Anti-science lessons

UK schools’ new dumbed-down, issues-led science curriculum will inculcate students with suspicion about scientific endeavour.

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

As of 2006, GCSE students in Britain will only be required to learn about ‘soft’ science – mainly about disputes over the benefits and risks of scientific developments – while traditional ‘hard’ science will be offered as an optional extra. The science curriculum has already been diluted in recent years, as combined science qualifications have taken the place of qualifications in separate disciplines. But the new curriculum will go further still, to the extent that it’s now questionable whether this can be labelled ‘science education’.

The current GCSE curriculum will be replaced by one currently being piloted in 80 secondary schools, as part of the Twenty-First Century Science initiative. As the Sunday Times reports, ‘the statutory requirement for pupils to learn a science subject will be watered down…. There will be no compulsion to master the Periodic Table – the basis of chemistry – nor basic scientific laws that have informed the work of all the great scientists such as Newton and Einstein’.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council and a critic of the curriculum changes, says ‘there is a crisis of public confidence in science which is reducing the progress of policy on such issues as nuclear energy and stem cell research’. But he doesn’t believe the changes to the curriculum will ameliorate the situation, pointing out that ‘sixth-formers are already arriving at university without the depth of knowledge required’ (1).

It’s even worse than that. These changes are not only unhelpful; they are likely to intensify today’s broader suspicion of science. If you are taught about the issues and debates surrounding science, without being taught the hard scientific facts, then your thinking will be susceptible to the uninformed prejudices of the day. A firm grasp of science is the only bulwark against fear and ignorance at a time when public opinion can be pretty hostile to scientific endeavour.

Various spiked contributors have explored what happens when this bulwark is removed:

  • The curricula for ‘softer’ sciences, such as geography, are already susceptible to dogmatic and moralistic agendas, as the former geography teacher Alex Standish illustrates (2). The new science curriculum will worsen the trend. The obligation for rigorous and detached thinking in science, separate from the immediacy of social concerns, will no longer apply. Social concerns will now be at the forefront of science education, with science coming a poor second.

  • The proposal that where there is a public dispute over a scientific issue, we should ‘teach the controversy’ in schools, rather than simply teaching the scientific facts, can have dire consequences. Consider the ugly disputes over whether evolution, creationism or a combination of both should be taught in American schools. As science writer Joe Kaplinsky argues, ‘school science classes are not the appropriate forum for settling scientific disputes’; only after ‘surviving the scrutiny of professional scientists’ should ideas ‘be taught as science’ (3).

  • Presenting the natural world to children in terms that they will find ‘relevant’ to their lives deprives them of the capacity for abstract and counterintuitive thought, as physics teacher David Perks explains (4). The capacity for abstract thought, once acquired, is applicable to any number of subjects throughout one’s life. A rigidly concrete understanding of the world, by contrast, fails to cultivate the young mind, leaving its potential unfulfilled.
  • The Twenty-First Century Science initiative follows the recommendations made in the Nuffield Foundation’s 1998 report Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future – in particular the bizarre proposition that the more important science becomes in society, the less important it is to teach it properly. The report argued that ‘the ever-growing importance of scientific issues in our daily lives demands a populace who have sufficient knowledge and understanding to follow science and scientific debates with interest, and to engage with the issues science and technology poses’; but it simultaneously argued that ‘the form of science education we currently offer to young people is outmoded, and fundamentally is still a preparatory education for our future scientists’ (5).

    Likewise, the Twenty-First Century Science initiative is based on the assumption that ‘we need both science for citizens and science for scientists’ (6). That’s a meaningless distinction. Science does not operate according to different principles depending on the use to which one puts it – it is intrinsically impartial. What is referred to here as ‘science for citizens’ is in fact officially sanctioned ignorance.

    The component of the new curriculum that all GCSE students will be obliged to study will teach children ‘to respond to scientific information presented in the media and everyday situations…so as to prepare young people to deal with issues such as childhood vaccinations, GM food scares, and mobile phone safety’. The examples given are instructive. There have been high-profile panics about childhood vaccinations, GM food and mobile phone safety, and yet the majority of professional scientists argue that these panics have no basis in fact (7).

