The BBC struggled this morning with the Royal Chemistry Society’s Report claiming that modern science students at 16 do not have anything like the mathematical and scientific grounding their parents and grandparents had if they studied the O level syllabus. They accepted the evidence that the brightest modern students achieved very low marks when faced with 1960s style questions, but opined that 1960s students would probably have fared equally badly if faced with a modern paper. They did express one truth – children are taught differently and taught different things these days.
The issue is, which is the better system? This year in the Wokingham Schools debating competition I set one debate topic on green issues. One floor speaker told us that she had been taught general global warming theory in at least four subjects at the same time – Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Geography. She felt she had been taught it in one or two other subjects as well just for good measure. She argued that this had taken up time which could have been much better used in teaching her the basics of Chemistry, Biology and Geography. Global warming could have been handled successfully in one subject syllabus. Interestingly, although all the pupils had been offered large helpings of global warming theory, some expressed a scientific scepticism about some of its claims and the evidence base, showing that you cannot prevent bright pupils from asking critical questions, the most important foundation of scientific advance.
I look forward to receiving my copy of the Society’s Report. Of course many modern pupils work hard and many achieve good results. That is not the issue. The issue is, are we stretching them and educating them in the best way? Isn’t there more need for them to understand more of the basics of science, rather than so much emphasis on the social, environmental and economic context of science?