Could coronavirus change science education?

More than ever, people are engaging with science as they try to understand the pandemic, writes this science teacher

Andrew Morris

Coronavirus: The highest rate of infection was among those aged 17 to 29, according to a Public Health England study, which has sparked fears about the safety of reopening colleges

What an eye-opener the coronavirus pandemic is proving for science. A distinct eagerness to know, to learn, has flared up among the public, exposing an underlying urge to get informed, to understand and enrich our imaginations. Curiosity drives us now as it once did in our infancy.

This will to know, to grasp, to illuminate, runs throughout the lives of so many adults – however they may have fared at school. Travelling and exploring different cultures, keeping up with daily news, debating moral dilemmas – the legacy of our arts and humanities schooling feeds our adult imagination. 

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Sadly, the same can hardly be said for the sciences. Curiosity about the natural world is so often blunted by a sense of failure and disengagement from science developed in our teenage years. For so many, this is felt as a personal weakness, yet so much of their disenchantment is not with science as such but with their experience of school curricula.

A study by leading science educators puts it bluntly: “Current provision in schools (especially at age 14 to 16 years) is all too often boring, irrelevant and outdated; designed only to educate a minority of future scientists."

Maths education fares little better. Government statistics show that 49 per cent of the working-age population of England has the numeracy level expected of primary school children.

Coronavirus and a new kind of science education

The public response to the coronavirus crisis demonstrates once again how resilient the urge to understand the natural world is. Discussions proliferate: on social media, in TV programmes and across the neighbour’s fence. Adult science discussion groups I run for non-specialists testify to this resurgent interest. What’s a virus? Why is this one so contagious? What are antibodies? What’s an exponential growth? What’s the probability of getting infected? But it’s not the facts and formulae littering our exam syllabi that people really hunger for: it’s the concepts, the visual images, the desire to understand and be guided.

As many in education have found, a radically different kind of science education for the majority is long overdue. Science can be a favourite subject when it connects with our experiences in life, equips us with conceptual insights and builds confidence to learn and engage.

For most adults, their experiences of science date back many decades. A typical mid-career adult today took their GCSEs in the late 1990s. In 1997/98 roughly one in seven youngsters didn’t even take maths or science GCSE and, of those that did, less than half gained a grade A-C, many mastering only half of the content. The majority would have emerged with little understanding of what was in any case an inappropriate curriculum. Little wonder today’s adult population is so poorly equipped in maths and science.

When science is linked to people’s real lives, it looks quite different. A mobile phone mast or a Van Gogh painting, the onset of Alzheimer’s, or the instructions on a packet of tea may be the starting point. From such everyday observations, fundamental concepts are soon reached: the structure of molecules, role of neurons, nature of immunity or meaning of gravity. The concepts are explored in relation to personal starting points, rather than academic abstractions. With information so readily available, factual detail can be filled in later, once motivation has been stimulated. Animated discussion and a gradually developing conceptual apparatus soon heal any damage left over from failure at school; confidence to engage with the subject grows.

Secondary science is, of course, driven by syllabi and examinations aimed at selecting the few for university entrance. Primary science and informal adult education science, on the other hand, offer inspiration for all. Emphasis is placed on observing your surroundings; imagining how things work, testing out speculations, discussing and assessing conflicting information. These elements, rather than the more familiar facts and formulae, are the stuff of science.

Discussion groups in informal settings illustrate the possibilities. The boundaries of school subjects no longer constrain the path of enquiry. The dots on a TV screen might lead on to the sensation of colour in the brain; migrating birds on to exploration of the earth’s magnetic field. Using freshly boiled water for a cup of tea teaches the chemistry of dissolving. Building gradually over the long term, a landscape of basic concepts develops. The nature of molecules, the structure of cells, the essence of exponential growth emerge from a kaleidoscope of varied starting points. 

Science citizen

With its legacy of unattractive syllabi, low uptake and high failure rates, secondary science has left too many adults ill-equipped. A quite different subject is needed – science for the citizen – on a par with literature, history or geography for all. Documentaries and books on popular science are on the increase and public engagement is catching on amongst scientists. My plea is for science-for-all built upon the curiosity of ordinary citizens. Discussion-based explorations in each locality, rooted in people’s experience and inspired by skilful teachers, is a serious option. Public laboratories, like public libraries, could offer direct practical experience. We teachers have to learn to step down from our platforms, to listen, discuss and stray outside our comfort zones. As citizens, all of us need to help our teachers off their pedestals to join forces in a mutual exploration of the enormous wealth of knowledge available to all.

The benefits will not be seen in performance tables or pub quizzes, but in rising confidence to engage with fundamental concepts in maths and science. A firmer grasp of viruses, antibodies and epithelial cells would be matched by richer understanding of probability, trends and magnitudes. Could the coronavirus be the spark that leads us to rethink our archaic approach to science education?

Andrew Morris is a science teacher, writer and honorary senior lecturer at UCL's Institute of Education. He is also president of the British Science Association (education section).

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