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Broadening Secondary School Science

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Promoting the importance of science in education and how it may relate to other subjects in the curriculum.

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Opening minds with open questions.

By Tamjid Mujtaba, on 24 April 2019

Written by John Taylor

A great many of the questions asked during the course of everyday lessons are of the form: ‘Can you guess what I, the teacher, am thinking?’ There is an expected right answer, and relief all around, for both class and teacher, when someone guesses it. What are the 7 signs of life? Can anyone remember the equation linking work done, force and distance? What is the name of the second group in the periodic table?

These questions are the staple of much teacher-student dialogue. They are also closed questions: questions to which there is a single correct answer. Answering closed questions call for recollection, or intelligent guesswork. What closed questions don’t call for is independent thought, or reflection on the merits of alternative possible answers. As such, their value as promoters of learning by means of engaged inquiry is limited.

By contrast, open questions, questions to which there is no obvious right answer, are invitations to thought. I suggest therefore that asking questions to which there is more than one plausible, defensible answer is a good plan if our aim is to foster students whose experience of science is one of active, engaged, independent thinking, not passive reception of the right answers (where rightness is determined by the set of prescribed answers on the exam mark scheme).

Let me illustrate the educational potency of open questions with a question I posed to my year 9 students this week. It had been suggested to me by a colleague in our Learning Support Department. She had fallen into discussion with a group of students about whether you use more energy if you go up the stairs one at a time, or two at a time.

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Broadening Secondary School Science

By Tamjid Mujtaba, on 6 February 2019

There is much that is good in England about school science. Compared to most countries, we have well qualified teachers and a tradition of practical work with employed laboratory technicians (at least in in secondary schools). As a society, we value science and many scientists are held in high esteem. However, we have one big problem. And that is that too many students by the time they are 16 are delighted to turn their back on the subject.

Many suggestions have been made as to how we can engage more young people with science. Our own work has shown that when teenagers recognise the ways that continuing with science can help them get good jobs, they are more likely to continue with the subject. But the fact remains that many teenagers find science too narrow for them. They feel that it doesn’t allow them to demonstrate creativity in the way that many other subjects, in particular the humanities, do. Science doesn’t feel part of their identity.

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