Chemistry teachers around the world welcome science curriculum development that shifts the emphasis from content to student competence

Curriculum reform around the globe means more independence for teachers and increased student engagment and proficiency.

Curriculum development is done at a national level and most countries either undergo reform on a planned cyclical basis, with each cycle spanning about 10 years, as is the case in Finland and Japan, or follow a slow design and consultation process, as in Scotland and New Zealand. In some cases, revision is sparked by a drop in ranking in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

In Wales, the curriculum is currently undergoing a major reform to a system based on ‘statements of what matters’, which describe big ideas and key concepts. Instead of named subjects, the curriculum outlines areas of learning and experience, including science and technology. Schools will begin teaching the new curriculum in earnest in September 2022, with autonomy to adapt to local needs.

What matters?

For science and technology, statements of what matters include:

  • being curious and searching for answers is essential to understanding and predicting phenomena;
  • matter and the way it behaves defines our universe and shapes our lives; and
  • forces and energy provide a foundation for understanding our universe.

For science and technology, statements of what matters include: being curious and searching for answers is essential to understanding and predicting phenomena; matter and the way it behaves defines our universe and shapes our lives; and forces and energy provide a foundation for understanding our universe. 

Doing what’s best for your school

Where the previous curriculum in Wales was knowledge-heavy, the new one is far less prescriptive, says Jonathan Jones, curriculum leader for science and technology at Pentrehafod School in Wales. He is excited about the curriculum changes. ‘There are certain key things that need to be done based on the “what matters” statements. But how that’s delivered is very much based on what’s best for your school, which is the part that is quite exciting for us,’ he says. ‘It is not just a one-size-fits-all approach, which hasn’t worked before.’

Where the previous curriculum was knowledge-heavy, the new one is far less prescriptive, says Jonathan Jones, curriculum leader for science and technology at Pentrehafod School in Wales. ‘There are certain key things that need to be done based on the “what matters” statements. But how that’s delivered is very much based on what’s best for your school, which is the part that is quite exciting for us,’ he says. ‘It is not just a one-size-fits-all approach, which hasn’t worked before.’

The school is in an area of high deprivation, says Jonathan. ‘We have to be conscious of the experiences that some pupils may or may not have had.’

There is such a lot of emphasis on understanding the chemistry, as opposed to remembering stuff. It’s a breath of fresh air

His school has successfully trialled lessons for the new curriculum with students in year 7. Next, Pentrehafod will work with cluster primary schools to ensure that pupils are well prepared for secondary education. The school also communicates with others in regional consortia. ‘We spend a lot of time together, making sure we are roughly on the same lines with regards to the development of the curriculum,’ he says.

Jonathan is a fan of the ‘what matters’ statement about being curious, which includes developing investigative skills and covers topics such as experimental reproducibility. ‘You want to be hammering home those concepts without getting sidetracked by something that doesn’t aid the scientific method,’ he says. At times, Jonathan has felt hamstrung by the old curriculum, which he felt didn’t really challenge students in their 11 to 16 years. ‘It’s exciting now that we’re coming into a sort of new realm,’ he says.

Jonathan is a fan of the ‘what matters’ statement about being curious, which includes developing investigative skills and covers topics such as experimental reproducibility. ‘You want to be hammering home those concepts without getting sidetracked by something that doesn’t aid the scientific method,’ he says. 

Wales developed curriculum guidance by involving teachers, experts and national and community organisations from Wales, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and from other countries. It particularly looked to New Zealand, which significantly updated its curriculum in 2007 following a long, evidence-based reform process. The curriculum focuses on key competencies, from ‘thinking’ to ‘participating and contributing’. It is currently being refreshed to ensure that it is inclusive, especially reflecting mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), as well as being easy for teachers to interpret.

Wales developed curriculum guidance by involving teachers, experts and national and community organisations from Wales, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and from other countries. It particularly looked to New Zealand, which significantly updated its curriculum in 2007 following a long, evidence-based reform process. The curriculum focuses on key competencies, from ‘thinking’ to ‘participating and contributing’. It is currently being refreshed to ensure that it is inclusive, especially reflecting mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), as well as being easy for teachers to interpret.

Teach more, assess less

Kim Beaton, a teacher at Otumoetai College in New Zealand, was involved in the original 2007 junior curriculum reform, which, as far as she is aware, was fully backed by teachers. ‘The “fill their heads with content, then assess” programmes we were using were failing to engage or educate many of our students, but particularly our disadvantaged or marginalised young people,’ she says. To implement the junior curricular reforms, the school formed a small group of science teachers who met in their spare time to work on content and remove divides between science subjects. For example, they developed a ‘magical beginnings’ topic which brings together chemistry and geology, including linking convection currents to plate tectonics. ‘We taught more and assessed less. We also incorporated more socio-scientific issues into our programme and linked science to students’ everyday lives and to the world around us,’ Kim recalls.

Claire Ritchie, a chemistry teacher at Leith Academy in Scotland, has worked in New Zealand and has also been involved in Scottish curriculum reform. She ‘absolutely loves’ Scotland’s new higher and advanced higher courses in chemistry. ‘There is such a lot of emphasis on understanding the chemistry, as opposed to remembering stuff. It’s a breath of fresh air,’ she says.