    Making these panics the focus of science education, instead of teaching children actual science, will only endow the unscientific side of each controversy with undeserved credibility. It is perverse that teaching children about these transient and fickle controversies should take precedence over teaching them the basics of established (and hard-won) scientific thought.

    You only have to look at the titles of the pilot modules to see how potentially morally loaded the new curriculum is. Modules include ‘You and your genes’ (which covers ‘identifying ethical questions involved in an issue, appreciating the different viewpoints which may be held, and constructing arguments based on different fundamental beliefs’), and ‘Food matters’ (which covers ‘debates surrounding issues such as food additives, organic/conventional farming, genetically modified foods and sustainability’) (8).

    The course descriptions do give some emphasis to hard science, with formulations such as ‘students must develop their scientific knowledge in order to be able to make decisions’, and ‘they should appreciate the scientific basis for debates’. But these concessions are subordinate to the main focus of the course material – which is science in the context of its (perceived) social relevance, rather than science as a pursuit in itself.

    A phrase that pops up a lot in the new course material is ‘ideas-about-science’. This originates in the Beyond 2000 recommendations, which under this heading argued that ‘young people…require an understanding of the scientific approach to inquiry. Only then can they appreciate both the power, and the limitations, of different kinds of scientific knowledge claims’ (9).

    Essentially, the idea is that children require some appreciation of the philosophy of science – traditionally a fairly esoteric subject, that was studied after GCSE if at all – before they can have a proper appreciation of science itself. By teaching science this way round, you ask children to run before they can walk; to question the fundamental basis of scientific theory before they have any grounding in it. In this respect, ‘ideas-about-science’ are a poor substitute for scientific ideas.

    Talking to GCSE-level children in philosophical terms of ‘knowledge claims’, rather than simply teaching them scientific knowledge, is unlikely to provide them with a healthy scientific scepticism. Rather, it will inculcate relativism – the irrational assumption that there is no objective, scientific truth.

    If students are genuinely interested in contemporary panics over science, then surely this is something they should be taught about in sociology? While it is a subject worth pursuing (although perhaps not at GCSE level), it should remain distinct from basic science.

    Those behind Twenty-First Century Science are upfront about their philistinism, explaining that they are expunging the science curriculum of difficult material that students might find off-putting: ‘We want people to understand…major science explanations. We do not want them to get bogged down in too much detail. We will avoid introducing so much complexity that many simply switch off.’ (10)

    This is an abdication of the responsibility to teach children, replacing all of the awkward ‘detail’ and ‘complexity’ in science education with a shallow ragbag of ‘relevance’. Such a curriculum will doubtless be successful at turning out people who agonise endlessly over the ethics, controversies and risks of scientific endeavour. It will be less successful at producing a generation that believes in the importance of scientific endeavour, and that might contribute to future scientific progress.

    Sandy Starr is speaking at the If you could teach the world just one thing… and It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it – the learning styles controversy sessions at the Battle of Ideas in London on Saturday 29 October.

    Earlier this year, he conducted spiked‘s E = mc2 centenary survey If you could teach the world just one thing…, which asked over 250 renowned scientists, science communicators, and educators – including 11 Nobel laureates – what they would teach the world about science and why, if they could pick just one thing.

    Read on:

    spiked-issue: Education

    (1) ‘Nigella ousts Einstein in school science’, Geraldine Hackett, Sunday Times, 25 September 2005

    (2) See Constructing a value map and Losing the plot, by Alex Standish

    (3) Creationism, pluralism and the compromising of science, by Joe Kaplinsky

    (4) See Let’s get Physical, by David Perks

    (5) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future (.pdf 141 KB), Nuffield Foundation, 1998, p5

    (6) The model, on the Twenty-First Century Science website

    (7) Core science: science for scientific literacy, on the Twenty-First Century Science website. See Anti-vaccination nation?, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick; GM food: putting fear before facts, by Tony Gilland; Dial-a-scare, by Adam Burgess

    (8) You and your genes, Food matters, on the Twenty-First Century Science website

    (9) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future (.pdf 141 KB), Nuffield Foundation, 1998, p23

    (10) Science explanations, on the Twenty-First Century Science website

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Science & Tech


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