The question I most dread from a student is “how do I revise?” In today’s qualification driven society, the need to learn and regurgitate information has never been more important – and more pointless.
Many years ago, when I sat my MSc in Applied Immunology, our qualification was divided into three components: a written paper of short answer questions under exam conditions covering a wide immunology base, three 3000 word essays (written over two weeks) to prove that we could research a topic and find up-to-date references, and a dissertation based on original research or a literature review. According to the Professor-In-Charge, the success in these three tasks showed that we had a broad but superficial knowledge of a variety of subtopics within the field of immunology, could research quickly and provide in-depth information when asked, and could become an expert in a given field of immunology over a period of time.
Our Professor was spot on, we had a qualification that reflected the workload of a scientist in everyday life. You were an expert in your own niche of an already limited knowledge base. He was also a believer that learning facts simply for the sake of learning, was a waste of time and effort.
So how does this relate to revision and the current curriculum? The new science syllabus is indeed learning for the sake of learning. By the time an undergraduate is half way through their first year, nobody is interested that they were able to explain ‘the generator effect’ or ‘Le Chatelier’s Principle” – unless their degree happens to be physics or chemistry, of course. Yet, we ask every child in mainstream secondary school to do exactly this.
It saddens me to see science coming across as a theoretical subject. Very few children are able to explore science as a practical subject. The required practical assessments laid down in the syllabus leave little scope for imaginative interpretation. It saddens me even more when ‘practicals’ are withdrawn from an entire class as a sanction for poor behaviour. The ability to work well in a laboratory, to be able to solve the puzzle of why an experiment hasn’t generated the expected results, are important skills that should run alongside a broad but basic understanding of the science of the world around us.
Unfortunately, the current curriculum doesn’t quite agree with my own line of thinking. I find myself, in response to a student moaning and groaning about having to learn a particular challenging topic, saying “well, I don’t like it either but we just have to grit our teeth and get on with it”.
I hope that in time, the circle continues to turn the full 360° and science lessons in school once again become fun and fit for purpose. I also hope that I am still teaching when it happens.