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Science Bites

There was an interesting blogpost at the Guardian this week by Simon Underdown, an anthropology lecturer at Oxford Brookes: Teach the bigger story of science.

Underdown asks why so many young people become bored by science, and suggests an answer might be found in the way we have built our curriculum:

The "Google generation" is taught in bite-sized chunks throughout their school lives [...] the same old examples makes for boring lessons and unmotivated students (not to mention teachers). Perhaps if bite-sized subject syllabi were to be replaced with broader subject descriptions that rely on linking well-developed core principles, we could develop a much wider range of illustrations and examples to really motivate students.

Similar points were made about US school-science in a Scientific American this week (see page 2). It's not exactly a new critique of the UK system either. In 1998, the highly influential Beyond 2000 (pdf) report argued:

The heart of the cultural contribution of science is a set of major ideas about the material world and how it behaves [… but] in focusing on the detail (for example, by setting out the content as a list of separate ‘items’ of knowledge as does the English and Welsh National Curriculum), we have lost sight of the major ideas that science has to tell.

Instead Beyond 2000 advocates a curriculum built upon a set of ‘explanatory stories’. The word 'story' here used to denote structure, development and coherence. It isn't a suggestion that science is fictional. This might sound as if they just want to simplify the curriculum even more (I'm not going to use the phrase 'dumbing down', it brings me out in spots). But to say these explanatory stories are reductive and deliberately eschewing detail would, I think, be a misreading. Rather, they advocate a coherent structure to a curriculum, one that demonstrates links and connections and around which teachers can slot in a rich set of examples. Influential as Beyond 2000 was, however, the speed of curriculum change being what it is in this country (i.e. slow), twelve years on, its criticisms still stand.

For me, the emphasis on bite-sized science isn't just a problem because it is boring, it also distills knowledge into something you report back on, for credit. This is fine when you are faced with an exam the next morning (e.g. BBC Bitesize), but it cannot be the basis of a science education system. Bitty science alone isn't especially fulfilling or useful - for future scientists, future 'publics', or the young audiences of school-science as they interact with science right now (because childhood isn't just prep for adulthood).

I'm young enough to have had most of my education structured by the National Curriculum. I adored my secondary school science teacher, who was a bit of an eccentric. She told us Ohm's law was beautiful, biology only pretends to be science, our media is as ideological as the stuff she'd grown up with in Moscow, and how best to play the system. Under her suggestion, we ordered syllabi for a couple of quid direct from the exam board (roughly what is now sold as revision guides). We learnt its bitesized science, regurgitated and promptly forgot it. We left with the best science grades that school had ever seen, but uninspired.

A bite-sizing of knowledge is something I've noticed in the course of my research on the Horrible Science books (major UK-based non-fiction brand for 8-12s). As with a lot of non-fiction books for kids, they celebrate short sharp 'facts', often delivered as quick fire trivia quizzes or simply bullet point lists. This in itself doesn't upset me. A good little factoid can be enormous amounts of fun. Moreover, I should note that Horrible Science does surround its list of facts with a bit of background, activities and discussion. However, what it does do with its facts, and the instructions for 'experiments' for that matter, is present them as material for showing off. The emphasis on learning science for personal success, one-upmanship even. A few examples from some of the books' introductions:

Now’s your chance to learn a few key words. And afterwards you can sound off and amaze your friends and silence your teacher (Sounds Dreadful, p8-9)
actually they’re [the laws of thermodynamics] horribly easy to understand. (Don’t tell anyone how easy, and with luck your friends will think you are a scientific genius!) (Killer Energy, p14)
Your new-found knowledge of light science is sure to put your teacher in the shade. And afterwards, who knows? You might even become a leading light in science – then you’ll really enjoy the limelight! (Frightening Light, p7).

