The subjects mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology at our secondary schools put too much emphasis on the national examinations. School pupils mainly fill their heads with theory and written assignments, whereas they could learn at least as much from practical experiments. ‘Let schoolchildren construct an alarm system themselves, or design their own classroom. That will stimulate their creativity and interest’, says University of Groningen professor Martin Goedhart. ‘And that’s important because the Netherlands needs a lot of technically trained people.’
Dutch schoolchildren find the exact sciences difficult and boring and few of them choose further education in scientific or technological subjects. The drop-out rate in these degree programmes is also high – many students just can’t cope. It’s high time to tackle the problem of teaching in the exact sciences, is the opinion of professor of Education in the Scientific Disciplines Martin Goedhart. ‘Nowhere else in Europe is there so little interest in technological degrees as in the Netherlands. That’s a luxury we just cannot permit ourselves. If we want to keep our economy up to the mark, we need far more students following science degrees.’
Secondary schools are heavily judged on the results of their pupils in the national examinations. So much material is tested in those national examinations that there’s barely room in the programme for teaching other knowledge and skills. ‘Modelling, technical drawing, research or writing an essay about a biology subject – the school examinations are meant to test that sort of thing but there’s less and less time for them. Schoolchildren are mainly busy with the theory for the national exam’, states Goedhart. The government has a very contradictory policy, in his opinion. ‘The Hague promised autonomy but is keeping a strong hand on the reins. The teaching programme is held to ransom by the national exams.’
The basic subject matter should be limited and schools should be given more freedom to design their own teaching programmes, thinks Goedhart. ‘Some parts of the chemistry curriculum, for example statics and reaction speeds, could easily be dropped as exam material’, states the professor. ‘They are not very appealing, nor do they have much to do with actual scientific practice.' Instead, a choice of subject matter could be offered, for example about drugs or new materials. Goedhart: ‘In that way you’d bring education closer to daily life and bridge the gap between school and academia.’
Some schools already offer the subject ‘Nature, Life and Technology' which teaches facts about natural sciences in a modern, appealing way. In the meantime, Ministry of Education committees are also working on new programmes for the sciences, limiting the basic subject matter and creating more room for in-depth study. Goedhart considers these to be positive developments. However, as yet the Ministry is not open to suggestions for another important change in education – less emphasis on the national examinations. The fear that the quality of the education would suffer is unfounded, thinks Goedhart. ‘There’s nothing wrong with letting a teacher from one school assess the quality of the teaching programme at another school. That would stimulate the teachers and guarantee the quality of the education.’
Martin Goedhart (1955) is professor of Education in Scientific Disciplines at the University of Groningen. He studied chemistry at Utrecht University and has taught chemistry for various laboratory training programmes. He gained his PhD in Utrecht with a thesis on the way to structure the learning and teaching of ‘measurement’ in a university chemistry practical. He has worked as a teaching methodologist in chemistry for the teacher training programme of the University of Amsterdam. In addition to professor, Goedhart is also Director of the Institute for Didactics and Curriculum Development, in charge of the Master’s degree programme in Education in Scientific Disciplines and secretary of the Board of the Technasium Foundation.
More information: Martin Goedhart
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