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Dr John L Taylor, Director of Critical Skills, at Rugby School, and Chief Examiner for Edexcel Project Qualifications explain, why even Harvard professors are excited by the post-16 course that demands original research and thought.

With a myriad of courses on offer, plus year on year improvements in pass rates, it is seemingly harder than ever for savvy, innovative, intellectual students to shine and to take the right path.

Arguably, schools have become little more than exam factories, churning out an increasingly homogeneous product.

Learning is reduced to bite-sized chunks of information fed, absorbed and regurgitated at regular intervals; or is it?

Not always; Perspectives on Science is a course that has received critical acclaim from top flight universities for asking such questions as 'Are mental illnesses genetic?' and demanding a rigorously researched response.

Extended Project Qualifications - pushing the boundaries

Perspectives on Science is part of the EPQ .... 'My universities were amazed at the amount of independent work that was needed for this and they felt it would stand students in good stead.' Ellie Derrick.

Rare Breed

Developed by The Edexcel Examination Board in conjunction with teachers and academics, students undertaking an extended project qualification can earn up to 70 UCAS points, (just over half an A level).

'We believe Extended Projects have the potential to produce pupils who are better equipped for life at university and that they are a powerful educational tool which could transform the curriculum within schools by placing the emphasis on a pupil centred, active learning approach in an academically rigorous context.' Patrick Derham, Head Master, Westminster School.

There are various routes to extended project qualifications but courses such as Perspectives in Science and Digital Perspectives - which combine science, ethics and philosophy and feature case study discussions designed to develop skills in research, philosophical thinking and ethical argument - are held in very high regard. Students not only learn to question, analyse and philosophise, but push their skills to the limits when embarking on their individual and original research project dissertations.

It's not just at home where the course garners support; Professor Niall Ferguson, Harvard University comments,

'Five years of teaching in American universities has convinced me that English secondary education has two fundamental weaknesses. There is still too much reliance on exam-based assessment, which encourages cramming and learning by rote. And the A level system perpetuates the fatal 'two cultures' divide between arts and sciences. That's one reason that even stars from the best British schools find the going tough at Harvard. They're not ready for continuous assessment. And they're not ready to spend the morning on literature and the afternoon on physics. The appeal to me of the Extended Project, as exemplified by the Perspectives on Science course pioneered at Rugby, is that it offers a cure for both these problems.'

And according to Peter Stagg, University of Warwick Centre for Education and Industry, Perspectives on Science is particularly useful for employers, because it includes a range of work-related scenarios and uses. He believes,

'Teaching and learning styles which are very participative and open, encourage the development of some generic skills and enterprise capabilities valuable in employment. Other science A level courses could gain some insights into work-related learning and enterprise by incorporating some ideas from these courses.'

Original research

There is much here for both science and arts students who want to explore the interface between these domains.

The project phase allows students the chance to develop original thought; a structured approach is used to encourage academically rigorous research and writing. The Perspectives programme works best for those who can see the point of science and philosophy working together; who subscribe to, or are prepared to challenge the view

'There is more to the truth than just the facts’,

or who believe, as William James did that,

‘We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.'

Popular research questions include: 'Can you believe in God and the big bang?' and 'Is animal testing for cosmetic purposes ethically acceptable?' Less common questions such as 'What is the best philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics?' often lead to work which a good undergraduate would be proud to have produced.

Causing a stir

Devotees of the course - both students and teachers - tend to be enormously enthusiastic.

'Probably the most enjoyable teaching I've done,' said one teacher.

Whilst a student regarded it as

'A more realistic, interesting and fascinating course than my other subjects.'

Unsurprisingly, Perspectives on Science is held in high esteem by leading universities and employers; so whatever path perspectives students take, they’re likely to go a long way.

Dr John Taylor was engaged in research and teaching at the University of Oxford before he joined Rugby School.

He has devoted much of his professional life to exploring philosophical questions with students and has the last word:

'The wonderful thing about philosophical discussion with students is the feeling of not knowing where the conversation will end up. In philosophy, an idea stands or falls by the clarity and logic of the argument behind it. It doesn't matter whose idea it is. It is wonderfully empowering to students once they realise that, when the great questions of philosophy are on the table, their ideas and arguments count too.'

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