Wednesday 18 September 2019

Sciences to become hands-on in move away from rote learning

Students in subjects such as chemistry and physics now face practical exams. Stock Image
Students in subjects such as chemistry and physics now face practical exams. Stock Image
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Practical exams in Leaving Certificate science subjects are finally on the horizon.

Government curriculum advisers have recommended 90-minute laboratory-based practicals in biology, chemistry and physics, to be worth 30pc of the marks for those subjects.

An overhaul in Leaving Cert science subjects is part of wider moves to ensure school-leavers and graduates in Ireland are equipped with necessary skills for the modern age.

It is almost 11 years since the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) started work on a shake-up of the science curricula and, in 2014, it sent its final recommendations to the Department of Education.

Now, in a sign the department is ready to go ahead with the changes, it recently asked the State Examinations Commission (SEC) to conduct school trials in the practicals to assess the feasibility of introducing them into the assessment regime.

The practicals would allow students to demonstrate what they know in a real-life way, rather than relying solely on written exams, for which many depend on rote learning.

The overall changes proposed for the three Leaving Cert subjects, both in terms of a new syllabus and the practicals, allow for continuity with the more inquiry-based focus on teaching and learning now being implemented in science at junior cycle.  

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The new specifications for science subjects, at both Junior Cert and Leaving Cert, put an emphasis on the application of knowledge in real-world contexts. In other words, students should be able "to do" rather than only "to know".

The junior cycle changes in science were introduced for first years last September, as part of the ongoing reforms, and the first students to experience these will complete junior cycle in 2019.

Sixth-year students in 30 schools will participate in the trials for the practicals in October, before a final decision on their inclusion into the assessment regime.

The SEC is due to deliver a report on the trials to the department by February and, even if there is no further delay, it is likely to be 2021 at the earliest before the first practicals take place, as the new syllabus would be introduced for fifth years.

That time scale would allow for the first cohort of students to have experienced the junior cycle reforms to progress to similarly modernised syllabuses for physics, chemistry and biology at Leaving Cert level.

The practicals proposed for the Leaving Cert would be assessed by external examiners, not the students' own teachers, so avoiding the sort of dispute that has arisen around some of the junior cycle reforms.

The changes are regarded as long overdue and received a broad welcome in an extensive consultation process that the NCCA conducted as part of its deliberations.

Recent reports from the chief examiner about the performance of candidates in Leaving Cert science exams have drawn attention to their shortcomings.

Reflecting on the 2013 chemistry exam, the chief examiner stated "the ability of candidates to perform experiments safely and co-operatively, select and manipulate suitable apparatus and make accurate observations and measurements cannot be determined in a written paper."

Concern about the present sole reliance on written exams in the science subjects also emerged during the NCCA consultation on changes, where it found "much criticism of the expectation on learners to learn material off by heart", arising from its consultations about the changes.

Irish Independent

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