Science education: Stop messing around!

I am unashamedly passionate about science.

More than that, I’m unashamedly passionate about science education, so although I don’t generally tend to dabble in the field of devolved politics I was delighted to find that the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK(CaSE) has published an analysis of the core manifesto and other policy commitments given by each of major Scottish parties as they relate to the promotion of science and engineering. From my perspective, its good to know what our politicians are planning and what they see as their priorities for the sciences and, in particular, for science education.

The main question put by CaSE in terms of education was:

How will your party make sure that all children in Scotland have access to a stimulating education in science and mathematics taught by appropriately qualified teachers?

And this drew a rather mixed response from the parties with by far the worst coming from the Scottish Conservatives:

We cannot accept a situation where individuals are leaving formal education not equipped with a fundamental grasp of literacy and numeracy and we most certainly cannot promote science and engineering without a more robust education in the 3R’s. (Letter to CaSE)

In short, ‘Sorry, we haven’t got a Scooby’ – granted, literacy and numeracy are essential skills in the sciences, as they are in every other sphere of education, but simply banging on about the "3R’s" neither answers the question put by CaSE not does it constitute a plan for improving the scientific education offered by Scottish schools.

The other parties were more expansive in their response to this question, with the most detailed response coming – as you might expect – from the Scottish Nationalist who, as the current party of government, are in by far the best position to set out detailed proposals. Two of the parties (Greens and Labour) specifically addressed the need to recruit more qualified teachers, but only in terms of acknowledging a need to tackle this issue and not with any substantive plans, while the Labour Party response also mentioned a need to do more to recruit young women into the sciences and tackle gendered career segregation, which is all to the good, of course. Again, there are no concrete plans only commitments in principle but at least these issues are getting some recognition.

What’s lacking in all the part responses, from my point of view, in any real sense that politicians are taking any kind of view on the knowledge content of science education. Three the parties (Green, LD and SNP) do refer directly to Scotland’s national Curriculum for Excellence but otherwise what CaSE got was, in the main, responses couched in terms of systems-level issues such as qualifications, apprenticeship and provision of bursaries. Its seems, therefore, that Scotland’s politicians are broadly content to leave the matter of the knowledge content of the science curriculum to the country’s educationalists, which could be viewed as a good thing in the sense that it would appear that politicians aren’t intent on interfering in the curriculum for their own political ends but at the same time, and based on what’s happened with the National Curriculum in England, raises concerns that science education may too readily fall prey to the kind of post-modernist ‘there are just different ways of knowing’ crap and general dumbing-down in the name of promoting scientific ‘literacy’ for the masses at the expense of promoting excellence in the sciences that we’ve too often seen South of the border.

I am not, in any sense, an advocate of tradition for tradition’s sake but, when it comes to the sciences, I am firmly of the opinion that if it ain’t bust then don’t fuck about with it and one thing that certainly isn’t broken is the longstanding division of the sciences into a very particular and carefully organised taxonomic hierarchical structure of formal disciplines.

Collectively, the traditional structure and organisation of the natural science can be viewed by analogy as either a triangle or pyramid (for those who prefer their analogies in three dimensions) albeit one where the foundations are to be found at the apex rather than the base.

Science is a top-down system of knowledge at the apex of which sits the pure abstract realm of mathematics with its axioms, formal logic and rigorous proofs.

At the level below mathematics, we have the three pure (or fundamental) natural sciences, physics, chemistry and biology, from which the foundational elements of all other scientific disciplines are ultimately derived. These too are arranged hierarchically based on the depth of understanding they have to impart as to the fundamental nature of the universe around us. Physics is the most abstract and fundamental of the three pure sciences dealing, as it does, with the most basic elements of the universe; matter, energy and forces, etc wherein it relies heavily on mathematics and provides, through theoretical physics, that that abstract realm. From physics we have atomic theory which, in turn, explains the science of chemistry, which concerns itself, at its most basic level, with the properties of atoms and the manner in which arrange themselves in molecules with still other properties. Chemistry is divided into two key subdisciplines, inorganic and organic chemistry and its from the latter that we derive our knowledge an understanding of biochemistry, genetics and the foundational elements of life and living systems, i.e. the science of biology.

Finally, at the base of this triangle/pyramid we have the applied sciences; such as medicine, ecology, geology, engineering, etc. each of which draws on and combines knowledge derived from the pure sciences which is then applied to, for the most, practical ends and the understanding of natural phenomena.

This general structure enables us to organise our knowledge and understanding of the universe in a systematic and largely efficient manner. It is, admittedly – as post-modernists would claim – purely a human construct, a way of organising what we know about the world around us in way that, at least to scientists, makes perfect sense. What it is not – and here I disagree fundamentally with the post-modernist view of sciences – is merely one arbitrary way of knowing, and of organising knowledge, amongst many.

