Thursday, April 27, 2006

Teaching science.

I finally started curriculum studies yesterday. This is where my education degree gets interesting, or at least supposed to, as distinct from what I've been doing for the last two-and-a-bit-years which, though important, has been boring as batshit.

Our group plunged into discussion about where science education has come in the last few years. We face a future where less students choose the physical sciences, at least in this country, and there are dire economic, industrial and societal consequences for that. And the worst part about it is that the brains we nurture and develop here leave us for greener pastures elsewhere - the brain drain. If we let other countries overtake us, as far as education, research, invention and innovation, then we risk turning into something of a backwater society. I mean, there is already a diminished general science intelligence or a knowledge of what science is in the general populace. The intelligent design debate and the heights it reached is a testament to that.

Anyway, the apparent reason for falling student numbers in the sciences is in its education: the way we've been teaching science is turning kids off. So the powers-that-be overhauled the curriculum. I experienced the new HSC science syllabuses when I was in high school, and I've been critical of them. The new syllabuses reduced the purely scientific content and introduced content better suited to the humanities. Effectively, I thought, they'd dumbed down science education (gosh, the words 'dumbed down' have had a bit of a run this last couple of weeks, haven't they?). The science schools in the universities have complained that the HSC courses don't adequately prepare students for tertiary-level science study, and I personally found that they didn't.

Soon after my tute, I arrived at home and read an excellent letter addressed to the Murdoch rag The Daily Terrorgraph and their boar of a columnist, Piers Akerman (Boar! Bore! Geddit? Har har!). And it made me think, you know. Maybe the new syllabuses aren't all that bad a thing.

Much in traditional science education is prescriptive. Science, by its nature, is governed by its own natural laws, has outcomes that are predictable, and is an objective discipline. Students at a secondary school level aren't expected nor are likely to rock the scientific community with some kind of amazing revelation. They're expected to sit and absorb facts and figures unquestioningly, and they receive a marginal grounding in scientific method.

Science education, I think, wasn't living up to its obligation to impart critical thinking skills to students. In fact, I don't think many, if not all, of the other curriculum areas were. Schools are, inadvertantly or not, agents of socialisation - mere children are turned into citizens of society. And critical citizenry is superior to an aqcuiescent one, especially in a time where government and business seem to be as treacherous as ever.

So I wouldn't call the changes to the science curriculum a dumbing down of science education. Science after all doesn't exist in a vacuum; there are sociopolitical influences and consequences that are intertwined with everything scientific, and I think students need to know about that. Getting a grasp on the history and philosophy of science is important, too. On a basic level, school students should be exposed to the notion that the prevailing wisdom is not necessarily correct; that science isn't about sets of immutable facts or laws but that it's a process of building knowledge. It's a shame, though, that such changes had to come at a cost of scientific content.

It's changes like that, and other changes in pedagogy as well, that will attract students back to the physical sciences.

Listening to:
Title: Pure Imagination
Artist: Gene Wilder (as Willy Wonka)
Album/station: Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory OST (1971)
Length: 4.19