Scotland developed its Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in 2004, rolling it out to schools in 2010. The Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) developed both the curriculum and qualifications, working closely with a range of stakeholders, including teachers, university academics, learned societies and experts from abroad, according to Sue Pope, SQA’s head of science, mathematics and core skills. ‘We look around the world to see what’s going on,’ she says.

Kim Beaton, a teacher at Otumoetai College in New Zealand, was involved in the original 2007 junior curriculum reform. ‘The “fill their heads with content, then assess” programmes we were using were failing to engage or educate many of our students, but particularly our disadvantaged or marginalised young people,’ she says. To implement the junior curricular reforms, the school formed a small group of science teachers who met in their spare time to work on content and remove divides between science subjects. ‘We taught more and assessed less. We also incorporated more socio-scientific issues into our programme and linked science to students’ everyday lives and to the world around us,’ Kim recalls.

Claire Ritchie, a chemistry teacher at Leith Academy in Scotland, has worked in New Zealand and has also been involved in Scottish curriculum reform. She ‘absolutely loves’ Scotland’s new higher and advanced higher courses in chemistry. ‘There is such a lot of emphasis on understanding the chemistry, as opposed to remembering stuff. It’s a breath of fresh air,’ she says.

Scotland developed its Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in 2004, rolling it out to schools in 2010. The Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) developed both the curriculum and qualifications, working closely with a range of stakeholders, including teachers, university academics, learned societies and experts from abroad, according to Sue Pope, SQA’s head of science, mathematics and core skills.

The CfE is built around an intention to create successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Schools have some freedom to design their own curriculum based on a common framework, including these four ‘capacities’. ‘When courses were designed, people were thinking about how we help to ensure that learners have these opportunities,’ says Sue. The question when setting learning outcomes is how to assess learners in a way that is ‘not forced’ but that demonstrates skills, knowledge and understanding, she says.

Still some way to go

Teachers initially reported some teething troubles and a 2015 OECD report found that implementation was proceeding at ‘varying speeds’ in different schools. It also found that ‘too many’ teachers were unclear what should be assessed in relation to the CfE’s stated ‘experiences and outcomes’. ‘At the beginning, such a lot was being introduced at once, which caused big workload issues. A lot of people were very frustrated,’ Claire recalls. Since then there have been smaller revisions, in particular attempting to clarify the CfE vision for teachers. Guidance material, which had seemed overwhelming to teachers, according to the OECD, was streamlined.

The CfE is built around an intention to create:

  • successful learners;
  • confident individuals;
  • responsible citizens; and
  • effective contributors.

Schools have some freedom to design their own curriculum based on a common framework, including the four ‘capacities’. ‘When courses were designed, people were thinking about how we help to ensure that learners have these opportunities,’ says Sue. The question when setting learning outcomes is how to assess learners in a way that is ‘not forced’ but that demonstrates skills, knowledge and understanding, she says.

Respond to local context

In 2020, the Scottish government invited the OECD to assess CfE’s implementation in schools. The OECD review praised Scotland for offering a ‘widely supported’ vision for education.

However, it found that CfE ownership was fragmented and recommended that Scotland should develop a systematic approach to curriculum review. In a 2022 review commissioned by the Scottish government, Ken Muir from the University of the West of Scotland found that teachers are calling for ‘increased empowerment and autonomy’ to provide a curriculum that best suits local context and the needs of all learners.

Many respondents to a survey for Ken’s review called for greater structure and clarity on what should be taught across disciplines to improve consistency. They also stressed the importance of developing skills alongside knowledge and understanding. Further change to Scottish education is ‘inevitable’, Ken concluded. Following his recommendations, the Scottish government announced that the SQA and Education Scotland will be replaced by a new qualifications body and a new national agency for Scottish education by the summer 2024. The new qualifications body will be ‘ambitious for Scotland and Scotland’s learners’, according to a government statement. ‘The principle that assessment, including examinations, should follow from the purposes of the curriculum, and not be seen to lead them, will be embedded in its work,’ it states.

In Ireland, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) deals with reform and secondary exams, all overseen by the State Examinations Commission. After completing junior reform, the NCCA is currently working on updating science leaving certificates, which are equivalent to English A-levels. The NCCA consults development groups comprising a wide range of experts, including from schools, higher education and industry. New specifications for leaving certificates in physics, chemistry and biology were scheduled for 2021, but delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The NCCA has finished private consultations on the new curriculums, but still needs to run its public consultation. The process in Ireland is ‘very consultative’ and therefore lengthy, says John O’Donoghue, RSC education coordinator based at Trinity College Dublin. ‘The more people you put into the equation, the more difficult and slower the process gets, but this also makes it a very inclusive process.’

And, in the same vein, making science curriculums inclusive is one thing that matters when it comes to curriculum reform.

In Ireland, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) deals with reform and secondary exams, all overseen by the State Examinations Commission. After completing junior reform, the NCCA is currently working on updating science leaving certificates, which are equivalent to English A-levels. The NCCA has finished private consultations on the new curriculums but still needs to run its public consultation. The process in Ireland is ‘very consultative’ and therefore lengthy, says John O’Donoghue, RSC education coordinator based at Trinity College Dublin. ‘The more people you put into the equation, the more difficult and slower the process gets, but this also makes it a very inclusive process.’

Emma Davies is a science writer