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Peter Childs
Dublin City University, Science and Mathematics Education Conference
Conference Article
School Directors, Researchers, Teachers, Policy Makers
Over 10 pages
This paper was delivered at a conference on Science and Mathematics Education in Dublin at the height of the Celtic Tiger economy in Ireland. While the economy has since gone into free fall, rendering some aspirations for Science and Chemistry education redundant, there are still some important points about the realities of the uphill struggle to improve the image and uptake of Chemistry in schools.
The author, Dr Peter Childs, is a respected and eminent Science and Chemistry Education Specialist in Ireland. He identifies a number of issues, that are international as well as Irish:
• Falling numbers in many countries choosing science at second and third levels - not just an Irish problem!
• Shortage of qualified science teachers (but not in Ireland!)
• Poor image of science in society and the media.
• Growing skills shortage in high-tech industry.
• Curriculum change doesn’t seem to help matters.
• Much science education research but little evidence of it in the classroom and lecture hall.
• Science teaching driven by examinations.
He goes on to look at reasons behind these issues and concerns, and identifies possible solutions, e.g. ‘The two most effective things the government could do to improve science education in Ireland would both support the science teacher by firstly providing technical assistance in schools and secondly providing a coherent programme of career-long, continuing professional development (CPD). About 20 schools in Ireland out of 720 have technical assistance, and although there is in-service provision and support when a new syllabus is introduced (a major improvement on the past), this is cut back after a few years.’
Having given a summary of current research, Dr Childs comes to a number of conclusions:
• Rather than focussing just on the Science/Chemistry we need to address issues around other skills: literacy, numeracy, cognitive development and practical skills.
• We need to focus more on developing understanding by improving students’ conceptual skills than on rote-learning for passing examinations.
• Examinations need to be less routine and predictable.
• Research into science and mathematics education produces findings which are not always implemented in the classroom.
• Students benefit from active learning scenarios.
This paper provides a very succinct and critically sound appraisal of the issues with Science/Chemistry, not just at a national level in Ireland, but internationally. The unfortunate reality is that in Ireland the learning is exam driven at senior second level. However, there are a number of ways in which curriculum developers could be more innovative and supportive of the teachers and students. These are summarized and substantiated by Dr Childs and while economic circumstances have changed dramatically in Ireland, and we are in an advanced phase of consultation about curriculum reform, the concerns remain. We need to take action to improve the perception of Chemistry and this paper provides a sound basis for some ways in which we could implement positive reform.
Marie Walsh Limerick Institute of Technology

Comments about this Publication

Your comments are welcome

Date: 2013.02.02

Posted by Katarína Javorová (Slovakia)

Message: The article is for me as a science employee dealing with didactics of chemistry very interesting because it analyses a system of a scientific education in Ireland but can be also applicated at other European countries. It is interesting to compare it with Slovakia, where less money is invested into education than in other European countries. But money is not everything, the key is motivation of teachers, mainly because that in Ireland students consider chemistry as boring and not interesting. Publication shows us and analyses many Irish problems, which are very similar or identical as Slovak ones, eg.unavailability of laboratories and their insufficient equipment, minimal resources and insufficient technical support what significantly influences the quality of teaching scientific subjects. Current teaching is often only repeating what the teacher thaught 20 or 30 years ago, teachers do not take into consideration proccess of teaching and ignore cognitive development of students and are focused only at a content. The author points out need of literacy in reading and mathematics of students as a basic assumption for learning v scientific subjects with an emphasis on the main areas of interest which are needed to be improved in the area of education: constructivism, cognitive development, practice, availability, ICT, language, attitudes and etc. He deals with problems of language in chemistry when students are not able to understand symbols (elements, formulae, equations and etc.) which are very close to mathematics and physics. It is very interesting that the author emphasises the fact which is very true also at Slovakia: inability of Irish state authorities to look at a problem of education as a whole and to see a whole image of it, to prevent big differences in this area. It seems unsensible to invest into development of new teaching methods and on the other side to keep the old centralized system of assesment of students. The emphasis is put at a connection between students and a whole enviroment which includes school, infrastructure, economics and etc. In my opinion teachers should emphasises more the whole society connections of teaching scientific subjects. I like this publication because it is other look at problems of teaching scientific subjects because it turns out that in the area of teaching chemistry can be an experiment be succesful only if everybody cooperates (students – teachers – state authorities).

