Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin: Science teaching in Ireland has been left behind

The Irish approach to introducing new scientific concepts in classrooms has been static and unengaging

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock


“If you want to look back in time, look at the stars. If you want to look into the future, look into our classrooms.”

This quote comes from Prof Noah Finkelstein of the University of Colorado, who spoke recently at Trinity College Dublin. I found this idea particularly moving. As a young girl in rural Co Mayo, I adored looking at the stars. I found it fascinating that from my back garden in the village of Carnacon, I could see light that had travelled for billions of miles across the universe over decades, perhaps centuries. This pastime was part of the reason I studied theoretical physics.

I also found Finkelstein’s words relevant because they emphasise the potential of education to transform. As a former mathematics and science teacher, and as a researcher of maths and science education, I believe that how we view and construct learning in our classrooms (at all levels) is indicative of what we value as a society. Currently, there is reason to be concerned about how we value the teaching and the teachers of science and maths in Ireland.

The most successful scientists of our time – such as Richard Feynman, Cédric Villani and Melissa Franklin – have highlighted the creativity, frustration and messiness of learning more about the world around us. However, the Irish approach to introducing new scientific concepts in the classroom has been mainly static, uneventful and unengaging.

This traditional approach does not give students a realistic account of the scientific process, whereby there is an initial question or idea, analysis of what others have done, a hypothesis is developed and tested in the lab or in simulation or with paper and pen, and, after many iterations, a smidgen of new knowledge is defined.

Participating in scientific endeavour is not straightforward. It does not entail writing the correct answer on a clean worksheet. It does not depend on a “Eureka!” light-bulb moment nor is it only for those of extraordinary ability. Engaging in scientific endeavour means asking good questions, and the skills and knowledge based on such curiosity can be developed in the classroom.

Great responsibility

Teachers have enormous responsibility in introducing students to the wonder and rigour of the scientific process. An expert teacher chooses tasks in order to meet well-defined learning objectives. A skilled teacher facilitates students’ learning through well-timed, relevant questions. An accomplished teacher will vary the learning activities of the classroom so all students have the benefit of accessing content and developing robust understanding.

There is a multitude of science education research that demonstrates these approaches are successful. A paper by Finkelstein and Pollock demonstrates that when students are more engaged and are supported in their learning, they develop a deeper understanding of scientific theories. Various other studies by Mazur or Dahlberg demonstrate that students who “plug and chug” through rote learning are far less successful in mastering new concepts than those who justify their thinking. For these approaches we need well-qualified, motivated teachers who are passionate and knowledgeable in the content and pedagogy of their subjects. This is why in UCD we have an option for undergraduate science students to become qualified postprimary teachers.

Unfortunately in Ireland, the teaching profession is no longer as attractive for our high-quality science and maths graduates as it might have been. We have heard arguments in recent times about low pay for entrants into teaching and, although I do not suggest that science or maths teachers should be valued over others in the staff room, there is a distinct difference in how we value new entrants in these subjects compared with other countries. In the UK science graduates are offered a “golden handshake” to join, and in Germany teachers enjoy relatively good pay. In Ireland, we should not have to bribe our science graduates to become great educators, but we can at least reward those who choose to develop in this role.

If we want to look into our future, we should focus on our classrooms and highlight the values we wish to develop as a nation. Our education system has been one of our greatest calling cards, and we should continue to develop our reputation as scientists and scholars.

  • Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is a lecturer in UCD’s school of mathematics and statistics
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