Build your own bridges

Jonathan Osborne explains why you need to get pupils out of the classroom for real-life experiments.

Experiences are the foundation of science education. How, for instance, would explanations of how aeroplanes fly make sense to the child who has never seen one, or even less, been in one? Or what sense will talk about photosynthesis make to the urban child who has no clue from what and how his or her daily loaf is produced? The child who is experience-poor is not so much impoverished materially as they are intellectually.

Science education has many virtues, but one of its greatest is that it offers new ways of seeing the world - not so much a case of making the familiar strange, but of making the strange comprehensible. So what causes a rainbow? How does the microwave cook without heating the plate? are just some of the wonders that it manages to explain.

However, one of the cardinal precepts of any education, from Dewey onwards, has been that developing new ideas or new ways of seeing the world must start with the experiences of the student. These are the starting point for all learning. This is why teaching science in a laboratory matters so much.

It's OK to talk about the structure of the heart, but to have the opportunity to dissect one yourself provides the experience which makes it real.

A model or video is never going to offer the same educational potential.

Likewise, to see a metal tin dramatically collapse under the pressure of air is the only way to grasp that we do live at the "bottom of a sea of air". Such experiences are the bricks out of which the edifice of scientific understanding is constructed.

However, anybody who thinks that the experiences that the school laboratory offers are sufficient to form the basis of a good science education has, likewise, a rather impoverished view of the world. The world of Bunsen burners, ticker timers, fume cupboards - a world which is populated with strange entities such as genes, electrons, and black holes with peculiar processes such as mitosis, fusion and catalysis can never be the set of experiences on which to build a scientific understanding. Such ideas are the product of wondering about how life reproduces life; why you look like your parents; what are the myriad of objects that populate the night sky; and more.

Exactly what is going to generate that kind of wonder we can never know.

What we can be sure of, however, is that the more deprived and diminished the repertoire of the child's experience the less likely it is that they will wonder, and that the material explanations school science has to offer will have any meaning. This is why any good science education avails itself of every opportunity it can to extend the range and repertoire of student experience.

Science centres and museums which offer opportunities, for instance, to build a bridge that will support your own weight with six polystyrene bricks; large reflectors with which you can hear a whisper 50 metres away; real objects such as the module in which men went to the Moon; pendulums which provide direct evidence that the Earth rotates; zoos where you can get a sense of the enormous diversity of strange and wondrous living beasts that populate this planet other than cats and dogs; to begin to ask questions about what they eat, where they come from, and why they are the way they are.

Or visits to research centres, hospitals or industry to get a sense of what actually doing science in real life might mean, why it matters and why it is so enjoyable. Never mind whether such a visit meets the objectives of the narrow vision of science education embodied in the national curriculum, these experiences are the foundation of education.

Moreover, research shows that it is these experiences which are the substance of children's longer lasting memories. They may never come to fruition and their outcomes, much to the resentment of the bureaucratic mind, are unquantifiable and unpredictable. But one thing is sure, they are mind-expanding, opening new worlds and new ways of seeing that world.

Everyday life today offers a greater diversity of windows on the world than that offered to my generation. But increasingly, too much of life is lived vicariously through the television, the video game, the internet or the computer interactive.

Even the new energy gallery at the Science Museum is dominated by these interactives, making you wonder why anybody needs to make a visit rather than go online. Thus offering young people tangible first-hand experiences is, if anything, more important rather than less. This is why understanding how to make all these informal experiences more significant is a focus of the new Centre for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS) funded by the American government. And this is why it is important to understand that science education doesn't stop at the laboratory door.

For more information about CILS, visit: www.exploratorium.educils Jonathan Osborne is professor of science education at King's College London

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