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Historical and Policy-Related Research and the Practice and Rationale of School Science Education

Edgar W Jenkins
School of Education, University of Leeds LS2 9JT

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, 1996


The coupling of historical and policy-related studies in the title of this paper is deliberate and for two reasons. The history of education is frequently concerned with some aspect of policy formation and/or realisation, whether that policy relates to central or local government, to quasi-governmental organisations, to organisations such as the Association for Science Education, the Schools Council, the Nuffield Foundation and the Centre for Policy Studies, or to individual schools, departments and even teachers. Much historical writing is recognisably of this kind, although it is diverse in its focus, its historiography and, perhaps inevitably, its quality. As examples within the field of science education, there are studies concerned with the schooling of science in England and Wales in the nineteenth century (Layton 1973) and, during the twentieth century, of the effect of patterns of school organisation on the form and content of school science curricula (Jenkins, 1979). To these can be added accounts of the development of individual school subjects (Woolnough, 1988) and curriculum projects (Waring, 1979; Fuller, 1992), and of the work and influence of organisations like the long-standing Association for Science Education (Layton 1986) or the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Macleod and Collins, 1981). There is a large number of studies concerned with particular institutions such as Organised Science Schools (Heward, 1980), together with biographical or other accounts of individuals influential in the development of science education, such as Henry Armstrong (Brock, 1973; Eyre, 1958) Arthur Smithells (Flintham, 1974), Thomas Henry Huxley (Bibby, 1959: Desmond, 1994), William Tyndall (Brock, McMillan and Mollan, 1981) and J.H.Gladstone (Coleman, 1991). Comparative historical accounts of science education have long been of interest to students of economic and industrial history. Even so, the field remains under-developed and there is a need for studies which investigate international influences within science education and the processes of cultural diffusion and impact. Science education, although not to the same extent as science itself, has attracted the attention of feminist historians, but, here too, several neglected areas need attention, including the education of women who have enjoyed their science and been successful at it (Delamont, 1994). Science education in primary, secondary modern, and independent schools has received scant attention, although technical schools, because of their assumed or claimed relationship to skill acquisition and wealth creation, have recently become the focus of considerable attention (McCulloch, 1989, Sanderson, 1994). Very little is known about the history of learning science, as distinct from the ways in which science has been taught. In addition, it is necessary to look beyond schools, teachers and students to a wider range of groups and individuals and to acknowledge the promise of some emergent areas such as textbook history (Strube and Lynch, 1984 and 1985). The net result of all this work is that a student approaching the history of school science education faces a substantial literature. There are some useful bibliographies (e.g. Brock, 1975; Donnelly, 1989; Jenkins, 1980; McCulloch, 1987 and 1993) although, as always, these quickly date, both in their historiography and in the neglect of more recent work.

The other reason for coupling historical and policy-related studies is to distinguish between them. It is self-evident that not all policy studies are historically grounded, although they are often the poorer for not being so. As far as history is concerned, 'policy' is today such a taken-for-granted notion, although by no means an unproblematic one, that it is easy, if sometimes misleading, to conceptualise aspects of the history of science education in these rather modern terms. There are, of course, other issues involved here, not least sociological and, to a lesser extent, psychological influences upon what is understood by historical research. Without opening up these issues, it is important to acknowledge that sociological and historical accounts of the past can be in tension. Historical study rests ultimately on the contingent nature of human behaviour, including decision making in matters of educational concern. This contingency does not always sit comfortably with sociological accounts which are sometimes cast in terms of rather more general notions, of which 'social control' would be an example.

The case for historical and policy-related studies

Reference has already been made to the influence of sociology and psychology on historical research and writing. (These, of course, are not the only influences). Since there are many different sociological and psychological perspectives upon which a historian might wish to call, and the so-called hermeneutic sciences are more likely to generate debate, even dissent, than consensibility (to borrow John Ziman's term) there is no unchallengable body of historical understanding which can, in some direct way, point towards how school science teaching should be organised, science taught in classrooms and laboratories, or science teachers of adequate quality be recruited and trained in sufficient numbers. It is, of course, as fashionable now as it always has been to raid something called history for political ends and science educators are no more exempt from this than politicians. Margaret Thatcher's reference to A-level as a 'gold standard' is full of historical resonances and significance. Regrettably, despite its rhetorical power, the reference is ultimately no more than a slogan, replete with ambiguity and serving, like all slogans, as a rallying point. Likewise, current claims within the science education community that A-level science syllabuses are over-loaded with content are sometimes justified by reference to the historic purpose which A-levels came to serve in terms of entrance to higher education. The notion of overload (or more widely, of standards), however, cannot stand independently of context, and without reference to a range of other factors it has little or no meaning. Yet both are widely used in both the educational and the daily press, and in science teachers' everyday discourse.

