Do the foundations of science education need fixing? Or is there a problem with the UK education system as a whole?  

 

Stephen John Molyneux.

In the academic year 2015/16 around 100,000 new students started their University life as either a Physics, Chemistry or Biology student in the UK. This number makes up roughly 20% of first year undergraduates and so it is therefore important evaluate the current state of science education in the UK. We can also delve further and see whether there are any problems with the UK education system as a whole and if there’s anything we can learn from other countries.

Looking at the current curriculum for the science A-Levels and there are a lot of positives that can be seen. They all cover a broad range of topics, and generally give the students a background knowledge that will provide them with a good base for what they will encounter at University. Using physics as an example, the topics include mechanics, electricity, nuclear physics and even some quantum phenomena (to name just a few). The broad range of topics is clearly beneficial for the students as it should give them a base knowledge of the subject that they can then build on and develop. However, being so broad means that there is a somewhat lack of depth in the material. This causes problems when the students leave for University, sometimes finding that the degree they have chosen to study at University is very different from the subject they studied in school. As a physics student myself, it will be the subject I largely focus on in this article, but I will also bring in viewpoints from other students taking other degrees for comparison.

The language of physics is that of mathematics. At university, almost all physics modules will contain mathematics in one form or another, whether it’s calculus, geometry or statistics. There’s no hiding from it if you are a physics undergraduate. For me, there was a noticeable difference between how physics was taught at A-Level and how it is taught at University. At university, there is a definite emphasis on learning and deriving the mathematics required from first principles and building a knowledge of the physics based around the mathematics. However, in A-Level physics there is very little mathematics at all. All that remains in A-Level physics today is simple rearrangement of equations and plugging numbers into them. The subject is based more on learning the theory and the facts associated with physics and being able to regurgitate definitions on various topics. This should be of high concern as the art of being able to set up problems from first principles is being lost amongst A-Level physics students. This ability is the very basis of everything they will do at university and is a very useful skill to have. Not using mathematics at the heart of teaching physics is equivalent to teaching English without the use of words. It doesn’t make sense not to use such a fundamental part of the subject in the learning process.

The connection between science and mathematics seems to have been lost over the last few decades and a better connection needs to be made, especially with physics, so that it is clear to students that mathematics is an integral part of the subject. A better link between science and mathematics and an appreciation that mathematics is an integral part of science is a small but significant step that would be of great use to the students.

Physics isn’t the only science which is lacking in mathematics. I spoke to Holly, a 2nd year chemistry student who is currently studying at the University of Bradford. She stated that an A-Level in mathematics wasn’t required for her degree despite the fact that mathematics is a large part of physical chemistry. This is the case for most other chemistry degrees and most courses only request at least a C in mathematics at GCSE (note that this is the same level of English required). With a lot of chemistry degrees not requiring A-Level mathematics you would be forgiven for thinking that the necessary mathematics would be taught in A-Level chemistry. However, it is still not included as part of the chemistry A-Level. “The maths in chemistry shouldn’t be ignored and a gentle introduction to it in A-Level would help. Otherwise those students who don’t study A-Level mathematics can suffer when they enter university.”

Would the introduction of maths be off-putting for potential students? These days it seems that it’s “cool” to not enjoy mathematics and this causes concerns that introducing more mathematics into physics and the other sciences could discourage students from wanting to take up the subjects. However, mathematics is the second most popular AS-Level choice (taken from Ofsted, 2014) with a take up of 84,000 students just behind English with 86,000. This suggests that students are willing to study mathematics and so adding more mathematics into other A-Levels shouldn’t scare students away from the subject. It could even be taken as far as to add more mathematics into GCSE level sciences and make it more the norm that sciences do include the necessary mathematics in secondary school. We shouldn’t be scared of telling it how it is and students will have to live with the fact that if they want to study a science then mathematics will, to some extent, always go with it.

Whilst talking to Holly, she also spoke of her concerns about the lack of practical/experimental work done at A-Level. She stated that during her chemistry degree, a lot of time is spent in the lab and that if there more emphasis on labs at A-Level, the transition between A-Level and University would have been a lot easier. “We spent a lot of time on titrations but that was about it. If the theory of using equipment correctly was put into A-Level exams, chemistry labs (at university) would be much more enjoyable”. She spoke of her Biology A-Level in a similar manner in terms of the lack of practical work done. Biology at university is very heavily based around experimental work and this lack of preparation at A-Level leaves students being thrown in at the deep end when they reach university, leaving it up to the department to teach the students almost starting from the very basics.

In the AQA A-Level science courses, only 20% of the final grade is assessed via practical examinations. My personal experience of the practical examination (for physics) was that it was more of an afterthought and was done as quickly as possible so that work on preparing for the exam could be prioritised. Very little time was actually spent performing experiments and learning the methods to complete them. For example, I was never shown how to use a multimeter (an instrument used to measure electric current, voltage and resistance) in my physics A-Level. The apparatus were always already set up for us, but this ability to setup the equipment was expected to be common knowledge in 1st year labs. It’s little things like this that can easily be changed and would make a big difference.  For comparison, if we look at the education system in Finland, science classes are limited to 16 students so that experiments can be performed in every lesson. This more hands on approach appears to work as Finland were ranked 6th in 2015 for science and maths education in a study by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), as opposed to the UK which was ranked 20th.