In many respects Horrible Science offers knowledge as a source of power for the child. I can see why this might be very appealing (indeed, Sue Blackmore suggests we promote the idea that scientific learning distinguishes you). I don't mind it too much in a set of popular science books or the odd bit of revision, but as a whole education strategy, it's not enough. Bite-sized science is something you take in so as to re-deliver for a reward. You don't explore, you don't critique, you don't unpick, you don't develop. You catch, repeat, dispose. It's competitive and individualistic. It's bat and ball science.

The style of Horrible Science sits within a history of non-fiction publishing which stretches a lot further the National Curriculum. There are also broader issues of knowledge in 21st century (digital) media hinted at by Underdown’s reference to the ‘Google generation’. But I can’t help wondering if Horrible Science’s success is in some part down to the school-science culture of post-Thatcher Britain. The first Horrible Science was published in 1996, eight years after the Education Reform Act which brought in the National Curriculum, key stage tests and league tables.


Just wanted to say that I loved what you wrote about "Bite-sized science" being "something you take in so as to re-deliver for a reward. You don't explore, you don't critique, you don't unpick, you don't develop".

You have eloquently summarised one of my main frustrations with the way we teach science in the state sector. The "modular" approach to examining means that the key idea of a narrative arc to courses that Beyond 2000 suggests is undermined - the students and teachers focus exclusively on the exam they are next going to sit and then forget about it as soon as it's done - there's no sense of "story", despite some good attempts by textbook writers and others.

There are other problems with post 2006 school science courses - not least arising from the conflicting "needs" of the "science for scientists" and "science for citizens" elements of the courses currently on offer. I suspect that these problems could be (at least partially) dealt with by some restructuring of courses and perhaps planning a 5-year curriculum - after all, science is compulsory for 5 years at secondary school.

Sadly, I think the modular approach is here to stay - sitting shorter exams, spread out over the two years of GCSE science seems to result in better grades for schools (I should look up stats on this). I believe that it is perfectly possible for schools to decide that their students will sit all modules at the end of the two year course, but very few schools choose to do this because this is likely to have a negative impact on the numbers of students getting the magical A* - C grades.

Thanks Alom.

I can see why the modular system frustrates. Now. When I was a GCSE student, I loved the way they split things up (and the bite-sizing revision, I thought it was very clever and efficient). But I guess I had rather short-term aims back then. As a uni teacher, I don't mind modules, but you do also need a larger story/ links, etc (also, I don't pretend that my Imperial MSc students teach me much about how to educate the UK corpus of under 16s).

On the "science for scientists" vs. "science for citizens" aspects of post-06 (post-BY2000...) curricula, I think its the dichotomy that's the problem in itself. But my many, many list of problems with that is probably another blog post.

Would love to hear / read your thoughts on the "science for scientists" vs. "science for citizens" thing. I'd love to think we could create a single course that caters for all, delivering a wonderful combination of the "story" of science as well as the "skills" and "facts" we want them to learn so that they can become well-informed citizens or research scientists. My own experience in the classroom suggests this would be an near-impossible task. So, I think a range of courses would better meet the needs of students - but the problem with this is in deciding which students study which courses (not to mention the other practical problems schools would face in trying to implement a range of science courses rather than the one or two they currently teach).

With the current system, my students certainly feel that the "science for scientists" GCSE route is for the "smart" kids and the other one is for the not-so-smart kids. I suspect that a lot of teachers think of the courses in this way too. So, in effect, we are not differentiating between "science for scientists" and "science for scientists", we are simply doing the age-old thing of differentiating from the outcome of exam results. But in aiming to address this dichotomy, we have created courses which are incoherent in many ways.

It's hard trying to think about this stuff while I'm trying to do all the other things I need to do to pay the rent, but I can't help but think that, if the right people put their heads together, we (they?) might come up with a better way of teaching science at school.

This is not to denigrate the efforts of those who have developed the courses we currently teach - in the relatively short time I have been thinking about these things, I can see what a challenging set of problems they face.