The traditional taxonomy of the natural sciences maybe imperfect in place and occasionally a little rough around the edges but is anything but arbitrary given that it based firmly on our deepest and most exactly observations of the nature of the world around us. Its structure and organisation expresses what we know and understand about what, for want of a better term, we call the natural order of the universe when we investigate the nature of world around us by means of the scientific method of experimentation, observation and inquiry.

As a method of organising and systematising our knowledge of the natural world, this system has been good enough for Newton, Franklin, Faraday, Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell, Kelvin, Rutherford, Curie, Einstein, Dirac, Pasteur and pretty much every Nobel laureate one could care to mention, and it was certainly good enough for me back when I was school studying mathematics, physics and chemistry.

Sadly, as in England, it doesn’t appear to be good enough for the educationalists responsible for Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence [warning, rant ahead]:

The sciences curriculum area within Curriculum for Excellence has to meet some significant challenges. While every child and young person needs to develop a secure understanding of important scientific concepts, their experience of the sciences in school must develop a lifelong interest in science and its applications.

Content has been updated and account has been taken of research evidence on learning in science and of international comparisons. As a result, there is a strong emphasis on the development of understanding and on critical evaluation, and expectations in some areas have been raised.
The key concepts have been clearly identified using five organisers:

  • Planet Earth
  • Forces, electricity and waves
  • Biological systems
  • Materials
  • Topical science.

Planet Earth is not a science, its not even a key concept in science, it’s a fucking planet – the one we happen to inhabit – that we study in numerous ways by means of both the pure and applied sciences. What the fuck does ‘Planet Earth’ mean in this particular context? Cosmology? Geology? Ecology? Meteorology? Plate techtonics? Orbital mechanics? Any combination of the former, plus a few more besides?

Physics appears to have been reduced to just forces, electricity and waves, which from memory seems to add up to at most half the curriculum I studied at ‘O’ level – where’s the rest of it? Has it been lumped into ‘Planet Earth’ or just quietly dropped?

Biological systems and materials similarly seem to fall some considerable way short of what would once have been regarded as the basic curricular knowledge requirements for the study of biology and chemistry and, as usual, there is no explicit mention made of the study of neo-Darwinian evolution, which is just about as foundational as its possible to get in biology without tipping over into biochemistry..

As for ‘topical science’ – your guess is as good as mine?

That could mean whatever’s been in the papers lately or it could mean whatever the teacher thinks might stop the kids at the back of the class fucking about with their mobile phones for the next fifteen minutes? You’d hope it might be something interesting, say rocketry, but suspect, based on experience of the dumbing-down of science education in England, that what this really means is a discussion of the ethics of nuclear power, which is interesting but not, strictly speaking, science. Frankly, I don’t give a fuck about whether 15 year olds can engage in an intelligent debate on the pros and cons of nuclear power generation. What I do care about is whether they can provide a basic explanation of how a nuclear power station actually works and give an account of the key physical principles (e.g. radioactivity, alpha decay and Einstein’s mass-energy equation) on which nuclear power is based. Calculations of stuff like energy output, etc. would also be nice despite the fact that mathematic rigor in physics seems to have gone right out fashion in the last few years.

These issues arise, I think, for two main reasons.

One seems evident from the order of the curriculum’s list of ‘main purposes of learning in the sciences’:

Children and young people participating in the experiences and outcomes in the sciences will:

  • develop a curiosity and understanding of their environment and their place in the living, material and physical world
  • demonstrate a secure knowledge and understanding of the big ideas and concepts of the sciences
  • develop skills for learning, life and work
  • develop skills of scientific inquiry and investigation using practical techniques
  • develop skills in the accurate use of scientific language, formulae and equations
  • recognise the role of creativity and inventiveness in the development of the sciences
  • apply safety measures and take necessary actions to control risk and hazards
  • recognise the impact the sciences make on their lives, the lives of others, the environment and on society
  • develop an understanding of the Earth’s resources and the need for responsible use of them
  • express opinions and make decisions on social, moral, ethical, economic and environmental issues based upon sound understanding
  • develop as scientifically literate citizens with a lifelong interest in the sciences
  • establish the foundation for more advanced learning and, for some, future careers in the sciences and the technologies.

We have to wait for item 11 on the list, right at the bottom, to finally reach what should be the first, most important and overriding purpose of a good science education, that of producing the next generation of scientists, engineers and science educators. Sorry, but everything else on the list is either an adjunct to that primary purpose (i.e. skills development) or a subsidiary consideration and if, to some, that sounds a bit like a recipe for elitism in the science then so what – it is!.