What, then, in a general way, might be claimed for the history of science education as an area of educational inquiry ? The answer is that, like any serious study of education, it sharpens thinking, directs attention to important issues, clarifies problems, encourages debate and the exchange of views, and thereby deepens understanding, prevents ossification of thinking, promotes flexibility and adaptation to changing demands (Nisbet 1974). Its purpose, if it must have one beyond its intrinsic worth, is to increase the capacity of the education system, especially that concerned with science education, to recognise, understand, frame and address problems that deserve attention, rather than provide unequivocal answers to questions concerned with such matters as pedagogy, standards or teacher quality. The case rests ultimately upon a historical understanding of science education as a mode of thinking, rather than upon the provision of answers which are as far as possible, unambiguous. It is, therefore, different from research in the physical sciences, from most of the research in science education conducted in the first half of this century (mainly in the USA), and probably from much that is represented in the work of the British Educational Research Association. This does not make it any the less worthwhile or important, but whether or not this view about the relationship between the scholarly study of the history of science education and the practice and rationale of science teaching is shared more widely depends upon the generosity accorded to educational research as an instrument to inform what goes on in various parts of education systems, from schools and classrooms to governments and other policy making bodies.

Regrettably, historical and policy-related studies are frequently ignored in books and other publications which purport to present state of the art reviews of research in science education. They do not figure in the various Curtis Digests of Investigations on the Teaching of Science covering the American literature in the years from 1906 to 1937 (Curtis, 1926, 1931 and 1939), or in the subsequent volumes of Research in Science Education, published by the Teachers' College Press which reviews the literature to 1957 (Boenig, 1969; Lawlor, 1970). The relevant chapter in the first AERA Handbook of Research on Teaching, written by Fletcher Watson and published in 1963, reviews literature that is exclusively American and empirical (Gage, 1963). The second Handbook, written by Shulman and Tamir and published a decade later, and, therefore, following the curriculum reforms of the 1960s, refers to a revolution in school science education and is marginally more generous in the literature to be reviewed (Travis 1973). Again, however, historical studies receive no mention. As a sign that times are perhaps changing, Peter Fensham, in his chapter in P.W. Jackson's Handbook of Curriculum, published in 1992, draws upon historical and other writing to frame his discussion of factors that have influenced the science curriculum. He comments that the science curriculum movement of the 1950s and 1960s took place as if science and science classrooms were in a historical and social vacuum, adding that we now understand more clearly than hitherto the political, disciplinary, economic, cultural, institutional and other factors that shape what goes on in schools and in the science classrooms and laboratories within them (Jackson, 1992).

This long-standing neglect of historical studies of science education is significant and calls for brief comment. To some degree, it is likely to be a reflection of the academic background of most of those who see themselves as constituting the research community in science education. This background is overwhelmingly in science itself, often allied with experience of school science teaching and curriculum development. There is perhaps a tendency, which does not lack support from some of the education disciplines, to cast educational problems in much the same mould as scientific problems, with all that this implies for research design, data collection and the confidence to be placed in 'conclusions'. There is, of course, an important place for rigorous work in this tradition but it is important to emphasise that research in science education is much broader than this. Also important is the fact that many of those whose scholarly work relates to school science education would not regard themselves as science educators. If labels are appropriate, they are anthropologists, historians, policy-analysts, philosophers, sociologists or economists and they are more likely to present their papers to the History of Education Society or to Section F of the AERA than to a symposium of science educators or even to a meeting of BERA. Their literature and their research networks are not conventionally seen as part of the science education research community, to the detriment of all concerned. Finally, there is, of course, the critical matter of research support. Funding for historical studies of science education has been rare on lists of funded awards, although it is also likely that good quality bids have been few in number. The claim here is both broad and simple. It is that science education as a field of enquiry, including the understanding of teaching and learning, would be greatly enriched by some rapprochement with those who write about science education but would not categorise themselves as researchers in science education.

