Being passionate about science, I wonder a lot about the way I was taught science throughout school (and at college) and the way the people I know are being taught science in educational institutes. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with any approach that seeks to impose a linguistic corset on the processes involved in the understanding of science. You don’t make people good at science by making them learn answers to questions and then evaluating how well they reproduce those answers in an exam, not more than you can produce Olympic medallists by teaching them the history of their discipline as in who won what in the past!
That approach only tends to work as long as what is being evaluated is the state of knowledge about what is known about the world. Science, however, happens to be much more than a mere compendium of facts that is supposed to be assimilated. It is a process, a set of tools, a systematic approach that enables one to discern relationships between different things and examine the nature of those relationships.
It is also about being fundamentally rebellious in a strange sort of way, it is an attempt to try and be a paradigm shifter in matters of human knowledge. It involves not being satisfied with the nature of explanations but to probe further, to see if there are chinks in the proverbial armour of our knowledge of observational reality, or if there are gaps that need patching up. Science may, as far as one is inclined to treat it as an enterprise, eventually turn out to be unending. There’s so much to learn, so much to ask, and so much to find out.
It is in light of this that I find the almost authoritarian “You shall accept what I tell thee, and don’t ask me questions!” attitude that is so much a feature of science educators (this would appear to be a feature of educators here in general, too) here a bit bizarre, for science class, in my opinion, is a place that should not only entail knowing what is known to be true, but why, and how we arrived at that state of knowledge.
I know that anecdotes do not count for much, but it was rather surprising that I ended up explaining causality, controls and experiment design to a 13-year old, despite the scientific method being treated in the curriculum at the age of 11, obviously not very well.
So, having got that preliminary rant out of the way, I think it is time to focus on the key question. How should science be taught? What skills should we be focussing on? While I will not claim to having the definitive answer, I will still put forth my opinions, in the hope that it will foster discussion that will eventually give rise to a new consensus.
Firstly, I think that the scientific method ought to be taught, as in the experimental discernment of causes and effects. The idea of variables and causes and effects are perhaps the easiest to convey, and can be demonstrated with things like food. It is possible to demonstrate that the cause of the lemony taste of lemonade is due to the presence of lemon extract in it. Show that if you take two glasses of ingredients other than the lemon , add lemon to one and not the other (this is the concept of a control and a test), the variation in taste will be down to the presence of lemon extract in the preparation.
Another example would be sweets prepared with and without sugar, or food with and without spice. The core idea here is simple, the introduction of the principle of determinism. Stochastic processes is something they’ll have to be introduced to later, and a plausible method of demonstrating stochasticity using everyday examples evades me at the moment.
It is not difficult to see how one may, with knowledge of the aforementioned basics, go on to be in a position to understand and test hypotheses, and also to properly design experiments to do so. Concepts such as scientific theories can be introduced later, and by the time one enters late middle school, with well-developed skills in mathematics, at around the age of 12-13, much more advanced concepts can be introduced, culminating with the establishment of solid scientific foundations for further study if one so desired.
The other issue I want to write about in this essay pertains to the way science is presented. As I already said, I was really put off at school by the way science was taught. It used to be people reading the textbook out loud, more or less, and this already compounded the problems posed by a badly devised curriculum. Those people would really do well to learn from someone like Walter Levin at MIT, with a high degree of experimentation involved. If you are teaching Newton’s laws of motion, for instance, it isn’t difficult to illustrate them at all! , something like a duster on a table would do for the first two and then you could perhaps make a little rocket to illustrate the third…
The lack of connection with what is being studied is a special problem with biology, in my opinion. There is just so much natural beauty out there, and there are excellent books such as National Geographic’s “Exploring the Human Body” which are eminently suited in the conveyance of said natural beauty.
There also could be great benefits to getting a microscope, just to highlight all the diversity there is, and to show students the tissues in plants and animals they read about in the curriculum, which they tend to do so without any sense of connection. It is also not difficult to take fruits to the classroom and illustrate the concepts of radial and bilateral symmetry, or to introduce the myriad of resources available on the web that bring the concepts they’re being taught to life (pun intended).
More could be conveyed about ideas such as mitosis and meiosis and photosynthesis and so on just through the judicious use of animations and videos. There is no substitute to a good time-lapse video of cells dividing if one were to be studying that, or bacteria growing.Finally, I would like to chime in for the introduction of practical science earlier in education, including at school level, I would like to substantiate the fact that children can do good science at a very young age by pointing to the peer-reviewed study that a group of 8-11 year olds in Blackawton Primary School in the UK was able to produce.The full paper is here http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/7/2/168
I hope that more educators will turn their attention to what is a very important area of education, and that it will bring forth ideas that can utilize the full breadth of analogy, technology and good old science to impart the tools required for scientific reasoning and the knowledge required to enable that reasoning to be solid in a way that is no longer coma-inducing.
Most importantly, I hope that those ideas are tested experimentally so that the science curriculum becomes an example of the principles it is supposed to teach. That is all from me this time round.