7 A way ahead? – Beyond 2000
I now want to take forward the notion of a science curriculum for public understanding, identifying problems and opportunities. Our guide in what follows is thedocument, which emerged from a working group led by UK-based science educators, working collaboratively with science teachers, education researchers, professional scientists within universities, industrialists and those involved in assessment and its administration. The aim was to define a framework for a new form of curriculum, geared toward the needs of citizens.
For these enthusiasts, the compulsory science curriculum is to be seen primarily not as a preparation for more advanced study but as an end in itself, as a foundation for continued learning in science (i.e. life-long learning) and a preparation for life in a modern democracy. What they offer therefore is ‘essentially a course designed to promote “science literacy”’, for ‘intelligent consumers’ of science, and not for ‘embryonic producers’. They take the radical but well-argued position that the same curriculum cannot satisfy the conflicting requirements of scientists-in-waiting and those who study the subject with no intention of professional involvement. The former group they see as catered for moderately well by existing, traditional curricula; it is the needs of future lay populations that concern them. Of course, ‘the devil may be in the detail’ of any such radical proposal; vexed issues such as the age at which pupils choose one path or the other, and what criteria they (or others) may use at such a time remains unexplored. The report recognises that many such details and issues need to be resolved downstream, aiming to provide no more than the early framework for a broad-brush ‘new vision of an education in science’.
Many of the aims of this radical new curriculum are expressed in the language (to borrow a phrase from the Jenkins article) of ‘citizen thinking’ – for example, to provide sufficient knowledge ‘to read simple newspaper articles about science, and to follow TV programmes on new advances in science with interest’. Two points strike me as of special interest:
The justification for seeking to improve levels of scientific literacy is essentially democratic and cultural. The authors consider the utilitarian arguments over-used, for reasons outlined in the Jenkins article. They contrast the simplified situations of the laboratory and the messiness of complex and untidy situations in the real world. They point out just how little we need to understand of the complex electronic machinery that surrounds us. In earlier times, fitting a plug to an electrical appliance was regarded as a key skill. Nowadays, appliances are supplied pre-wired and moulded. This may seem a trivial example and certainly doesn't undermine the broader argument that some school science subjects have great utility – those relating to health for example. But the more considered assessment of the virtues of studying science in Beyond 2000 is welcome; as the Jenkins article points out, historically, the benefits of studying science have been overplayed (see, for example, Chapman, 1991).
Beyond 2000 envisages a curriculum delivered as a succession of narratives (or explanatory stories), that reflect major ideas about the material world and how it behaves. Examples would include the particle model of matter, the germ theory of infectious disease, the gene model of inheritance, the heliocentric model of the Solar System, and so on. The suggested form in which these would be offered is especially intriguing:
Our proposal is that science education should make much greater use of one of the world's most powerful and pervasive ways of communicating ideas – the narrative form – by recognising that its central aim is to present a series of ‘explanatory stories’. By this we mean that science has an account to offer in response to such questions as ‘how do we catch diseases?’, ‘how old is the Earth and how did it come to be?’, ‘how come there is such inordinate variety of living things here on Earth?’. It is these accounts (‘explanatory stories’) and their broad features which interest and engage pupils and, therefore, it is these accounts that any science curriculum needs to keep firmly in its sights and as its curriculum aims.
(Beyond 2000, Section 5.2.1)
The use of the word ‘stories’ in Beyond 2000 is critical. What does the word conjure up in your mind and would you advocate the ‘up-front’ use of the term in an educational context?
I find it difficult to disassociate the word from the idea of a ‘fiction’ – indeed dictionary definitions commonly refer to stories as ‘fictitious narratives’ or ‘legends’ or ‘tales’. There's surely a risk that use of such a term in class carries an unfortunate implication of just such a lack of credibility.
But for the authors of Beyond 2000, their narratives are very far from ‘mere fictions’. Rather their advocacy of the term reflects their belief in the presumed potency of the narrative in the communication of ideas, in a form that aims to make them more ‘coherent, memorable and meaningful’. Here the word ‘story’ has a meaning allied to use of the terms ‘mental model’ or ‘theory’ or ‘explanation’ – terms that have a more reassuring ring. For example, asking ‘how do we catch diseases?’ elicits a description of the germ theory of disease; explaining the variety of life on Earth prompts description of Darwin's theory of natural selection. An explanatory story that invites pupils to ‘peek inside’ matter outlines the particle model of chemical reactions, emphasising the basics of atomic and molecular structure.
Beyond 2000 recognises that in order to use science to illuminate everyday decisions and media reports, an understanding of the processes of scientific enquiry is important – what are called ‘ideas about science’. Examples would include the difficulty of obtaining reliable data, the use of controls in experiments, or of recognising ways in which a causal relationship differs from correlation. Also included would be the processes of scrutiny and verification of scientific ideas – how knowledge claims are put forward and evaluated. Perhaps a discussion of peer-review would be part of such a curriculum, in view of its significance in authenticating scientific understanding.
Case studies of historical and contemporary issues involving science are also mentioned in the context of ideas-about-science, which would enable students to appreciate ‘the complexities of applying scientific knowledge in real-world situations’. Edgar Jenkins in his reading touched on a couple of contemporary controversies of the type that might be suitable contexts. Refer back to p. 15 of the Jenkins reading to refresh your memory of the effect of the Chernobyl explosion on sheep farmers in the northwest of England.
This episode is no doubt the type of science-based issue that a ‘science literacy’ curriculum aims to illuminate. It's one of 31 studies looked at by Jim Ryder (2001) comprising different case studies of ‘settings where individuals not professionally associated with science deal with issues that have a scientific aspect’. Others featured in Ryder's list are mentioned in the Jenkins reading, notably the study of workers in a computer company and elderly people's views of domestic energy. The Chernobyl episode is of course no longer a contemporary issue, but it does have links with present-day concerns such as radiation leaks and safety hazards of nuclear power stations. More fundamentally, the types of understanding about science needed to make some sense of this episode are likely to have a resonance with other present day socio-scientific controversies, such as the more recent public debate (June 2003) about the safety of GM crops.
So, the key issue of importance here is what aspects of scientific literacy might be required for successful engagement in such episodes, either as a direct participant (for example as an affected farmer) or, as a follower of such cases described in the media. Let's now use the Chernobyl episode as an illustration; this might provide a better sense of the feasibility of all-encompassing scientific literacy that a Beyond 2000-type curriculum would be expected to deliver. Using Ryder's analysis, I'll focus here on just the ‘ideas about-science’ at issue and put subject matter knowledge (e.g. knowledge of the nature of radioactivity) to one side. Relevant aspects include the following.