To Be Honest – A science teacher writes

Junior Cert science is too easy – on every level

Tue, Sep 17, 2013, 01:00

I am a science and biology teacher and I think the current Junior Cert science curriculum does not have enough scientific information. It is too basic, indeed the current higher level should be ordinary level.

The experimental aspect of the course takes far too much of the teacher’s time and not enough of the student’s. Teachers have to pull and drag material from them, which dominates Christmas to Easter. Some teachers take the easy option, just ticking the 30 boxes to get the students their 10 per cent, deserved or not. Others either do the project (worth 25 per cent) for their students or give extra time to complete it.

After all, projects remain in the school until June, so why bother finishing by the April deadline? The system is unfair for honest teachers, or those who try to instil deadline discipline in students.

I supervised this year in our average school, with a good mix of ability in students. They behaved very well in their exam, proving that when necessary and expected, teenagers can be diligent and hardworking. They are not students who just finish up quickly and leave the exam.

Yet with the two-hour science exam, all ordinary level students finished within 35 minutes. After 20 minutes checking scripts they were all gone within the hour. Is this a “testing” exam? At that point, higher-level students were on the last question and most had left by 90 minutes. One of the students remarked as he left, “This is my favourite subject. That exam was rubbish.”

Extra bits could be added to the exam. The paper of short answer questions does not permit good students to show their abilities; it could easily include three experiments for ordinary level students to write up, and six for higher level. This might increase the time spent in the exam and give the science exam some respect (it is viewed as an easy exam). Students wrote for twice as long in CSPE exams and three times longer in religion, two other subjects with course work projects.

The paper layout is also a disadvantage for good students, or those with large handwriting. Students cannot show what they know because the answer spaces are tiny, without room even for grammatically-correct answers. Boxes for the few diagrams they are asked to draw are also tiny, with no space for detail or labels.

In a subject such as technical graphics, students are expected to and capable of drawing beautifully accurate, large and neat pencil drawings but in science any pen-drawn, messy, tiny “diagram” is accepted. The question paper should be separate from the answer booklet.

Students are not asked to draw the diagrams they are supposed to know in biology.

Instead of being asked to draw and label the heart or digestive system this year, for example, they were presented with diagrams already partly labelled.

In ordinary and higher level science, students when asked to draw a graph do not have to draw their own axes, which is standard in ordinary-level maths. More detailed explanations should be required in some answers. Surely a true explanation requires more than one line in an answer book or a phrase in a marking scheme. Science is supposed to be about precision and truth, not vagueness.

The curriculum is too simple and of a poor standard. The name of the arm bones is deemed too hard for ordinary-level students. It’s not hard, just a couple of names. Yet in the course work leaps of deduction are sometimes expected, even for ordinary level. Course work expects them to be able to make sense of information available, without teacher’s help, on the web.

Body parts are too difficult to learn. Chemical equations are too hard to balance. Axes are too difficult to draw. But they should be able to notice strange graphical relationships and resolve them by squaring or cubing one or more of the variables. Or they should be able to read and understand science papers online. How does this make sense? Let them get to know basic, yet accurate, information at a young age to be able to interpret the detail later on, as they mature.

The curriculum is not challenging enough. The course work is easy to cheat. The exam is laughable. The marking scheme is too generous. And we want to compete at a global level? The Minister for Education may think getting rid of the exam will solve these issues, as teachers set their own standards and exams. But we don’t all go to exclusive schools with cooperative parents and students eager to learn. Many students want good grades, but with as little work as possible.

Many parents want their children to get good grades, but do not press them to study. With a high level independent exam, they have to work. Learning to study, concentrate and delay reward are valuable life tools.

There should be no bias, no favouritism of topic depending on your teacher’s interests, no variation in measure with a subjective exam and an over-familiar examiner. A national curriculum is standard. A national exam is standard. It is a good and fair preparation, if it is a good exam, fitting a good curriculum.

I know. I’m a dinosaur. It’s not about education anymore, it’s all about “fun”. But people experience fun in many different ways.

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