Science, as I’ve stressed before, is not a democratic institution and its certainly not a field in which you make progress simply by turning up and doing your best – although that obviously helps. Science is about intellectual rigor and the pursuit of excellence and if that means that little Johnny, who can’t even get his head around wiring a three-pin plug, gets left behind then sorry, put the kid into another subject where he can make best use of whatever talents he has or run a less demanding course in basic scientific literacy and let the kids who can cope with the demands of a scientific education get on with the business of accumulating the knowledge they need for a career in the sciences.

The other problem stems from a general shift in emphasis in education away from valuing the acquisition of knowledge to prioritising the development of skills and – more recently – ‘competencies’. Changes in the language used in education policy documents over the last 20-30 years are, I think, particularly revealing inasmuch as we’ve gone from prioritising the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge to prioritising the development of skills to, recently and only perhaps in England, couching discussions of policy and curricular content in terms of competencies.

Or, to put it another way, our expectations of what children should get from 11 years of mandatory education have gone from expecting them to be knowledgeable when they leave school, to wanting them to have a few useful skills under their belt  when they enter the workplace to hoping that they’ll at least be competent to do something when they kicked out the door and in the real world.

Along the way, the shift in emphasis from knowledge acquisition to skills development has lead to the false perception amongst policy makers that science is all just about finding things out for yourself and picking up the skills to do it. It isn’t – experimentation and observation are, of course, the part of the lifeblood of the scientific method but, to borrow unashamedly from Sir Isaac Newton, before one can engage in meaningful experiments and make worthwhile observations one has first to have learned to stand ‘on the shoulders of giants’.

Science ultimately rests on the twin pillars of the scientific method and accumulated knowledge, theories and evidence of previous generations of scientists. You cannot have one without the other and there are no other ways of knowing – and yes, I am looking you Steven Fuller – because science has it own way of knowing, the scientific method. Anything else, just isn’t science and has no place whatsoever in a science classroom.

The traditional divisions of the natural sciences into pure and applied, into physics, chemistry and biology and their many sub-disciplines and specialist fields are not not merely arbitrary human constructs or different ways of knowing they are integral components of an organised and internally consistent systematic body of human knowledge about the nature, order and workings of the universe – so, educationalist and policy-makers,  for fuck’s sake leave them alone. Stop fucking about with the sciences and stop trying to add in your own ‘organisers’ and priorities to the system – the one’s we already have have been working just fine for the last few centuries and if we need any more we’ll figure them out for ourselves without your help, thank you very much.

This really isn’t difficult at all – leave the content of the physics curriculum to physicists, the chemistry curriculum to chemists and the biology curriculum to biologics, etc. and let teachers get on do the teaching. This might not do much for your annual performance statistics or exam-based league tables but it will give you a bunch of well-educated and knowledgeable young scientists and engineers and that what really counts.

Anything else is gravy.

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  • I’m sympathetic to much of what you’re saying here, but as a post-grad physicist who’s tutored at university for the last three years, what students lack when they arrive isn’t scientific knowledge, it’s mathematical ability, which arguably shouldn’t be taught in science classes but in maths.

    So I’m less certain that we need to return to/stick with traditional separation of science at school level into physics and chemistry and biology and ensuring that we teach kids lots of facts. Much of the science you learn at school has to be re-covered at university anyway, as what you’ve been taught is so simplified as to be of little practical use. So inspiring a broader section of the population to be interested in science, to understand the scientific method you (and I) are keen to defend and realise the importance of scientific knowledge is important. If addressing science education in different ways than we have traditionally can do that, so be it. And if that involves grouping subjects differently or talking about topical issues I don’t see a problem.

    I’d question whether it really makes sense to see science as split into such a rigid taxonomy in any case. In my department, for example, in the school of physics at Edinburgh University, we have post-grad and post-docs who studied biology, chemisty, ecology for their undergraduate degree and we study the evolution of language, population dynamics of forests, self-assembly of proteins, pattern formation in bacterial colonies, … a whole range of topics not clearly ‘physics’ but which we approach from a certain perspective using experimental, analytical and computational tools based around statistical mechanics. Science is becoming increasingly cross-disciplinary and I don’t think a recongition of that at an early age is a bad thing.

    The disciplines we traditionally split science into are human constructs, they have their use, but they do change and aren’t always clearly separated. Sometimes you want to explain basic features of one scientific approach, but sometimes it is advantageous to show how they interact and how an understanding of some phenomena can be arrived at from different approaches (all of which, in a science class, following the scientific method of course).