develop the ability to produce logical arguments based on evidenced-based facts rather than just recall standalone facts is the way forward. This would allow students to develop the ability to evaluate and interpret the source of the information rather than just accepting information as fact.
The ability to problem-solve, think critically and communicate effectively are essential life-skills. Giving students the skills to investigate, analyse and criticise qualitative and quantitative research is a way of reducing the impact of social media scare stories based on flawed research or unfounded rumours and stopping the fake news epidemic


  • Gerry Mallaghan is an experienced teacher of 14 years, currently working at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. Read his previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2HS0fbN


Further information & resources

  • BHF: Could something called ‘cough CPR’ save my life? Accessed May 2020: https://bit.ly/2WjlhJn
  • Clement: Number of global social network users 2010-2023, Statista, April 2020: https://bit.ly/2LkvOh4
  • Donnelly: Secondary science teaching under the National Curriculum, School Science Review (81), 2000.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica: Scientific method, May 2009: https://bit.ly/2Aie1Fc
  • Moore: BBC conceals how it fell for Momo hoax, The Times, March 2019:https://bit.ly/3dAo4ns
  • Nature Methods: Defining the scientific method, Nature Methods (6), April 2009: https://bit.ly/381byMu
  • NEU: Reformed GCSEs are damaging the mental health of young people, and failing to accurately reflect their abilities, August 2019: https://bit.ly/3dAynYq
  • UCAS: GCSE qualification overview, August 2018: https://bit.ly/3bjlMY9


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