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Association for Science Education Conference 2014: Lessons learned

15 Jan, 2014

Association of Science Education 2014

January sees the annual conference of the Association for Science Education, an important chance for teachers and all involved in science education to get together, share knowledge, gain inspiration, and find out what’s new in the field. The Wellcome Trust Education and Learning team have had a presence at the event for many years and Louise Stubberfield shares what she learnt this year…  

The Wellcome Trust believes that the future of science depends upon the quality of science teaching today, so it’s great to be able to meet so many teachers and others involved in science education at the annual ASE conference.

This year there was a lot of discussion about big changes ahead and so it wasn’t surprising to find that the majority of sessions were linked to the new curricula for science, addressing new content and associated resources. It was clear that teachers want to develop themselves and their teaching, and they are interested in technologies that may enhance learning. New ideas can be exciting, (seductive even?), but teachers want to be sure that what they actually incorporate into the classroom actually works.

At the Wellcome Trust we think that an evidence-based approach is essential and we recently announced new funding to evaluate whether techniques from neuroscience can improve education. However it was clear listening to presenters and audiences during the conference, that there is still wide variation in people’s understanding of what an evidence-based approach entails and the level of rigour required to prove impact.  This echoes the results of a survey that Dr Anna Simmonds mentioned when we launched the neuroscience and education funding last week – few teachers had evidence of significant impact of interventions that they were using. We want to support teachers so that they are more confident in asking for, and assessing, the evidence of the impact of interventions.

While new curricula bring opportunities for reinvigorating science teaching, implementing  change can take time, raise questions about which resources to use and cause anxiety about teaching new topics. Talking to primary teachers, I found that the new content about evolution and inheritance was of particular concern, whereas increasing the emphasis on ‘working scientifically’ was greatly welcomed since it underpins what science is all about.  Sessions about practical ideas to achieve this were buzzing.

We were excited to meet teachers from several primary schools where all the teachers had come along to the event, not just the science leaders. This allowed them to attend lots of different sessions between them and gain as broad a perspective as possible.  We hope they will  share their newly-acquired skills and knowledge back in school. A decision like that shows the commitment from inspired school leadership teams and head teachers who recognise that good science teaching within a broad curriculum impacts across other subjects too.

Wellcome Trust Education Team

Another hot topic was assessment. Attainment level descriptors currently used to benchmark pupils’ achievement in primary and secondary school will not be used with the new curricula, so schools are expected to develop their own methods for demonstrating pupil progress. But that brings a paradox.

Education has been driven for so long by a culture of using assessment outcomes to hold teachers and schools to account. Now that teachers are being given new freedom to innovate, we found them expressing fear of getting it wrong, and looking for similar alternatives to levels.

Time and time again some teachers and presenters at the conference cited their concerns: “How can we assess without levels?” Conference sessions which mentioned assessment were packed with many teachers keen to be told how to do it often by replacing one set of benchmarks with another.

But are they are missing the point? It may be hard to change your perspective, but we need to be looking at students’ conceptual development and taking them on a unique journey of understanding and application, demonstrating their progress through all aspects of science, including practical skills, not limiting their achievement to reaching a required minimum grade.

Many ASE sessions presented innovative and engaging practical science – enabling the teaching of the practical skills essential to science. This week we will be submitting our response to the Ofqual consultation on the assessment of new science A levels. We insist that A-level grades include assessment of science practical skills. Without this, they are not an authentic representation of science and we fear that practical skills will not be taught if they are not seen to be required for qualifications.

We know investment in teachers and teaching is vital and that’s why the Wellcome Trust is delighted to renew its commitment to Project ENTHUSE, a scheme to provide professional development for science teachers and technicians. The Department for Education, Wellcome Trust, BAE Systems, BP, Rolls-Royce and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers together are providing more than £22 million over the next five years. We were pleased this news received such a good reception at the conference.

Pete Robinson and Maggie Aderin-Pocock ASE 2014On the final day of the conference Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock reminded us of the bigger picture, recounting her journey to becoming a space scientist and reminding us all of the purpose and potential of a great science education.

Science education should help pupils to understand the world, develop their sense of curiosity about natural phenomena, and equip them for the future. She summed it all up saying we should be giving children the power to dream.

It’s a powerful sentiment, and I hope that the work we do in the Education and Learning team at the Wellcome Trust will continue to help passionate teachers, like those we met at the conference, to continue sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge and building dreams.

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