There has been a discussion recently in the chemistry education press about the importance of teaching chemistry in context, and the related ideas around problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning. Researching and choosing different methodologies for teaching science is part of on-going personal and sector-wide developments, and influenced by many personal and institutional factors. During my own teaching career, I particularly enjoyed developing new methods of teaching and always kept in mind some early advice: “teaching methods and ideas tend to cycle round; never throw away ‘out-of-date’ resources, they will become useful again at some point in the future!”. Read about my action research into ‘visual learning’ in science within the ASE School Science Review (PDF) (number 355, page 99).
Teaching in context is and always will be a vital part of engaging young people in all aspects of their learning. Education, in its broadest liberal sense of passing on a cultural heritage to the next generation, ensures an entitlement for all young people to be a fully engaged member of a society, through having the literacy (including scientific) to understand and engage with others. Part of the skill of teaching is hooking all learners into our subject. The awe and wonder that science and technology has shown us, provide a powerful source of these ‘hooks’ to help illustrate to learners why we wish to teach them what we are teaching them.
Biology has perhaps the clearest direct relevance to young people, being immersed as they are in the natural world for their whole lives, learning to observe, interpret and theorise from a very young age. Physics has magnificence and grandeur on its side – able to explain the universe with just a few theories, and of course the billion euro machines (CERN and ITER) used to find evidence to support these theories. Chemistry sits at the centre of all of this, providing among much else the details and understanding of biological processes and the revolutionary materials needed to build the machines of physics.
Despite the vital nature of science in our modern lives, it is not always held in high esteem in our society. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s first national UK survey shows that 40% of people believe chemistry causes greater harmful effects than benefits. Part of teaching the sciences in context is to help learners to understand the evidence and make reasoned decisions about what they hear and read.
Following on from GCE Sciences reform, the current GCSE Sciences are being reformed for first teaching in September 2016. The GCSE subject content from the DfE has been criticised by some for removing the contexts that were seen in previous curricula. This move seems in line with the Government’s push towards a more fact based National Curriculum. While the government have defined what is to be learnt, the way in which this is taught remains with the teachers in the classrooms in the schools and colleges around the country.
The French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré said: “The Scientist must set in order. Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” So, if the new curriculum is focused on the facts, let us use context to help cement these facts into the houses of science. This educational philosophy has a strong tradition in the UK, not least in the work of the Nuffield Foundation from the 1940s onwards. For many years now, OCR has offered not just concept-led qualifications, but also context-led qualifications in which contexts are built into the foundations of the specifications. For example, following the Beyond 2000 report, the Nuffield Foundation, University of York Science Education Group, OCR and Oxford University Press developed the context-led Twenty First Century Science Suite, which makes clear the distinction between teaching of scientific literacy (science for all) and science for scientists (additional/separate sciences).
The third iteration of this project will be available for teaching from 2016 (GCSE Science B) alongside the concept-led Gateway Suite (GCSE Science A). Similarly at A Level, OCR has long offered a concept-led suite of qualifications (Science A) alongside context-led qualifications such as Salters Advanced Chemistry (Chemistry B) and Advancing Physics (Physics B). New for this year is an Advancing Biology qualification (Biology B), carrying on the innovative tradition of OCR qualifications. Details of all qualifications can be found at the OCR Science page.
In addition to the qualifications and supporting resources produced by OCR, lie a plethora of offline and online resources to help teachers provide additional exciting and relevant contexts in which to teach science. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Context and Problem Based Learning website, the Institute of Physics’ Teaching Advanced Physics website, and the Field Studies Council’s website. So, whether you are using concept-led or context-led qualifications in your centre, remember that you are teaching the next generation to become scientifically literate citizens and scientists, and the context is there to help them on their journey.
Dr David Paterson - Subject Specialist - GCE Science
David joined OCR in September 2015 to support teachers in their delivery of A Level Chemistry. He was until recently a teacher of science and Head of Department in Hertfordshire schools. He is particularly interested in teacher training and development, and improving teaching methods in the classroom.
Before teaching, David worked at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, researching novel anti-cancer kinase inhibitors, following on from similar research during his D.Phil. at the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics in Oxford.
In his spare time he plays the French Horn, trains in Martial Arts and enjoys major DIY projects around his house, alongside bringing up his three children.