Endpoint: John Walker has the last word

Thought bubble

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How do you think chemistry should be taught?

Here is a question for you to think about: How do you think chemistry should be taught? Give it some serious consideration and have some answers ready, because in a climate where high-profile opinions on educational standards, no matter how authoritative, receive the oxygen of full media publicity, we need to be on our mettle.  

The new science GCSEs are about six months old. While it would be a gross exaggeration to say they are on the ropes at the end of round one, I sense the judges may not yet be putting them ahead on points. Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London, made a few deft jabs, but they seem to have been glancing blows. However, having read last issue's Endpoint by Chas McCaw (Educ. Chem., 2007, 44 (1), 32), I see the iGCSE is being hailed as the out-right winner. 

Is iGCSE the answer to everyone's prayers?

If you don't work in the independent sector, you can be forgiven for thinking the iGCSE is the latest electronic innovation - a GCSE you can download onto your iPod or mobile phone - but no, it is the international GCSE. It is the Henry Cooper to the new GCSE's Amir Khan - basically it's not a new specification. And, according to McCaw, the syllabus hasn't changed significantly in the past decade. 

Taken at face value, the iGCSE in chemistry could be quite seductive. After all, McCaw finds it has rigour, continuity, and emphasis on practical work, and prepares candidates well for AS/A2 chemistry. Reading on, we learn that it also embodies the kind of standards not seen on these shores since 'O-levels'. So is the iGCSE the answer to everyone's prayers? 

Fortunately I had the sense to download the specification. Having had a good look at this, I am led to announce that, for me, the rose-tinted iGCSE has already become distinctly sepia in hue. What stunned me most was that apart from a few isolated pieces of content, I might very well have been looking at the AEB syllabus that I followed when I studied O-level chemistry about 25 years ago. Surely this is of concern if we consider the curriculum to be a reflection of contemporary society and its needs? Just like my own O-level, the iGCSE looks too much like a course in 'chemical grammar'. It gives students the tools, yes, but where is the application and relevance to everyday life?  

I would not presume to preach what the students of Winchester College should and should not study. However, I do have serious doubts as to the suitability of the iGCSE for most state schools, and for providing the number and quality of future science workers needed.  

Nor am I on a personal crusade to support the new GCSEs. Time will tell how good they are, and this may take several years. Some schools are having difficulties making the switch, and some have questions about their educational basis and rigour. (Has there ever been a curriculum development which has not witnessed such things?) These anxieties are to be understood considering the scale of the changes.  

Teachers are facing real challenges not just in terms of changes to their classroom practice, but also in adapting to content with which they may not be so familiar. Of course it may be that this will result in the biggest step forward in the history of UK science education. But maybe, too, there will be casualties. I certainly don't expect it to be easy. 

Chemistry - part of the bigger picture

Putting these issues aside for a moment, I feel it is vital to keep sight of the big picture, and some of the reasons why we have the new GCSEs. The world changes, even if the cornerstones of our chemical knowledge do not. As the forefront of our subject moves ever outwards, our basic chemistry education needs to have the flexibility to provide bridges both for the few who will go on to work at the forefront of research, as well as the large majority who will not and for whom chemistry can contribute to a more fulfilled citizenship, and provide the scientific literacy which is so important in today's world.  

Our curriculum, inextricably tied to subject knowledge and its complex interface with society, surely has to keep pace with the external factors. The limiting factor is time, so we end up having to make choices. Should we teach the contact process or catalytic converters? Or both? One thing is for sure, we cannot teach everything. But can we risk not teaching them about aspects of, say, environmental chemistry in the hope that they will work it out for themselves as a result of their grounding in 'chemical grammar'? What do you think?  

John Walker is professional development leader at the National Science Learning Centre, University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD.