Teaching for understanding of science in context: Evidence from the pilot trials of the Twenty First Century Science courses

M. Ratcliffe, R. Millar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The framework developed for the PISA 2006 science survey starts from everyday contexts in which citizens encounter scientific issues and knowledge claims. Recent curriculum changes in England, making possible the introduction of courses for 15- to 16-year olds with an explicit "scientific literacy" emphasis, are based on a very similar analysis, identifying knowledge about science itself as a key element of knowledge, alongside scientific knowledge of the natural world. The pilot trials and implementation of such courses provide an unrivalled opportunity to study the nature and extent of the challenge facing policymakers, curriculum developers, and teachers in re-focusing secondary science on the learning needs of the citizen. This article examines the extent to which teachers recognized and were able in their practice to implement teaching of "ideas about science" (IaS), by looking at teachers' views and practices during the pilot trials of the Twenty First Century Science courses in England. Using classroom observations and teacher interviews, the practice in 8 schools was followed in depth over two years, supplemented by questionnaire survey to all 78 schools piloting Twenty First Century Science. Contemporary contexts were emphasized in the curriculum resources and welcomed by pupils and teachers. Teachers' perceptions and actions indicated that science content knowledge continued to dominate over knowledge about science, despite the curriculum emphasis on teaching the latter strand in the context of current socio-scientific issues. Dealing with contemporary contexts and IaS posed pedagogic problems for many teachers, even when professional support was available. Only after at least one full cycle of teaching the course had some of the teachers begun to modify their practice to address knowledge about science and contexts of application more effectively. The study suggests that teachers' practices can be changed, but that this takes time and requires considerable support from teaching materials and other forms of professional development that encourage reflection on practice. (C) 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 46: 945-959, 2009

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)945-959
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Research in Science Teaching
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2009


  • scientific literacy
  • curriculum development
  • achievement

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