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Vol. 39, No. 1, January 2010
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Perspectives on Science

by Michael Bycroft

Consider how secondary schools might teach history of science in an ideal world.

Assessment would be kept to a minimum, and independent research encouraged. Taught content would cover historical research methods and a few key case studies. Students would take the course out of a genuine interest in the field, and teachers would get involved for the same reason. Students (and teachers) from science and humanities backgrounds would intermingle and learn from each other, and academic historians would give their advice and inspiration. The course would capture the richness and rigor of the history of science, a breath of fresh air in a smoggy curriculum.

Is such a course possible in today's secondary schools? Two recent articles in this newsletter suggest that the answer, at least in the short term in the US, is “no.” [1] But a group of teachers, educators and academics in the UK would give a more optimistic answer. Their answer takes the form of Perspectives on Science (PoS), a course on the history, philosophy and ethics of science that has—at least in theory—many of the features of the fanciful course described above.

After three years as a pilot program, PoS made its formal debut in UK secondary schools in September 2008. Now, ten years after the course was conceived at UK’s University of York, it has entered its second fully-fledged year. Has the child grown as its parents expected, and has it been a tough upbringing? I spoke to some of the people behind the course, and discovered that the PoS format can work in practice, as well as in theory. Indeed, it has worked well enough to spread to other school subjects and even other countries. Student interest in the history of science component is alarmingly low, however. And PoS is a long way from being a mainstream part of the UK curriculum.

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Elizabeth Swinbank is a Fellow in Science Education in York’s Department of Educational Studies. She was among the teachers and teacher trainers who raised the idea of a PoS-style course at a teacher-training course at York in 1999, and has been involved in the project ever since. "PoS began with a 'wouldn't it be nice if ...' conversation over lunch,” she says. “The initial vision was for a course in history and philosophy of science that would give students opportunities to discuss and explore some of the 'big questions' that interest them in this area."

The project team agreed at the beginning—and has insisted ever since—that those explorations should be "recognised as valuable in their own right, not merely a way of getting the teacher off the subject at the end of a more conventional science lesson." They also agreed about the assessment of the course. "We initially thought there would have to be an exam of some sort," says Swinbank, "though we were never very keen on that."

Fortunately for the project, led by Dr. John Taylor, a teacher and Director of Critical Skills at UK’s Rugby School, these desiderata were neatly aligned with the interests of some key UK funders. An initial grant from the Royal Society of London was "hugely helpful," says Swinbank, and gave the team the time and resources to attract sponsors including the Wellcome Trust and the then Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. Wellcome appreciated PoS's goal of "promoting intelligent informed discussion about ethical questions in relation to science," says Swinbank. Edexcel, one of UK's school examination boards, appreciated the light-weight (and therefore inexpensive) assessment format, and agreed to take PoS on.

Support from funders and examiners meant that the current PoS course is, to Swinbank, pleasingly similar to the course that the York group envisaged a decade ago. The course text (Perspectives on Science, Heinemann) gives equal attention to the ethics, history and philosophy of science. Learning time is split between class-based teaching of research and thinking skills, and independent research projects carried out by each student. The course can be taken over one or two years; each student is assessed on a ten-minute oral presentation and a 6000-word essay based on her own research.

The extended essay is one of PoS’s key innovations. Each essay is organized into an abstract, introduction, literature review, discussion, and conclusion. Students must reference all sources using footnotes and a bibliography. Taylor says that this discipline has paid off, leading to some "quite impressive work." PoS students, of which there were 343 in UK schools in 2008, have answered questions as diverse as "Is schizophrenia genetic?" "Can the Kyoto Protocol be defended using a philosophical and ethical approach?" and "To what extent was the discovery of the structure of DNA due to meticulous research and to what extent was it due to opportunism?"

PoS has gathered high praise from students and teachers alike. An independent review of the course, produced in 2008 by researchers at London's Institute of Education (IoE), contains some glowing comments.[2] One teacher remarked that the course provided "probably the most enjoyable teaching I've ever done in my whole teaching career...for once the students and I are actually exploring knowledge, for the love of exploring knowledge, rather than trying to prove that Ohm's Law is still Ohm's Law." Another teacher noted that the oral presentation gave students a rare chance to put their intellectual colours on display: apart from PoS, students get "very few opportunities to say 'this is what I'm intellectually stimulated by.'"

