Friday, 13 April 2012

Science and Maths students in Sofia

To Sofia for EU study visit on developing competencies in science and maths, working with colleagues from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Turkey. Bulgaria has a very good record of students winning medals at international Olympiads and those we met and spoke to certainly did great credit to themselves and their teachers. They were confident, self-assured, well-informed and utterly dedicated to science. The 11th graders (aged 16-17) could have been put into any Western European sixth form and would have been indistinguishable from other high achieving students (apart from the Balkan accent) and the 4th graders (aged 9-10) were some of the most enthusiastic young mathematicians I’ve ever seen: engaged, willing and creative.
However, the wider picture tells a different story. Svetla Petrova at the Centre for the Control and Assessment of the Quality in School Education explained to us that Bulgaria’s performance in the 2009 PISA tests was not good; the overall score for Science was 439 (PISA scores are referenced against a mean of 500). In other words, the medal winners are not typical products of the system (and were quite clear themselves that it was the supplementary provision from dedicated teachers and university lecturers that was making the difference).

Drilling down further revealed more of the story. Bulgarian students overall scored 444 for ‘explaining scientific phenomena’, but it dropped to 427 for ‘identifying scientific issues’ and to 417 for ‘using scientific evidence’. Full credit to the authorities who have accepted the significance of the issues; it’s difficult for students to use scientific evidence if they don’t do much practical work so new laboratory facilities are to be installed and practical work initiated in the curriculum.

What was also interesting about the study visit was the large degree of unanimity between professionals from different countries about how we can encourage students to study science and maths at a higher level. We shouldn’t imagine that able students dropping STEM subjects at 16 is purely a UK phenomenon. There was a lot of talk about making problems authentic so that students could see why they were important and also about ways of getting students to devise and evaluate solutions themselves. One of the projects I learned about was the Primas Project ( and a good one for mathematicians was GeoGebra (

Actually some of the activities we learned about that were devised for students in Bulgaria were pretty good; “What is the influence of solar radiation on the greenness of plants?” as a basis for an investigation I thought had real potential. At the moment these are only used with a minority of students at competition level but if they get their curriculum, resources and teaching methods sorted so that such enquiry based learning becomes part of the mainstream provision ……..

Incidentally the visit was funded through the EU’s Transversal programme ( which offers a wide range of opportunities. A full report of the outcomes of this visit will be published on their website.

Ed Walsh
Cornwall Advisor for Learning

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