What was your favourite subject at school? As a reader of this blog you may say science. Or maybe not. Science wasn’t really my favourite. I was good at remembering facts and I liked the order, but what I really enjoyed was humanities: organising arguments based on evidence, using sources to examine bias and vested interests. But isn’t analysing evidence a major skill in science too? What is it about science that gives it such an important place on school curriculums?
Earlier this year I attended a Café Scientifique event hosted by Stephen Webster (the Director of the Science Communication Unit at Imperial College) at a school in Hackney. The event questioned whether science education should be compulsory or not. A variety of people spoke on the matter, from teachers to guerrilla scientists. Then, over the best samosas in East London we chatted with a bevy of science enthusiasts and some bright spark students of the school about whether science still has a place as a compulsory subject, and if it does, why.
We all think science is wonderful, but is that enough? Though the pupil at our table commented that much of the science taught was remembering facts and figures which seemed dull and irrelevant to everyday life, some panellists championed the magic of ‘eureka moments’ that science education could provide. For some, science is interesting and cool. But is ‘interest’ alone enough to earn science its prestigious place on our curriculum? If science is wondrous, doesn’t that make it like art, which is not a compulsory GCSE subject?
Another argument at the Café revolved around the importance of teaching science as a guide to living – learning science will help us make better and more educated decisions in our everyday lives. Sound familiar? It’s loaded with PUS – Public Understanding of Science, a rhetoric of times gone by. The Bodmer Report in 1985 codified this deficit model, depicting the public as empty vessels to be filled with scientific knowledge. The report suggested that greater scientific literacy would enable people to make better decisions in their work and home lives. But despite the continuing emphasis of science in the curriculum, are we making the ‘better decisions’ that the Bodmer report prophesised? We all know smoking is bad for our health, every packet comes with a graphic warning, but the rammed smokers’ areas outside pubs demonstrates that our choices are not solely dependent on scientific evidence. The way we perceive risk and the decisions we make aren’t necessarily to do with scientific statistics alone.
That said, being able to make decisions based on evidence is a valuable skill that could help us to make better decisions. Evidence-based policy making (in theory) is a staple of modern government, aiming to make policies that work rather than those based on opinion or ideology. Surely this is an important skill for making decisions on controversial scientific issues , which are ubiquitous in current affairs. If compulsory scientific education aims to enable involvement in making political decisions about GM foods, health, and energy, then surely being able to calculate the figures is not as relevant as being able to grasp the future impacts of current and potential science, being able to probe the vested interests in evidence, and discuss questions of ethics surrounding such decisions.
Probing issues and provoking discussions about current and future science is more in line with an updated model of communication, engagement or PEST (Public Engagement with Science and Technology). This sort of discussion cannot fit with a Bodmer-esque deficit model which treats the audience as passive bystanders rather than active participants. The Brazilian educator and philosopher Pablo Freire suggested, that only by allowing the audience to remain active subjects can education enable us to make critical decisions and change the world around us – objectifying people as vessels to be filled will hinder their critical engagement with the world. Science teachers have suggested that the current curriculum stifles this type of dialogue. Though discussion is part of the curriculum, the sheer volume of hard facts to cover limits opportunities for real dialogue. This was touched on by one of the speakers at the Café Scientifique event, a teacher herself. If science education really is about helping us to make better decisions then perhaps the curriculum ought to enable greater PEST and clear away some of the PUS.
We never reached a conclusion at our Café Scientifique. Science education is a complicated matter. A curriculum which demands rigorous learning of facts by rote seems to be implausible in reality, forever chasing its tail as vast swathes of new knowledge emerge every day from labs across the world. But one without facts might let the wonder of science fizzle out for school pupils. Clearly to be active members of a scientific society some understanding of the facts of science is important. A curriculum heavily focused on facts however, leaves little room for the nurturing of discussion around scientific issues. Perhaps a curriculum that can strike the right balance of ‘extension of knowledge’ and participation in discussion, between understanding and engagement, might empower the next generation to take an active and upstream role in shaping the future of science, whilst retaining some of our wonder in science.
Victoria Druce is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication and is one of the editors of Refractive Index.