Some historical and policy-related insights

The remainder of this paper seeks to illustrate how historical and policy-related studies can enrich understanding of the practice and rationale of school science education towards the end of the twentieth century. Three broad areas of work are drawn upon as examples.

  1. The form and content of school science education

There are many episodes to which reference might be made here. For example, David Layton's seminal study of elementary science in the mid-nineteenth century has illuminated how the interaction of personal, institutional, political and disciplinary factors shaped competing versions of an elementary science curriculum (Layton, 1973). The construction of general science in the first half of the twentieth century (Jenkins, 1979) and the science curriculum development projects of the 1960s (Waring 1979) might serve equally well. A particularly fascinating study is the construction of physics as a subject constructed largely for educational purposes. Its emergence from fields like electricity and magnetism, heat, light and sound, mechanics and properties of matter does, of course, owe something to developments in fundamental understanding of the natural world but it was a long time before school physics ceased to be conceptualised, institutionalised, taught and assessed in terms of these contributing fields of understanding . Because it lends itself better to abbreviation than some others, the example presented here is school biology which gained a place, not necessarily an esteemed or uncontested place, in the curriculum of most schools in the twenty or so years after 1935.

There was, of course, some teaching of biological topics in both elementary and post-elementary schools in England and Wales in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In public elementary schools, it was possible to find subjects like animal physiology, hygiene, botany, zoology, gardening or agriculture on the timetable, although not of all schools. By the early twentieth century, these had all given way to the ubiquitous nature study (Jenkins, 1981). In what are now called secondary schools, botany and zoology were found at the sixth form level and were studied only by those pupils intending to read medicine. It was not until the 1930s that a coalition of interests (and, superficially, a somewhat unlikely one) succeeded in advancing the position of biology in elementary and secondary schools. For the historian, it is important to ask why biology made such slow headway into the school curriculum, despite some powerful advocates, including Thomas Huxley, in the later nineteenth century. At some risk of oversimplification, the answer points towards:

(i) a lack of underlying and integrating biological principles that might have encouraged a move away from botany and zoology,

(ii) the absence of a 'model' undergraduate biology curriculum from which grammar school courses might have been derived,

(iii) the weakness of arguing for a newcomer to the science curriculum portfolio when the rationale for teaching science was the development of scientific method which might be taught equally well, perhaps even better, via longer established courses in chemistry or physics,

(iv) the suspicion that biology didn't lend itself well to practical work at school level, particularly when the tradition of school biology teaching that existed involved dissection, thought to be unsuitable for most pupils, and the delicate matter of sexual anatomy and reproduction,

(v) the eventual employment prospects of those who studied biology at school. Many of the industries which today employ those with biological training in, for example, microbiology, virology, food science and conservation, barely existed at the beginning of the present century. In addition, there was little demand for full-time teachers of biology from the schools.

It is equally important to ask why these factors did not operate, or became less important, by about 1935. Again, an over-simple and outline response would suggest that the following were relevant.

(i) Some integrating biological principles had begun to emerge and/or become more widely recognised or accepted as a possible basis for constructing a biological curriculum, e g. genetics, evolution.

(ii) The emphasis on the teaching of scientific method declined significantly after the first world war as opinion moved, partly as a result of that war, towards emphasising the science of everyday things.

(iii) The development of a range of laboratory-based exercises, notably in plant physiology, which were suitable, or could be adapted for, teaching at school level.

(iv) Seemingly enhanced employment prospects for those with biological qualifications, e.g. entomologists, economic botanists, mycologists, agriculturists, parasitologists, notably in connection with work in the Empire overseas.

(v). At home, problems of health, diet and malnutrition among the poorer sections of society had become widely recognised and it was argued that biological education could contribute directly to their alleviation. These problems were the focus of campaigns by a variety of organisations.

The British Social Hygiene Council, The Campaign for Education in Citizenship (which described itself as an educational defence of democracy against events in Nazi Germany),The Marriage Guidance Council, and the Church of England Moral Welfare Council were only some of a number of organisations who regarded greater biological understanding as essential to their primary aims.