Date: 2012.10.03

Posted by Giorgio Matricardi (Italy)

Message: The paper presents an analysis of science education in Ireland but, as the author declares, the author's considerations in the field of science education can be easily extended to other European countries. Although the author refers to an economic situation now significantly exceeded (dated to 2006), it is of interest for everyone working in the field of school education (teachers, managers, decision makers, politicians etc.) to keep alive the reflections on the unbalanced relationships between the economic development, the investments in high-tech and the government support for science, technology and mathematics education, particularly for the lower levels of school. The lack of availability of laboratories, the inadequate equipment, the poor resources and the lack of technical assistance are problems that still heavily condition science teaching. Furthermore, the finding (very sincere) that the present teaching of science often is a mere repetition of what was taught 20, 30, 40 years ago to the current teachers highlights how the results of research on the process of learning and cognitive development of pupils were often ignored, focusing the teaching effort only on the content and the structure of the discipline.
The author stresses the need for literacy and numeracy of students as essential pre-requisites for science education, emphasizing the main areas of interest that need to be strengthened in science education research: constructivism, cognitive development, practical work, context-based approaches, ICT, language (both formal and not formal), attitudes, gender issues, problem-based learning and mathematical skills. He focuses, firtst, on the problem of language in chemistry: at the beginning of their scientific literacy, students are not able to understand the symbols (elements, formulae, equations etc.), the techinical vocabulary (specialised words, familiar words with different meanings, logical connectives etc.) of chemistry and they also have to deal with the symbolic languages and with the different use of symbols in the other sciences which have a close relationship with chemistry (mathematics and physics). The author calls for more attention to the mastery of scientific language in the schools.
The thinking skills of students are another issue that must not be overlooked in the teaching of chemistry and sciences: the interrelations between the foundational concepts of science (in chemistry: atom, molecule, element, compund etc.) need a robust undertanding of the fundamental theories of the discipline (e.g., in chemistry, the particulate theory of matter) by the students. The model proposed by Johnstone (2000, 2006) suggests to adopt a curriculum which can introduce students in the middle of the tetrahedric space delimited by four different levels of understanding in chemistry: macroscopic, sub-microscopic, symbolic and human or societal. The development of abstract thinking skills in the students can be accelerated, as suggested by the researches of Adey et al. (2001) and by the experiences of Crace (2006).
Also numeracy and mathematical skills of science teachers represent a problem for chemistry curriculum: the lack of 'maths for chemists' university courses and the inadequate skills in formal operational thinking of students affect the preparation of future teachers. Personally, I do not agree with the author's opinion that science, no longer being an elite exercise even at lower secondary level, suffers of the simultaneous turning off both of the higher and the lower ability ends of the learning spectrum in the today mixed ability classes; the massive problems in the use of mathematics in science contexts shown by college students in the research of Leongson and Limjap (2005) should, pherhaps, be coped through the training and in-service upgrading of teachers on the basis of the acquisitions in the field of researches on the processes of learning and on the cognitive development of pupils.
Finally, the lack of practical work in the second-level cycle is shown to be closely related to the break of the scientific studies of a high amount of students. Although the lack of laboratory facilities, resources and technical support are obvious reasons why teachers do not do enough practical work, the author claim for a correct philosophy of practical work; he points to the research of Johnstone (2000, 2006) for practical solutions to make laboratory work meaningful for students.

Date: 2012.09.25

Posted by Kalachanis Vasileios (Greece)

Message: This is an interesting publication that presents the results of quantitative and qualitative research. In the first part, the general trends in science teaching in Ireland are presented. In contrast to Greece, Ireland has invested a large amount of funds to education and teaching in the recent years. However, as pointed out in the publication despite the investment in infrastructure and use of ICT in chemistry teaching, the level of student interest towards the subject has remained low. It is obvious, that money is not the only thing required for increasing student motivation to learn chemistry. Special care has to be taken for developing the human capital, ie the teachers and students themselves.

