‘Teachers need to change science education’

In response to the “very grim and alarming” state of science education in Europe, a Commission expert group recommends a radical change in the pedagogical methods used to teach science in schools.

Professor Péter Csermely, Hungarian molecular biologist and winner of the 2005 Descartes Prize for Communication, was a member of the 
expert group
 that was set up by the Commission to formulate policy recommendations to improve science teaching in primary and secondary schools. In an interview with euractiv.com he answers to questions concerning science education in Europe and explains the main conclusions of the 
expert report
 published on 12 June 2007. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Shouldn’t schools have specialised science teachers instead of ‘generalists’ who normally teach science? 

Both generalist and specialists are important. I think it is important to go deep into one scientific discipline to understand its logic, but a generalist approach is equally important to holistically show that science can be everywhere and is a way of thinking. 

What is the level of specialisation of science teachers in Europe, are there differences between member states? 

All European instructors are producing or educating teachers with a very specific scientific background in certain disciplines. Primary schools normally have one teacher who is responsible for everything, but it is based on pedagogical needs at particular ages. 

Generally, we do not want to change the educational system because, first, education is a member-state (not an EU) competence. Secondly, we don’t feel that it’s necessary. What is needed is to change the methods of the teachers, the ways that teachers are working. 

Is that the major conclusion of your report?

Yes. This is not about top-down approach on prescribing officially in a law how to work, but about convincing the teachers that they have to change. It is more a kind of networking method. 

That’s why we have proposed a European Science Education Advisory Board as a forum to supervise, network and to re-initiate various information exchanges between teachers, who we know are keen on this and we just have to give them the opportunity. This is our task at the European level. This advisory group would obviously be a small body gathering only the top representatives of national or transnational organisations to generate national expertise. The national representative would then pass the message on in its country. 

This type of networks already exist at national level in some countries, but they do not know about each other. There are very good practices, for example in France and Slovenia, but they don’t propagate to other countries. 

The recommendations of the report are built on initiatives that have already been disseminated in Europe, such as Pollen and SINUS-Transfer. Both projects concentrate on inquiry-based methods and try to shift the balance between traditional deductive methods and inquiry-based methods both in primary and secondary schools. This is the future of science. Most teachers in primary schools do not have specific science education in their original curriculum and that is why they are afraid to discuss science as they don’t feel prepared for it.  

How is the current European exchange of best practice programmes such as Xplora doing? Are they successful, and have you had any feedback from schools? 

They are successful. We have reviewed Xplora and found that it is a wonderful tool for disseminating new and innovative ways to teach science. An increasing number of schools use Xplora. The site is only in English, but English is the language of science and I think that many segments of Xplora are actually meant for the teachers – not for the students. Teachers can thus be a sort of a translating machine, not only language-wise but also pedagogic- and method-wise. 

You said that private companies have expressed an interest in helping to boost science education in schools. Who and how? 

Two or three ways of helping occured to me. Firstly, companies can provide internships and visits to companies for both primary and secondary schools. It is about giving the children and the students the feeling that companies are not secretive, with defences and guards, but open places where they can see interesting things. 

Secondly, companies can provide internships for secondary school students and, even more importantly, for teachers. Thirdly, they can provide financial help, in particular new science-education projects in schools or districts, or help spread successful projects to all countries. 

There are already some initiatives in certain countries, for example in Sweden, in which private companies are helping the networking of the actors in the science-education field, ie teachers, students, researchers and obviously engineer members of companies. 

Companies are very keen to see a boost in science education in Europe, as there is a serious lack of highly educated and skilled engineers who have studied subjects such as physics, mathematics, chemistry or biology. 

Did the two European commissioners for science and research and education welcome your report? 

The Commission’s previous expertise and knowledge are very much along the major statements and findings of our expert group, so there was no question on the importance of the issue. Both commissioners agreed on the establishment of a European Science Education Advisory Board and on the necessity to allocate a significant amount of Commission money for a substantial change in science education. They also agreed to disseminate the results and the findings of official bodies such as Education and Research Councils, other European institutions and national ministries from both sides.