From education to employment

Making science education fit for the future

Dave Leach

The study of science enables a better understanding of the world around us and harnesses the critical thinking skills necessary for making informed decisions. In the last 18 months, its relevance in the world has grown exponentially.

In 2019, Oxford University Press (OUP) began managing the development of the PISA 2025 science framework with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with a goal to understand what knowledge and skills children will need to have to further science and address the scientific challenges that face us in the future. But, when we started this project, we could have never predicted the chaos that the pandemic would bring.

As part of the PISA process, we have been lucky enough to work with some leading experts in the field of science education, forming dynamic and close relationships with teachers globally. Leaning on this network, we felt now was the time to elevate the voices of those teachers and start a global conversation about how we enable learners to benefit from the lessons of the past 15 months. We wanted to understand how they feel about the state of science education today, what the ongoing impact of the pandemic has been, and to highlight the issues they think science should prepare children for in the future.

We got insights from 398 teachers in 22 countries and regions—with most respondents from the United Kingdom (44 per cent) and India (19 per cent)—and the results were striking.

Although there were local differences, there were also notable consistencies in key areas such as the science curriculum’s relevance in the future and how well it prepares pupils to navigate and address challenges the world will face, such as climate change and the evolving role of technology.

Overall, only 31 per cent of teachers surveyed believe that science education in their country is fit for the future, meaning the majority of teachers believe it is not.

The teachers we surveyed believe that the core purpose of science education should be inspiring learners to engage with science, teaching underpinning scientific concepts, skills to enable effective experimentation, and helping learners to succeed in a world that is permeated by science. They also said that, to ensure science education evolves and remains relevant in the future, there should be more of a focus on current issues such as climate change, as well as tackling fake news and adapting to the rapid pace of technological and societal change. As Bonnie Schmidt, President and Founder of Let’s Talk Science, put it “Science education for the future must evolve (or transform), to focus more on building the abilities and desire of all youth to contribute in meaningful ways through work and citizenship opportunities in our fragile world.”

As those on the frontline, we wanted to give the teachers a platform to express their own recommendations, based on their experience and expertise. We asked them to suggest ways in which science curricula might evolve in order to achieve this relevance to today’s world, and that of tomorrow. Their recommendations included prioritizing practical skills through experimentation in the classroom, updating content to establish a greater connection between the science that is being taught in the classroom and what is happening in the world outside, and finally, a rebalancing of exams that doesn’t just focus on knowledge, but also assesses the application of science.

It is clear that COVID-19 has had an impact on science teaching in the last year. In particular, it has restricted practical experimentation in the classroom. But, our research highlights that we also need to reevaluate the science curriculum as we emerge from the pandemic, given that – in the context of lost learning – it plays such a vital role in preparing learners to address future challenges.

As a result, we felt compelled to share the voices of those teachers in a report, The evolution of science education, in the hope it will provoke discussion and inform the way we teach young people science and equip them for what lies ahead.

Dave Leach is Director of Assessment at Oxford University Press.

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