Guest Post: GCSE science 2019: teaching beyond the exams

Writing on behalf of the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) ahead of his upcoming workshop on this topic, science specialist Ed Walsh makes the case for refocusing teaching and learning beyond this year’s GCSE science examinations…

As anyone working in a secondary school knows, we’re now entering the “home straight” with GCSE exam classes. Good GCSE grades are important: they provide passports to the next phase. But I believe schools and teachers should be focusing beyond the exams, and encouraging students to do the same.

There are two immediately obvious benefits of this approach. For many students, seeing the subject in a wider context is in fact exactly what they need to engage them whilst focusing on the grades. Second, if students see science lessons as not simply driven by the need to perform well in exams but as having a wider utility, it is more likely they will look favourably on science and other STEM subjects when considering options post-16. 

Let me say straight away that I’m not arguing for a dilution of effort with students being prepared for examination. High-performing students who are predicted to do well in GCSE science are, in many cases, likely to secure high grades in other subjects too. If they don’t get top grades in science, there’s a risk they’ll assume this field is not for them. We want to ensure they’re prepared for exam success and for what comes next.

Science is everywhere… so what?

I often ask teacher training candidates why they think science should be a core subject. I’m never very impressed by answers along the lines of “science is all around us”; it’s not that this isn’t true but that for many 15-year-olds this isn’t a clinching answer. They know science is there but that doesn’t mean they feel a need to study it. They may see it as significant generally, but “not for them”. As the EEF report Improving Secondary Science suggests, there is a difference between students seeing science as powerful and seeing it as relevant.

There is a real challenge for us here. It is quite conceivable that some highly able students will work very hard in KS4, secure good results but then abandon sciences post-16 on the basis that it was “a real slog and not much else”.  We wouldn’t expect all those successful in GCSE science to continue post-16, but we would hope for a reasonable proportion.

In fact, students go on to use skills and ideas they’ve accrued in science in a variety of ways. Thinking logically, analysing evidence and identifying causal links have a currency far beyond the science lab.  It’s just that we don’t always “sell” the subject that way.

The “science capital” approach

Recent research on science capital is highly pertinent for schools – as Science Museum Group Academy Manager Beth Hawkins explains here. The science capital teaching approach, developed by King’s College London, University College London and the Science Museum Group, makes a case with a strong evidence base to suggest that students are significantly more likely to progress to education, training and employment in STEM subjects if they have higher science capital.

Science capital, the group argues, consists of four components: what you know, how you think, what you do and who you know. The formal science curriculum is often stronger in the first two. We spend a lot of time getting students to understand key ideas and investigate phenomena.

Meaningful experiences and encounters

The “what you do” part is important; students need to see that science isn’t just an academic construct developed by schools, but is a much larger enterprise including HEIs, industry, fieldwork and many other areas. What’s happening in your locality that could engage students and show them how science is used?

“Who you know” is also key. It’s a truism but still a vital point that schools are distributors of life chances and some students start off with lower “capital” in many areas – including science. It can be incredibly powerful for a young person to have someone to say to them, as an individual, that they think they’d be good at being a scientist, studying engineering, going into technology or taking maths to a higher level. Lots of STEM professionals had this experience – a key encounter with someone from their extended family, local community or through an organised activity. 

For many young scientists these experiences and encounters don’t necessarily happen through school – but for some if they don’t happen through school they probably won’t at all. Two examples I’ve seen recently paying dividends in this area are the Greenpower Challenge and, for A-level students, Nuffield Research Placements. The services of a good STEM Ambassador are a real asset too.

A starting point could be to meet with colleagues and consider what got you into science (not teaching but your subject). I bet you’ll get a pretty diverse range of entry points. How could those be facilitated for your students?

A final point…

During secondary science CPD events, I often ask: “Is your KS3 course doing its job?” This starts as a discussion about the role of key ideas and developing enquiry skills in preparation for GCSE. However, we could also make the case for KS3 being judged on its capacity to inspire and engage. Do learners get to see how science not only changes lives but can be engaging, intriguing and rewarding? Do activities make students not just “GCSE ready”, but confident and capable? As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

Find out more:

The National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) offers resources and CPD to support whole-school review and improvement with a focus on provision for more able learners and challenge for all. The charity’s current support for science departments includes a new NACE Essentials guide to realising the potential of more able learners in GCSE science; a webinar exploring practical applications of the research on science capital; and an upcoming one-day workshop on strategies to challenge more able learners in secondary science.

NACE Associate Ed Walsh is an independent consultant in science education with experience as a secondary head of science, county science adviser and a regional and senior adviser for the Secondary National Strategy. He has published widely in the field, and has developed and delivered training for teachers and heads of science, including on behalf of ASE and AQA.

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