8 What are the chances that scientific literacy will prevail?
So far, we've looked at some intellectual and pedagogic challenges about delivering a syllabus driven by the demands of scientific literacy. We've acknowledged benefits, but also touched on concerns about over-ambition, perhaps especially with regard to those other areas of knowledge besides science that have to be taken on board. The real and imagined barriers to using school science to promote scientific literacy are the focus of the next reading.
Now study the article ‘School science and its problems with scientific literacy’ by Peter Fensham.
Clickto open the article by Peter Fensham
Peter Fensham writes about these issues in a global context, though much of what is said concentrates on his native Australia. It is evident from what he writes that the thinking behind Beyond 2000 had its origins in earlier curriculum initiatives, in many different countries and contexts. An overriding theme in the article is the importance of the standard (or legacy) science curriculum for ‘induction into the scientific disciplines’. You'll know this already from what's been said here, and in the Jenkins article. The STS programme on p. 30 was also mentioned in the Jenkins article (p. 19).
What is striking too is the level and nature of opposition to such changes in Australia from leading academic scientists and professional societies. Of particular interest is the position of academic scientists from the university sector, who feel that the principle of a thorough grounding in science prior to university entrance would be compromised. Fensham has some pointed things to say about university physicists, in the context of the present and seemingly universal phenomenon of a shortage of physics students. Fensham points out the strong contrast between the insiders’ knowledge of the realities of scientific work and their preparedness to see these qualities formally recognised.
Fensham claims that the conservatism and apprehension shown by academic scientists is shared by teachers of school science; this is a point I want to pick up briefly in the next section.
Note too, Fensham's claims about the dubious influence of educational research relating to pupil's naïve beliefs about scientific concepts. ‘These findings together provide a very solid research base for the renewal and resurrection of the legacy curriculum and the induction conception of school science’. This is an intriguingly heretical claim, suggesting that a self-interested need for the continuity of academic research is a strong impediment to change, running counter to the vociferous demands for change from other sectors of that same educational research community.
Fensham ends his article on a moderately optimistic note, though he strongly believes that support from academic scientists will be critical for future progress, beyond the encouraging start made by countries such as Thailand, Israel and the Netherlands. In the UK, reactions to the idea at the root of Beyond 2000 have been (to quote the authors) ‘generally positive’. But reactions from professional scientists teaching and researching at university level are especially important. It's likely that the views of Joe Vinen, a physicist from the University of Birmingham, are representative of the beliefs of many from that sector (Vinen, 2000). He describes the approach in Beyond 2000 as ‘innovative and stimulating’ but he questions (as does Collins) whether the proposals are realistic, unless; ‘the approach is so superficial as to be inconsistent with the stated aim of giving young people a real understanding of science and its methods’ (p. 175). A major concern is what he sees as the absence of practical skills, which prompts him to ask ‘can young people acquire scientific appreciation without actually doing any science?’. His concerns centre on the lack of reference to students’ experimental projects. He argues that science should pay more regard for the utility of the subject, stating that knowledge of aspects such as electric circuitry is still a useful adult skill. Vinen also draws attention to ‘the diminishment of curiosity and declining quality of preparation in schools’:
Curiosity is at the heart of science. It must be true that curiosity is blunted by the appearance of highly complex technology, but a lack of interest in the principles of operation of a TV receiver, or a microwave oven, or a ship's radar system, or an MRI scanner, is surely in need of urgent attention by school teachers and curriculum planners.
There is a discernible lack of enthusiasm for a reduction in the factual content of the school curriculum. Asking ‘can we afford to dismiss the scientific knowledge base so easily’? Vinen continues:
It is interesting that a reduction in factual content has been in the minds of university physicists for the past 10 years as they have tried to introduce reform into learning and teaching in their degree courses. Too often university students know a lot of facts, but lack understanding. Efforts to remedy this situation have not been very successful.
The types of reservation that Fensham reports in his article are also apparent in Vinen's comments on Beyond 2000:
The Report notes that only a small minority of students who study science up to 16 will become professional scientists, and that this group must not be allowed to have undue influence on the curriculum. This argument has some validity, but it ought to be treated with caution, for three reasons. First, school science can be the first stage in the training of not only the ‘science specialist’ but also the professional engineer. Secondly, there is a shortage of students, especially good students, wishing to be professional scientists or engineers; surely the schools must accept some responsibility for this situation. Thirdly, so many areas of employment now call for a significant knowledge and understanding of science that the distinction between professional scientists and others may, especially in the future, become less and less clear… Many careers, for example in the financial services, now call for the skills required to carry out mathematical modelling and to think logically and quantitatively, skills that are often seen as based most satisfactorily on a rigorous and professional training. The truth is that some degree of professional science training is now relevant to such a wide range of careers that one may start to question the assertion that such training need be provided for only a small minority of the population.
This is not the occasion to deliberate on the merits of Vinen's view, but you can appreciate that this is an area of rich debate. Is it indeed the case, as Vinen claims, that there is a shortfall of professional scientists? Just how central to an education in science is practical work? I'll come back to some such questions later in the course but in the section that follows I want to mention briefly initiatives that are currently underway in the UK that aim to test out the effectiveness of the approach advocated in Beyond 2000.