However, not all these organisations had the same kind of biology curriculum in mind and it is important to recall that in England and Wales the education system has historically been strongly divided along class lines. For elementary school pupils, who completed their education at 14, biology came to be social biology or health education, deriving its content from social, moral and political concerns to improve diet, health or a sense of citizenship. Grammar school biology, in contrast, took as its model pre-medical school science, and emphasised plant and animal anatomy, morphology and physiology. It wasn't until the 1960s, with a very different educational system, that these distinctions came first to be blurred, then abolished, in favour of other tensions stemming more from the discipline itself.

The concern here is not to outline the story of school biology but rather to suggest that studies of this kind can establish a framework, in the sense of focusing questions that might be asked, which can foster an understanding of more contemporary developments and locate them in the historical context with which they are inextricably linked. The current attempts to shape and construct school technology, or primary science, are obvious examples of such developments, although it is, of course, much too soon to have a rigorous historical analysis. It is possible, however, to go further and argue that without a historical sense of how we come to be where we are, we are much less likely to get where we wish to be, whatever aspect of science education is under consideration. The fact is that 'the past' is ever present so that a historical understanding of school science education is an essential element of curriculum reform, whether ultimately judged successful or not. Without a well-grounded sense of change and continuity within their own field of activity, those engaged in science education lack an important evaluative perspective within which suggestions for reform and innovation in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment can be viewed.

2. Learning theories and school science education

Within science education, it is now assumed that there are links between what is known about how children learn and how the content of a science curriculum should be selected, sequenced and taught. It is worth perhaps pointing out that this seems to be an assumption which came to the fore in the early years of the twentieth century and was related to the separation of psychology from philosophy and the rise of the former as a distinct, and increasingly experimental, discipline in its own right. Part of the legitimation of educational psychology was, of course, that it could improve, and provide a theoretical underpinning for, the professional practice of teaching, a claim somewhat reminiscent of that made for investment in pure science and subsequent economic benefits. Much late nineteenth century discussion about the teaching of secondary school science was cast in terms of the structure of the discipline, of what later might have been be called conceptual mapping. What was the best order in which to teach scientific concepts, drawn from different fields? The change from this discipline centred approach to one that took more account of pupils' intellectual growth and aspirations was more marked, at least initially, in the United Kingdom than in most of the rest of Europe and it was captured in a characteristic outburst from Henry Armstrong in 1924 who complained bitterly about the twaddle of playing on pupils' interests (Armstrong 1924).

Interestingly, ideas about how children learn have always seemed to play a more prominent role in the discourse and practice of elementary, later primary, school teachers, than of their secondary school colleagues.

It is interesting to speculate why this might be so, but it is likely to owe something to the academic and professional background of primary teachers who, unlike their secondary counterparts, have been required to undergo a training which, for most of this century has been provided in training colleges. By the end of the nineteenth century, many elementary school teachers in England and Wales had responded warmly to Herbartian ideas, his five steps offering them a seemingly secure and distinctive professional basis on which to plan their lessons. Herbartian ideas, however, were in tension with, for example, the naturalist school associated with the ideas of Pestalozzi and Froebel. Here, the emphasis was on minimum intervention by the teacher in the learning environment. These kinds of distinctions, which have sometimes led to acrimonious disputes, have been and remain important, not least because of their relationship to the grounding of teachers' expertise and, therefore, status. They have also re-emerged in different forms at many points in the present century. It is perhaps worth asking whether the current debate, arising from Vygotskian and Piagetian perspectives, about the role of an intermediary, a teacher, in enhancing children's intellectual development is not among contemporary examples. The point here, however, is less to do with detail than with the claim that unless science teachers, and others, understand the ways in which ideas about pupils' learning and intellectual development have shaped what has been done in the past, they are ill-equipped to ground decisions about how best to proceed in the present. The constructivist tradition which so dominates contemporary research in science education is arguably the poorer both for its failure to recognise that 'constructivism' as an idea dates back at least to the time of Socrates and its consequent lack of attention to the factors which have brought constructivism, in its many forms, to its present paradigmatic position.

Given this, it is much to be regretted that work on learning theories and their relationship to the rationale and practice of science education have not received the attention they deserve from historians of education, although some attention has been given to how pupils were taught (e.g. Gosden, Cuban 1993).