Anyway, these are my rambling thoughts on this on a Sunday morning. So, if you have the time and inclination, please do write more of your thoughts on all this - I find your take on it very interesting.


The very short version of my thoughts on "science for scientists" vs. "science for citizens" is that it's not a very productive division, especially in KS4.

(a) I'm not convinced kids know that early (or should be made to decide...).
(b) Even if that was ok, do we want to emphasise such science/ public divides? Surely one of the best ways for those who don't grow up to be scientists to trust and know (and feel able to argue with...) scientists is if they feel they have some sort of shared cultural experience?
(c) That cultural idea that science is for the smart ones is something already pretty entrenched in our society, it ends up playing to it. Fold in class to that, and it worries me. I saw so many teachers in the early 00's just say 'oh, my school will just do the citizen option, our kids won't grow up to be scientists anyway'.

Plus, it was Thatcher's idea, and she stole milk so it must be bad :)

Seriously, I do love the whole 'for the people' rhetoric of the 21st C stuff, I'm just not convinced this is the way to go about it. I guess it boils down to the fact I'm way too post-PUS a sci comm'ner to take this divide seriously. A load of it is predicated on DURANT for goodness sake.

p.s. The 'citizenship' they tend to assume is ENTIRELY as adult. V. little idea of the child having engagement as a child. I can see why this is the case, but it just seems a bit clueless to me.

Thanks for taking the time to respond - even in your brief response you raise many interesting issues, which I think would be useful to discuss at greater length - with everyone who cares about how we should teach science. Sadly, I'm not sure that's a conversation that is taking place as it should. And it's a conversation that is unlikely to take place again soon, as so much has been invested by so many in implementing the 2006 changes (the recent QCDA "consultation" really does not count as such a conversation).

I agree with you: I don't think the decision to split the teaching of science into these categories has been of any benefit to anyone (except textbook publishers and examining boards which have financially benefitted from the introduction of new courses). I've kind of resigned myself to the fact that this division is here to stay, but what you wrote about emphasising the science / public divide makes me think that perhaps I should not be resigned to it and perhaps we (the science teaching community) should have that particular argument again. (I attended some of the meetings pre-2006 when the science / citizen split was about to be introduced and saw people pretty much come to blows over it).

For me, science is integral to what I think of as "culture" - it saddens me that so many people, including so-called "smart" ones, don't get get that.

The exams fuck everything up - especially this notion that we have done our jobs as teachers if we can get our students to get a C grade or above. I know that I am being naive - we need the exam system and league tables or society just won't function properly, right?

We would do more interesting things in class, we would set more challenging practicals / coursework if we didn't have to care about exam grades. Instead, we get our kids to "investigate the resistance of a piece of wire" because we know that this is a "good investigation" to carry out to ensure good marks. A teacher I know recently carried out an "investigation" involving dissolving sugar in water with a Year 11 group (16 year-olds). I kid you not. And her only reason for doing this was that it was the easiest way for her to get the students doing the "data analysis" that the course demands. She knew it would bore the kids senseless, but did it anyway, because she sees her primary goal as getting the kids the best grades she can - which is subtly, but importantly, different from giving them the best science education she can.

In an ideal world, perhaps we would tailor make courses to meet the needs / talents of individual students / groups of students. It frustrates me that I can't spend time with those "bottom set" kids (and let's be honest, that's what we call them) doing something more useful than force-feeding them stuff from the curriculum. I had a wonderful bunch of students in such a class last year and I wish I could have used my time with them to share ideas about the world in my own way, rather than in a way that was dictated by the need for them to sit exams. I'm sure they would have gone away with a far deeper appreciation of science had I been allowed to do that.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts in response to what you wrote. Sadly not as clear and coherent as yours, but hey, it's Sunday evening and I'm just waiting for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer to start on TV (much better than first Fantastic Four film, but does not do justice to the Silver Surfer, one of my favourite comic book characters).