Why GCSE science needs to mind its language

By Newman Burdett

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Last week’s publication of the revised National Curriculum has, unsurprisingly, set discussion boards alight with expressions of delight or derision over the new framework’s implications for the quality of our young people’s education.

My own concerns centre on how command words are used in the new GCSE science specification. While I want a science curriculum that is more demanding, I want it to be more demanding in the right way – to make sure our future scientists and citizens learn to think. But I’m concerned that the use of command words in the new curriculum will simply encourage teachers to make students remember more and more information that they may never used again.

Let’s look at one of the potential outcomes using the following example:

evaluate the impact of electron microscopy on our understanding of … nucleus, plasmids, mitochondria, chloroplasts and ribosomes.

On the surface this ‘evaluation’ would seem to be a higher order skill, in accordance with Bloom’s Taxonomy, but in reality most teachers will treat this as straight recall exercise, and expect their students to simply learn the impacts – not evaluation at all, just rote learning.

Compare this to how Alberta, Canada use the command word ‘evaluate’:

evaluate a personally designed and constructed device on the basis of self-developed criteria (e.g. evaluate an energy conversion device based on a modern or traditional design).

This requires genuine evaluation – a key skill for scientists and one that has importance outside the science lab, in business and in everyday life. Learning about the impact of the electron microscope doesn’t.

Similarly, ‘summarise the roles of thyroxine, adrenaline, [explain how] insulin and glucagon [control blood sugar levels] in the body’ is not a summary skill, but is really ‘learn in outline the roles of …’ – a much lower-level demand.

To some, this may feel like splitting hairs. However, it is crucial that the command words do ‘what they say on the tin’. This is not an issue of whether we should have more content or more skills – we need both. You would not argue that for the driving test: it is more important to be able to control the car or to know the Highway Code. This is about whether we are delivering a science education suited to the needs of students, society and the economy – or simply applying a thin veneer of respectability on the same old, same old.

We need to ensure that if we produce a new science curriculum that says students must be able to evaluate, summarise and understand, that they really can. Otherwise we’ll be producing a generation of students who not only find science boring but who do not really understand it, which would benefit no one.