3. Realising science education policy

This third example is more directly policy-related and draws upon studies undertaken at Leeds as a project funded by the ESRC (Donnelly, Jenkins and Welford, 1992). The project sought to examine the meanings and consequences of a central-government policy decision, namely that all maintained schools in England and Wales teach and assess pupils' competence at scientific investigation. Scientific Investigation, or Sc1, was the first attainment target of the 1991 version of the national curriculum, and arguably it proved to be both the most ambitious and the most troublesome for teachers to accommodate. In some ways, this is surprising, since the rhetoric of science teachers has always given considerable prominence to science as a means of investigation and the practice of science education has long attached importance to practical work in the laboratory.

Data has been obtained from published sources, interviews with teachers and pupils, with some of those involved in the construction of Sc1, classroom observation, and from attendance at training sessions other relevant meetings. The following three comments are indicative of a more complex picture to be reported more fully in due course.

First, it has become clear that the notion of a centrally-promulgated policy which is then in some way implemented is not a helpful one for addressing the issues involved. The locations of policy making turn out to be manifold, so that, in this case, science education policy is more usefully regarded as a de-localised construct across both institutions and the so-called divide between policy origination and implementation. Such a perception may seem surprising in the apparently dirigiste context of the national curriculum but it should serve as a reminder to government that any 'policy' will in the end need to accommodate both the realities of how schools function and the professional situation of teachers.

Secondly, although there is overwhelming evidence that science teachers played a major role in making policy in respect of Sc1 in their own schools, they did not see themselves acting in this way. The Attainment Target was widely seen both as the responsibility of 'someone else' and as a deliberate attempt to change the nature of science teaching as an activity.

'It's these mysterious figures... nobody actually knows who wrote these things at the start....'

'We had this story of who it was, some Professor or other or somebody who had been sent away for a weekend to do this.'

'The theory seems to be that (we)... are not giving the pupils an investigation.' (Donnelly et al., 1994, p.16).

Responses like these from secondary science teachers are indicative of a body of people who lack a sense of ownership of their professional practice and of their own place in the developments with which they had become involved.

The third comment relates more particularly to the consequences of requiring science teachers to assess Sc1 as part of the KS4 GCSE assessment. Until the mid-19690s, technical aspects of assessment in England and Wales have been the institutional responsibility of the examining boards who have historically enjoyed close links with the universities. Beginning with the CSE and subsequently greatly enhanced by the advent of the GCSE, a substantial part of the responsibility for assessment was transferred to teachers. The transfer, which was for the most part welcomed by the profession itself, was accompanied by a new term, or at least a new usage of a pre-existing term, teachers' professional judgement. However, the ESRC study suggests that the question of where responsibility for, and knowledge of, assessment methodology ought to lie has now become very problematic. Interviews with teachers suggest that they conceptualise assessment reliability in terms of consistency of marking and a vague notion like fairness. Validity, likewise, is reduced to matching individual investigation tasks with stated objectives. Teachers cannot, of course, in anyway be blamed for this but what is perhaps surprising is the ease with which those responsible for assessment policy, notably SEAC, SCAA's predecessor, seem to share teachers' lack of knowledge in this area. Technical issues have not figured in SEAC or SCAA documentation to any great extent. What all this might mean in the longer term for the standing of Sc1, or its replacement, for the political status of teachers' judgements and for the technical quality of those judgements remains to be seen. What can, perhaps, be said is that the notion of a science teacher's professional judgement, not just in terms of assessment, requires careful exploration with a view to grounding it much more securely. At the moment, in the context of Sc1, it was used almost exclusively when central authority or guidance was inadequate or broke down. This is a very constrained notion of what constitutes professional judgement which does not, for example, even extend to questioning the wisdom of Sc1, either tactically or strategically. Paradoxically, something which science teachers themselves referred to as their professional judgement has become part of the rhetorical resources of a curriculum innovation whose overall effect was to limit and, in some cases, override, teachers' authority.

This research also highlights the dangers of trying to define and promulgate a naïve model of 'good practice' in science teaching. There has been no shortage of 'experts' willing to define and propagate good practice in teaching and assessing scientific investigation in the national curriculum. Any attempt to promote 'good practice' which does not engage with, or even sympathise with, the social ontology which underpins teachers' professional work and wider institutional, historical, political, economic and social contexts within which it is undertaken, is doomed to failure. This is perhaps the fundamental lesson yet to be learnt from both historical and policy-related studies and it is one that applies equally to science teachers, teacher trainers, researchers and policy-makers.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 14 January 1998