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Monday, 16 July, 2001, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
'Moral vacuum' in science lessons
science lab
Lessons failing to stimulate ethical debate - report
Young people are leaving schools ill-equipped to consider the ethical issues surrounding controversial scientific developments such as human cloning and the genetic modification of foods, a report says.

The genome era must be democratic - which means everyone having an informed say about the new social, ethical and political questions posed by science

Dr Mike Dexter, Wellcome Trust
The research charity the Wellcome Trust said science teaching tended to duck the ethical problems.

Its report, Valuable Lessons: Engaging With the Social Context of Science in Schools, said the traditional "test tube and text book" approach to science in secondary and post-16 education should be enhanced by more debate and exploration of the social dimension of science.

The way forward, it said, lay in curriculum reform and better training for teachers, so that the issues could be dealt with by both science and humanities staff.

Topics covered

The trust commissioned London University's Institute of Education to investigate attitudes in schools and colleges across England and Wales.

A thousand questionnaires went out, generating 305 replies, which the researchers followed up with interviews at 20 institutions.

Six in 10 teachers agreed there was too little classroom time devoted to issues linked to biomedical science.

Only three of a list of topics - Aids/HIV, genetic engineering and eating disorders - were covered by more than half of the teachers.

"Given the topicality of the Human Genome Project at the time of the survey, it is surprising that only 25% of teachers had covered this topic in their teaching, nearly all of them science specialists," the report said.

"Indeed, only four humanities teachers had included any reference to the Human Genome Project and a significant number had not even heard of it."

Lack of interest

Interviews with English teachers suggested that discussions tended to focus on the underlying values expressed within newspaper articles rather than the accuracy of the content.

"While teachers are concerned with students' lack of interest in topical events and the news in general, they also signal their worries that students have very strong views about issues like animal rights and cloning, with little evidence to substantiate them."

Dr Mike Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "The way we teach science and related issues needs shaking up if we are to prepare our children for the challenges of citizenship in an era where science will pervade most aspects of life.

"Our children should be educated to develop broad scientific literacy and critical minds that will ensure that our new genetic knowledge works for people rather than against them.

"The genome era must be democratic - which means everyone having an informed say about the new social, ethical and political questions posed by science."

Exam focus

The research found a lack of collaboration in schools between "value free" science lessons, in which teachers concentrated on the technicalities, and "value laden" humanities discussions often divorced from the facts.

Science teachers also blamed the current examination regime for rewarding knowledge but not giving enough weight to well-reasoned argument.

Barbara Patilla, a science teacher at an East London comprehensive, said the research reflected her experience.

"We do have difficulties with knowing how to teach ethical issues and moral philosophy and this is a deficit in our science teaching.

"A particular need is to have available materials and guidance on teaching these issues. Lesson plans with text for students to access in preparation for debate and discussion would be really useful."

Revised curriculum

The report recommends that social, moral and ethical issues should be more clearly set out in examination syllabuses.

It said students over the age of 16 should be encouraged to take the new AS-level in Science for Public Understanding.

The Department for Education said the revised science curriculum, introduced this year, placed greater emphasis on the teaching of science within a wider context - social, historical, moral and spiritual.

"We ... have already asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to look at whether the science curriculum and its assessment meet the needs of pupils in the 21st Century," it said.

As part of Science Year, starting in September, the government was looking at proposals, in co-operation with the Association of Science Education and the Wellcome Trust, which would bring science to life in the new citizenship curriculum to be introduced in 2002.

The director of Science Year, Professor Nigel Paine, said he endorsed the report and hoped it would be widely discussed.

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