The publication gives several hints for explaining the causes of lack of student motivation: Students consider Physics and Chemistry as boring subjects, the symbolic language is discouraging and the parallel mathematics requirement creates even more problems. In addition, the students’ modern way of life (internet, TV, social media) tends to make them lazier for engaging in the discovery of knowledge via experimentation. The publication also refers to the inability of the Irish state and policy makers of “seeing the whole picture” in order to avoid large inequalities. In this way, it seems illogical to invest in the development in new teaching methods and on the other hand to maintain an old-fashioned centralized assessment system.

The publication seems to undermine the role of the teacher in the process of increasing students’ interest towards chemistry. There is an emphasis on a connection between the students and the overall environment which includes several aspects like school, infrastructure, state, economy etc. In my opinion, the teacher should enter more explicitly in this equation.

Overall, I found this publication very useful which deserves the attention given, since it shows that in the field of chemistry teaching, the “experiment” can be successful only via the simultaneous and willing collaboration of several players (students – teachers – state, etc).

Date: 2012.09.01

Posted by Tsechpenakis Sakis (Greece)

Message: I found Childs publication very intriguing!
I would recognize two distinctive parts in this paper. The first part described in detail the recent situation of Physical Science teaching in Ireland, and it was the strong point of this paper.
Since now, I had not realised, how slow things, concerning science teaching in Greece, actually evolve. In Ireland not only the proper Authorities worry about Physical Sciences teaching, but they actually do something about it!! The problem concerning the limited appeal of Chemistry among the students was recognized, and actions were taken to overtake it.
The description of the state of teaching of Chemistry in Ireland, was very interesting, especially because it took place in 2006, on a time when the “celtic tiger “ really roared!!!!
I would expect that on a time of state economy magnification, the Irish authorities would be satisfied with the secondary level of education. On the other hand, despite the growth of the Irish economy, the educational authorities of the country still focused on the problem, and actually tried to do something about it.
Reading about the Irish case, I realized that the state money alone can not solve the problem, unless it is previously correctly described and certain measures implemented. Measures, like technical assistance in laboratories as well as continuing professional development for physical science teachers.
Although similar problems with Greece in secondary level education of physical Sciences,exist, like:
• The inadequate equipment& resources
• The absence of technical assistance in schools (only 20/720 schools in Ireland have technical assistance- I imagine that in no Greek public school such assistance exists whatsoever)
• Examination driven syllabus
, in Ireland something has already been done about it, nearly 15years ago. A Task Force about Physical Sciences teaching has already presented, since 1999, recommendations about how to reverse the tendency of pupils to avoid physical sciences classes. Of course the suggestions were not fully implemented, but nevertheless, even a limited correspondence to a problem is better than the absence of knowledge about the problem.
The second part of the paper, concerned the difficulties students have, with the teaching of Chemistry and Physical sciences in general. The difficulties were classified in 4 categories:
a) The problem of language in science (problems with the symbols and the meanings of the words)
b) The problem of thinking (only 30% of the population had reached the formal operational stage i.e. when they should be capable of abstract, conceptualthinking). Moreover, it was the first time I came across with the written conclusion, one I had made with my colleagues, from the first time I stepped in a classroom. Although children nowadays, have a mean IQ index much higher than the previous generations, they seem to be in terms of cognitive and conceptual development less able than they used to be! The use of computers and TV, has its toll, after all!! Students, do make less “discoveries” in real life, as they are occupied with TV attendance and PC games and surfing in the internet. Even the projects presented at school tend to be in a “copy- paste” style, straight from the Internet sources.
c) The problem of mathematics. Problems with the use of mathematical equations, diagrams and so on. We all encounter such problems in a daily basis!
d) The problem of practical work. Lack of actual experimental work for the students, as they don’t spend much time in laboratory work because of luck of time and technical assistance. When you are going from classroom to classroom, non stop, limited time for correct laboratory preparation exist! As a result, student do very rarely, experiments on their own!
I found the categorization very successful , and realized that these difficulties are a common place in EU schools.

National Reports on successful experiences to promote lifelong learning for chemistry The national reports on chemistry successful experiences to promote lifelong learning for chemistry are now available on the related section of the project portal. The reports presents examples of successful experiences in the partner countries and the results of testing of ICT resources with science teachers.