In my opinion, A-Levels should be self-contained and shouldn’t need overlap from other subjects to fully grasp the concepts and theories associated with that subject. However, this is exactly what the physics A-Level of today feels like. Comparing science subjects to arts and humanities and one thing that stands out is that degrees in the sciences tend to require at least one other science or mathematics A-Level to get a place on the course. The University of York actually offers different entry requirements for chemistry depending on whether the student has taken sciences or arts/humanities. For those studying chemistry plus 2 additional sciences, the entry requirements are AAB, but for those who study just chemistry and no other mathematics/science the offer is A*AA. This discriminates against those students wishing to study a variety of A-Levels including arts/humanities. These students shouldn’t feel like they are excluded from the scientific community if they only study one science subject. There is already a lot of pressure on students deciding what A-Levels to take. The choices students make when they are 16 years old can have a huge impact on their future in education and their future career. The present system feels like we are forcing students to decide on the sciences or arts/humanities path early on in their education. If a science degree is being at all considered by a student then they are almost obliged to choose to study at least one extra science and mathematics, if not 2 extra sciences. This takes away 2 or 3 of the usual 4 A-Level choices. Anyone who studies just one science at A-Level will find it very difficult to make their way onto a university degree in science. This could well stop potentially good science students from entering science at degree level. On the other hand, the arts and humanities require students to have taken just one specific A-Level that is usually the one they intend to study (or one that is very similar) and the rest of their A-Levels can be of their choosing. If A-Level sciences did include all the necessary mathematics and theory required to take on a degree in that science subject, they could be more like arts/humanities in this sense. This would also mean that A-Level choices would be far less restricted for the students.

As highlighted above there are clearly some problems with science education, however, let’s take a look at education in the UK as a whole and see if there are larger problems that need to be looked at.

One thing that stands out in the UK education system is the amount of examinations that take place, starting from primary school with SATS, all the way through GCSE’s and A-Levels and then into university. Comparing this to Finland, whose education system is always ranked highly, they rarely take exams or do homework until they are well into their teens. Other Nordic countries follow this style of education and despite this still perform well in the world rankings for education.

There are many methods of testing pupils other than examinations such as coursework, practicals, presentations and projects. As Einstein once said: “Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.” Judging students on their ability to pass examinations alone is not a fair assessment of their overall knowledge. At university coursework, projects, group work and presentations are used alongside examinations to test the students, which prepares them for life outside of university where the transferable skills gained from these various tasks are essential. More alternative assessments like these should also be implemented into A-Levels so that students are prepared for university and also to help those who don’t take on university and choose another route.

Another problem with the education system in the UK is that there are several examination boards all competing to be taken on by the schools. The schools will clearly want to choose the best exams for their students so they get the best marks and therefore place the school higher on the league tables. It’s basic economics that an increase in competition leads to a lowering in the price to attract consumers. In this case, it’s a lowering in the difficulty of the examinations. It also provides a problem for universities. The exam boards have to follow guidelines for the specification of the curriculum, but there are still differences, meaning that different students who have taken different exams from different exam boards won’t necessarily have learned the same topics. This means that universities have to spend time binging all the students to the same level at the beginning of first year to make sure that no students are left behind.

 

In Germany (ranked 13th in the OECD table for science education), vocational apprenticeships are a lot more common and are as popular as university degrees. The same cannot be said for the UK however, and there is a large emphasis on going to University even if it is not necessarily required for their chosen career path. Some people just aren’t suited to the academic environment, especially the one we have in the UK which is so heavily based on examinations. University offers young adults new experiences and benefits them not only in an academic sense but a social one too. However, we force students into taking on university and as a society, judge those who don’t.

There should less pressure on students to go to university and the alternatives made more appealing. I talked to a student of Public Relations who said she felt she would have let her family and friends down if she didn’t go to university, even though there were other routes she could have taken to pursue a career in public relations. This pressure to go to university is felt by many young adults across the country and it doesn’t need to be this way.

There is definite room for improvement in not just science education, but the education system in the UK as a whole. The examples set by other European countries like Finland and Germany who are generally placed higher in terms of science education should definitely be looked at and the aim for the UK should be to compete with these countries. Work needs to be done on the science A-Levels such that they will better prepare students who are going onto university, as well as those not continuing in their education. More mathematics in the sciences is definitely required as well as more of an emphasis on practical/experimental work. More assessment methods should be introduced that will play to the strengths of all students and make it a more even playing field. This is true for all A-Levels and not just in the sciences. A-Levels should aim to contain all the necessary content so that studying a single A-Level alone would be enough to pursue a degree in that subject. The current system whereby different examination boards compete in a bid for schools to select them should be scrapped. Finally, alternatives to University should be funded more and encouraged rather than being looked at as a step down from attending University. These changes would bring about a better, fairer education system that would hopefully see UK students competing more effectively with their counterparts from around the world.

Do the foundations of science education need fixing? Or is there a problem with the UK education system as a whole?  

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