At the Conservative Party conference party last week, the Royal Society held the second of three events to debate the Society’s Vision for science and mathematics education (read more about the first event).
The panel each spoke about their experience of science and maths education, and their reflections on the Vision, before engaging in a lively Q&A with the Birmingham audience. We were delighted to have been joined by individuals from across the science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and educational community.
Keeping it practical
The importance of practical work within science education was emphasised by both the speakers and members of the audience. In particular, Anna Turitsyna, a Year 12 student from King Edward VI Camp Hill School, highlighted the role of practicals in motivating and inspiring students such as herself. She felt practical work should always be meaningful, demonstrating how theory can be applied in the classroom and beyond, rather than focusing on the more contrived situations which can be required by syllabi.
Despite the current debate as to whether practicals can be assessed effectively, all agreed that practical work is an essential part of science education, with Dame Julia Higgins, Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, commenting that the curriculum should not be limited by what can be assessed.
Education for teachers
It was acknowledged that excellent STEM education relies on excellent teachers who are supported in engaging in continuing professional development (CPD), both as teaching professionals, and as members of the STEM community.
Ian Bettison, a mathematics teacher at Edward VI Camp Hill School, described the value that he derives from being given the opportunity to undertake subject-specific development, which the Vision report argues is crucial. However it can be a challenge in many schools, particularly where there are only one or two subject specialists. There was consensus that teachers should be supported in engaging in CPD, and that there are valuable opportunities to build local networks allowing them to work with colleagues across different schools.
A change of culture?
The panel was challenged as to whether they thought there needed to be a culture shift in the UK regarding perceptions of mathematics: it was suggested that many people are happy to
describe themselves as innumerate, whereas illiteracy is considered very differently. An interesting discussion ensued about the difference between the abstract nature of mathematics, and arithmetic.
While the Vision does advocate for study of mathematics and science until 18, it is clear that qualifications should be designed to cater for students with different levels of interest and ability, emphasising practical work and problem solving, with a focus on vocational and academic learning.
Putting the Vision into practice
While changing culture may be a long-term project, the view of the panel and audience members was clear: everybody can do science and mathematics. We look forward to continuing these discussions and promoting the recommendations of the Vision report in the coming months, working towards tangible improvements to ensure that every young person in the UK has the opportunity to do science and maths in a way that works for them.