PoS's resemblance to university study is a selling point for both students and teachers, the report says. "We are expecting these [PoS] students to do rather better at university interviews," one teacher remarked. One PoS student went on to study history and philosophy of science (HPS) at Cambridge University, and noted that "philosophical discussions of both Kuhn and Marx formed a large part of my [Oxbridge] application, and I was prepared for the rigorous debate by [PoS]." Taylor estimates that between 3 and 6 students in a group of 30 PoS students follow HPS into higher education.

But forward thinking was not the only reason—nor the main reason—students have taken the course. In the IoE survey, 21% of students indicated that they chose the course for its relevance to their future work or study. But twice as many students said that the main enticement was their prior interest in the history, ethics, or (most frequently) philosophy of science.

Notably, one student took PoS after feeling "too out of contact with science doing too many art subjects." Taylor affirms that the course serves art students well. "[PoS] certainly does attract the interest of non-science students," he says, "and I have seen some excellent engagement with science from some of these. For example, students not studying A-level biology might well learn a fair bit of genetics in order to write a dissertation on e.g. genetic screening."

What role have academics played in all this? Although the 1999 York group had what Swinbank calls an "amateur" interest in HPS, preparing students for higher study has always been a goal of PoS. To this end the project team have had "several academic advisers from an early stage of the project," says Swinbank. Graeme Gooday (Professor of History of Science and Technology at the University of Leeds) and the late Peter Lipton (philosopher of science and former head of HPS at the University of Cambridge) were "particularly helpful and active," she says. Gooday's contribution included organizing workshops for PoS students to help them formulate their research topics.

Taylor and his colleagues drafted in other academics for comment or advice on PoS, and a number of these have lent their voices to the admiring chorus. Michael Reiss calls the course a "breath of fresh air...an opportunity for students to develop their intellectual muscles." And Gooday writes that the course equips students with research skills that "no existing qualification comes close to rivalling." [3]

The course has enjoyed more than one kind of positive feedback. Success has bred not praise but also more success: the no-exam format has found such favour with Edexcel and UK’s Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency that in the 2009-10 year PoS is just one of a number of topics that UK students can study in the format pioneered by PoS. This suite of PoS-style courses make up the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), a program that John Taylor now directs for Edexcel.

Taylor says that the PoS experience, along with a new set of text books and teaching guides to go with the PoS resources, has ensured a "smooth transition" to the EPQ. Student numbers for all EPQ courses are around 10,000 for the 2009-10 year. There are no clear figures on how many of these are studying the ethics, history and philosophy of science. But the total figure, and the leading role that PoS has played in the new qualification, suggest that PoS continues to grow at a healthy rate.

But how far can PoS grow? And does the growth of the history of science branch match that of the ethics and philosophy branches? The IoE report and one of its co-authors, Dr. Ralph Levinson, cast light on both questions.

Of the 358 PoS research projects considered by the report, just 9 focused on the history of science, compared with 65 on the philosophy of science and a whopping 260 on the ethics of science. That's 2.5% in history and almost 75% in ethics. Moreover, the authors of the report "did not observe any discussions of historical questions [in class discussions during the course] and few of our participants mentioned historical topics in interview." Another worrying sign for historians is the report's comments on the ability of students to assess their sources. Although students had a "keen awareness" of the fallibility of sources, "none of the students we interviewed demonstrated convincingly how they might identify a good source from a weak one."

Whence this massive indifference to history? Whatever its source, the course organizers insist that they do not share it. Swinbank says that history was part of the PoS package "right from the initial lunch conversation." Indeed, it was one of the "starting points" for the whole PoS project. Taylor says the study of the history of science "should be encouraged" in PoS, and instructed his own students to seek out reliable sources (including HPS academics) for their research projects. And the PoS coursebook gives equal weight to history, ethics and philosophy, and includes a section on evaluating sources.

The report suggests that PoS's emphasis on class discussions may be to blame. Historians rely on empirical knowledge in a way that ethicists and philosophers do not, and class discussions alone do not generate empirical knowledge. As the report puts it: "It is hard to say anything about whether or not Newton's published work was original and revolutionary without knowing a great deal about both Newton's published work and the scientific context in which he wrote." PoS is sometimes championed for teaching skills rather than facts. If the IoE report is right, PoS reminds us that it is hard to learn the skills of history without learning some of its facts.

