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David Docherty


We Need more Than Separate Sciences, Mr Gove

Posted: 16/09/11 12:05

Twenty-first century industrial problems cannot be solved primarily with a nineteenth-century educational toolkit. So whilst it is true that most business people, as well as maths and science specialists, would agree with the Education Secretary Michael Gove's recent assertion that science should be taught as three separate subjects in secondary school, and that more science specialists would be a good thing, it is not the complete answer when it comes to understanding the role of teachers and schools in helping their students to great jobs and good degrees. Nor would such a move automatically ensure we meet the competitive challenges to economic growth over the next twenty years.

Just putting a male physics or chemistry teacher in front of a girl will not solve the problem of getting more girls to do physics A level, and therefore, by extension becoming engineers. Equally, doing so will not resolve the other challenges of ensuring that technology and design and computing in schools are academically rigorous and taken seriously as disciplines by which the quality of our education system in serving the economy should be judged.

A recent PWC report noted that only half of business leaders were satisfied with the educational system and, in particular identified technological capacity and technical skills as a defining challenge for growth. Mastering a discipline pioneered by Tim Berners-Lee surely has to be as important in a knowledge-based economy as mastering one pioneered by Newton. (Not that I am comparing the two men - I'm sure Sir Tim is far too modest for that!)

Teachers will have to be supported by strong role models from business if their discipline-specialism is to result in students equipped for the modern economy. And schools will have to open up to a more modern perspective on science-based innovative jobs, while businesses must step up to their responsibilities to help schools and teachers understand contemporary uses of science in industry. The work-wise project in South Yorkshire is a great example.

There is also the issue of the kinds of science these new specialists will teach. A dull physics course is no better than a tedious general science curriculum. The Fibonacci Project, for example, focuses on inquiry-based science to capture the true excitement of inquiry. Funded to the tune of €4.7m by the European Union provided €4.7 million, this will develop the practical application of science, as scientists actually practice it to solve problems both within and increasingly across boundaries. Even if we teach in disciplines, we know that in the real world, businesses and policy makers have problems that cross and increasingly smash through boundaries. Training and developing young minds, particularly those who are to be the leaders and innovators of the future, must reflect on the challenges of the world they are about to enter. Focus is always a good thing, blinkers aren't. It is crucial that as policy around scientific education is developed it is the student that is at the centre and growing a modern innovation-based economy is the focus.

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