4 Who is science education for?
Our focus so far on defining the nature of science raises an equally problematic question – why teach the nature of science? That begs a yet more fundamental question about the purpose of science education overall, which is worth exploring in detail. The sociologist Harry Collins laments present practice:
We teach science for the benefit of potential scientists rather than to enable the vast majority of those who will not become scientists to gain an understanding of the world we live in. This degree of specialisation means Britain gets its scientists to their PhDs by the age of 24 or so, much earlier than other Western countries, and produces some of the most creative specialists in the world, but only at enormous cost to the non-specialists and, hence, to the economy and the society as a whole.
(Collins, 2000, p. 169)
Collins' claims might be easier to refute if there were firm evidence of the effectiveness of current modes of science teaching. But the evidence suggests that at school level, most students acquire little understanding of science. For example, the Assessment of Performance Unit studies (reported in Gamble et al., 1985) revealed that only 35% of 15-year-olds in UK schools could apply scientific knowledge to solve simple problem situations. By the age of 16, very few young people appear to have a grasp of even the most basic scientific facts, principles, concepts and ideas (Millar, 2002). Guy Claxton talks of a
… growing realisation that we do not have a problem with science education; we have a disaster. Reading the literature, talking to teachers and students, and sitting in lessons,… it becomes obvious that what was being offered missed the mark of what the majority of students needed and wanted to know, not just by a bit but by a mile.
(Claxton, 1991, p. vii)
Not surprisingly, there is evidence that many pupils are very uncertain of the significance of what they have learnt and attitudes to science are often at best ambivalent and at worst negative. The standard science curriculum is therefore seen as increasingly out of step with modern requirements. Nearly all traditional science curricula in current use seem more obviously geared to the needs of those relatively few pupils aiming for a future specialism in science. Indeed, such curricula were often devised under the guiding hand of university-level teachers of science, understandably keen to increase the assumed level of science knowledge of higher education intake. Moreover, many such curricula were developed at a time (for example, in the aftermath of the Second World War) when confidence in the social benefits of science was clear, where a steady supply of scientists was thought to be necessary to ensure future growth and prosperity and where interactions between science and society were less fraught than they are at present.
What is generally reported is a widespread lack of interest and motivation in studying science, perhaps especially at secondary school level (for example, see House of Commons, 2002). Collins et al. (2001) argue that what is missing is an awareness of the potential that science has to ‘liberate from tradition and from the shackles of received knowledge’ (p. 171). In Collins’ words, science has the potential to deliver ‘a combination of the excitement and thrill that comes from the ability to discover new knowledge, the freedom for individuals and societies to create their own knowledge…’. Indeed, the opportunity to ‘think and behave like a scientist’ lay behind a number of curriculum initiatives – notably the Nuffield course of the 1960s. But as Collins points out, there is an uncomfortable irony in the fact that science ‘must be taught as a tradition and as received knowledge’. Collins paints a picture of dogmatic and authoritarian schooling where students are obliged to accept and learn what they are told as ‘unequivocal, uncontested and unquestioned’. In addition,
Science education in the classroom continually misleads our future citizens by making it seem as though an hour's work at the bench can accomplish a level of certainty that took half-a-century to achieve in real life.
(Collins et al., 2001, p. 170)
Keep in mind that Harry Collins is a sociologist, offering a critique of science from outside; for many professional scientists, his comments on science go against the grain. But an increasing number of science educators are now making much the same point, concerned that science education as currently practised does not do justice to the realities of modern-day science. Robin Millar, for example, argues that an effective school curriculum in science has to show:
… that there are crucial differences between the sciences in the laboratory and in the real-world. In the laboratory, situations are simplified, so that one entity in the situation can be isolated from the interference of others, and hence understood. Real-world situations, however, are invariably messy and complex. So there is always some uncertainty about how (or indeed whether) the laboratory findings apply; and about what weighting to give to different pieces of evidence. And, in most cases of dispute, forms of knowledge other than scientific knowledge, and including values, are relevant to the decision-making process.
(Millar, 2002, p. 125)