The teaching style of PoS may only be part of the explanation for its treatment of history. One observer of PoS suggested to me that the PoS team consulted historians mainly as a “diplomatic move”: as a result, "the entire curriculum is geared towards points of philosophical interest.” And insofar as PoS deals with history, it deals with the least interesting parts of history: "the curriculum does not includemany of thetopics in history of science that really get our undergraduates interested (and can thus taken an engaged critical view on them): politics, technology, gender,warfare, media,imperialism, and race." Given this neglect of the human and less metaphysical side of science, it is "not surprising that the history of science options are not widely pursued by PoS students."

Whether or not these accusations are just, there is clearly a mismatch between the history's proposed role in PoS and its popularity in practice. A related problem is the course's teaching burden. An interdisciplinary course requires interdisciplinary teachers, and few teachers are trained in the history, ethics and philosophy of science as well as in science itself. So far, PoS teachers have mainly been found in science departments, Taylor says, with some help from teachers with backgrounds in ethics of philosophy, such as religious education specialists. Dr. Ralph Levinson, a co-author of the IoE report and Senior Lecturer in the IoE Faculty of Culture and Pedagogy, agrees that science teachers have been the largest single source of teachers of PoS.

According to the IoE report, the lack of trained philosophers teaching the course may explain why relatively few students took up research projects in philosophy. Could the same apply to the history component? Levinson thinks so, noting that few historians have taught the course. Teachers have attended PoS training sessions and got advice from HPS academics; nevertheless, Levinson says, few are HPS specialists and most have been "learning on the job."

The "amateur" aspect of PoS can be a virtue, however. "The secret about PoS," Levinson says, "is that enthusiasts are doing it...that's why it works: teachers enjoy doing it and students enjoy taking it. And I think that is the way to go." According to Levinson, PoS remains an "outsider" in the UK curriculum. In credit terms it is equivalent to half an A-level, but is not itself an A-level or an AS-level, the standard qualifications for students in the final and penultimate years at UK secondary schools. This too has its advantages: "if you put [PoS] in the statutory curriculum," Levinson says, "it will kill it."

Does this mean that for PoS there is a trade-off between popularity and quality? Levinson hesitates, then says “yes.” "Once it gets too big...the national curriculum authorities will get their murky hands on it." A middle position may be best for the course, he says, so that "it doesn't get big, but it is not small enough to collapse."

Whatever the limits on the course's growth, Taylor and his team have worked hard—and effectively, in Levinson's view—to extend the course to new schools, teachers, and students. It has also caught the eye of overseas educators: some Australian schools have expressed an interest in taking on the course, for example.

The big challenge is to get the word out, Swinbank says. "We frequently find that, once they know about PoS, all these groups [teachers, students, and HE admissions tutors] are very enthusiastic - but because [PoS] is slightly out of the mainstream of what goes on in schools and colleges, it can get overlooked." The academic community can help by "listing [PoS] in prospectuses and on websites as a desirable entry qualification for their courses - and indicating how PoS helps student prepare for degree-level work."

Where will PoS be in another 10 years time? Swinbank hopes "that the notion of students developing researching and communication skills becomes part of the mainstream of education post-16." Taylor looks forward to seeing "a community of schools committed to this approach, sharing experience and expertise with other schools." Historians of science can perhaps wish them every success in expanding PoS, and hope that the history of science component expands with it.

References:

  1. See the articles by Michelle Klosterman (in the January 2009 newsletter, http://www.hssonline.org/publications/Newsletter2009/JanuaryKlosterman.html) and by Greg Macklem and Erik Peterson (in the April 2009 newsletter, http://www.hssonline.org/publications/Newsletter2009/April_education.html).
  2. Perspectives on Science project team. (2008). Summary document. Retrieved from: www1.edexcel.org.uk/Project/POS-Briefing.doc.
  3. Levinson, R., Hand, M., and Amos, R. (2008). A Research Study of the Perspectives on Science AS-level Course. London Institute of Education.

Further information:

Dr. John Taylor, Director of Perspectives on Science, can be contacted at jlt@rugbyschool.net.

The Edexcel specification for the Extended Project Qualification, along with an exemplar Perspectives on Science project, can be found at http://www.edexcel.com/quals/project/level3/Pages/default.aspx.

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