PISA 2015

After listening to professor Jonathan Osborne at the Association for Science Education conference in Reading earlier this month, I feel compelled to raise a couple of points about PISA and its relationship to science education in the UK.

Firstly, it is explicit that PISA measures something specific which may not be clear to those who use its results to make comparisons and pronouncements about the state of education in the UK. The questions on science, which was the focus in 2015, were based on an interrogation of pupils scientific literacy and not their ability to become future scientists. This has a major impact on the outcomes of the tests and influences judgements about the suitability of current science education to meet the assessment that PISA offers.

There is therefore a large underlying set of assumptions about what science education should be and how it should work that are not clear to the uninitiated reader of the results. To be clear Osborne has been a major advocate of scientific literacy for many years and was involved in influencing the shift away from academic science education in the UK especially around the introduction of 21st Century Science GCSE. It is no surprise then that he has a particular take on the way PISA is used and understood.

PISA is explicitly trying to measure the ability of the wider population to deal with discussions about the efficacy of science and technology in everyday decision making. This is just not the same thing as measuring our ability to produce people capable of becoming scientists of technicians. Whilst there will be some overlap in the kind of approach the questions may take, I would suggest the results of PISA would be considerably different if the study was explicitly measuring the knowledge base of pupils in fundamental science.

Osborne also made the point that trying to make comparisons internationally was hopeless. At least, the comparisons should be reduced to similar countries such as the OECD average group of 37 countries. Here he makes a reasonable point about cultural and other factors that can completely mask other differences in terms of educational outcomes. I would suggest, this is even more the case given the aim of the PISA tests which will skew the results in particular ways.

On the basis of this, Osborne’s judgement is that the UK is doing fine. The criticism of our performance is at the lower end of the ability spectrum although even this holds up well internationally in some respects. The point then is that if anything comes from the results for the UK it will be a drive to improve science education for low achievers. I feel this is in danger of generating a push away from academic science education and to further increase the drive to offer differentiated curricula for non-scientists and scientists. This is completely counter to the spirit of what we are doing at the East London Science School.

Secondly, a particular aspect of the PISA results that concerns me is the evidence evaluating teaching methods. The attitudinal survey was used to interrogate the effectiveness of different teaching methods used in science education. This has and will continue to generate considerable interest. The big news was the comparison between direct instruction and enquiry based learning came out heavily in favour of direct instruction. This is no surprise. The idea that we teach by not telling pupils what we want them to know but ask them to discover it for themselves is something that should have been resolved a long time ago.

However, the more disturbing result is a bias against any practical work. This in my estimation reflects a low standard in delivering laboratory based work in science education. This is disturbing but not a surprise. The effect of trying to assess pupils against a nominal understanding of the scientific method through coursework has proved to be an unmitigated failure. GCSE coursework was in place since the implementation of the National Curriculum up until the recent National Curriculum review in 2014 and the subsequent changes in the GCSE examination requirements. This approach totally failed to produce anything of value as it became a scramble for easy marks and lost all integrity. The unintended consequence of this was to kill off laboratory based practical work in UK schools. We now have new teachers arriving in schools unable to understand how to deliver laboratory based practical work of any worth simply because they were educated in a system that failed to teach this in schools for a generation.

If there is one mistake we should not make by interpreting the PISA results it is that school based laboratory work is undermining pupils ability to understand science. We need good science laboratory work more than ever and this is something we will be working hard to develop and promote at the East London Science School.

Further reading:

To understand the basis of the science tests and the definition of scientific literacy used read PISA 2015 frameworks

Brief overview of the PISA 2015 results PISA 2015 Results

David Perks

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