Sparking interest in science

While children hunger for truth and beauty, the UK government's new pilot science curriculum feeds them a soup of media-driven issues.

Ruth Chenoweth

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Topics Politics

According to a report from the UK all-party Science and Technology Committee, children have switched off from science because of tedious coursework, a curriculum overloaded with facts, and dull experiments.

So because the government will not properly fund school laboratories or release teachers from the straight-jacket of the National Curriculum and national testing, boring old science must go. In its place, it seems, we will have a new science curriculum based on discussing contemporary issues – to be piloted in 50 schools from September 2003.

Since the children must be entertained, we will give them the glittering shadow, but not the substance of science. Science is seen as too value-laden and heartless. The new curriculum, it is argued, must reach out to women and ethnic-minorities – meaning that value-laden paternalistic science is to be replaced with value-laden feminist science. We will have Gaia in the classroom but not Newton.

The new science curriculum will be more politicised than almost any other part of the curriculum. The issues – such as human cloning and diet – will not be chosen by the children but by the state. Children will explore these issues, not from a sound basis of science facts and explanations, but through the filter of the media.

Distinctions between the separate scientific disciplines, already blurred in the existing double science award, will vanish entirely, leaving children without the power of concepts and ideas to tackle the issues. They will speak pidgin science much as they now speak pidgin French.

The curriculum will be materialistic and consumerist, focusing on self-centred concerns to do with our bodies or personal satisfaction. This pandering to the individualistic values of our ephemeral twenty-first century culture will jar with many parents, who are trusting schools to show a higher set of human values – values that have underpinned the great scientific endeavour, such as discipline, courage, creativity and hope.

If the conventional science GCSE is poorly taught and boring, just imagine how poorly taught and boring a course based on ‘issues and discussion’ could be. To construct and participate in a lesson based on issues requires as much, if not more, discipline and yes, marshalling of facts, as a traditional science lesson.

In fact, done properly, there are as many constraints – the class needs to be taught thinking skills, debating skills, ethics, philosophy, and even theology, in addition to science. If pupils are not equipped with this toolkit they could be seriously misled into believing they are participating in a rigorous discussion when they are merely exchanging unfocused and uneducated opinion – they are gossiping over the garden fence, not contributing to public understanding.

These pupils will find that their ability to participate in the new scientific democracy that the government aspires to is severely limited. They will be frustrated to discover that both their scientific knowledge and their philosophical understanding are inadequate to understand developments in science. They will be fed a soup of media-driven issues. Science of substance will become the preserve of a highly educated elite (increasingly provided by the remaining selective state schools and independent schools) who will be the only ones genuinely to understand the genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics that is set to change our lives and perhaps alter the whole course of our species.

‘Education makes a people easy to lead’ said Lord Brougham, an eighteenth-century Lord Chancellor. This will be the result of ‘scientific literacy’ – instead of a scientific democracy we will have created a new scientific aristocracy. One which will find public opinion easy to shape, because most people will have been softened up by their education to seek information from the media. We will see the emergence of a benevolent feudalism where the new Lords of Science, who are kind and liberal, will fill the minds of their subjects with soothing ‘ideas about science’.

Science is about truth and it is about beauty. Our children hunger and thirst for truth and beauty. The answer is not scientific literacy but better laboratories so that children can do experiments; greater teacher freedom so that teachers can use scientific facts as a launch-pad to explore questions raised by the children; and updating parts of the curriculum so that the children get to learn about subjects such as astronomy and palaeontology – subjects that many children naturally love and want to learn about in depth.

Scientific literacy is cheap and nasty, and a failure of our responsibility to pass on to the next generation what is best in human culture.

Ruth Chenoweth is a parent governor and a parent representative on her local education authority’s Lifelong Scrutiny Panel. She also works as a campaigner for Human Scale Education. This article expresses her personal views.

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