Students always get twisted in knots over graph drawing in science. Should they join up their points or draw a line of best fit, start their scale at zero, or use a zig zag?
Biology asks for one thing, chemistry another and physics something else entirely.
This is just one of the myriad ways referring to the sciences as a single entity – "science" – is unnecessarily confusing for students. And the reason we do it isn’t exactly convincing.
During the Victorian era, attempts to justify adding the sciences to school curricula experienced vicious attacks from the establishment. Each science was seen as being a list of "barren" facts for students to memorise, unworthy of inclusion. In response, educational reformer HE Armstrong moved away from scientific content to focus on the common method of the sciences. This shifted the goalposts.
The pro-science lobby now emphasised the importance of scientific processes on developing independent thought, where learning scientific knowledge was passive. Biology, chemistry, and physics banded together as "science": a single, unified subject, which was incorporated into the curriculum. A 150-year-old debate, however, hardly seems good justification for continuing to lump the sciences together. Here are four reasons we need to shift from "head of science" to "head of sciences".
1. There are huge differences between the sciences
Today, there is a virtual consensus from philosophers that the gulf between the sciences is huge.
Where a law in physics is a mathematical representation of a counterfactual, for example, Newton’s laws of motion, biology has no such laws. Chemistry has a few, but they are not truly universal. For example, polymers are an exception to the "law of definite proportion", according to which a pure compound is composed of a precise ratio of its elements. Classification is ubiquitous in biology, categorising organisms into genus and species and so on. In contrast, physicists reject classification in their study of the physical world, focusing on mathematisation instead. Chemistry, although hardly devoid of mathematics, also utilises classification to sort materials into groups, like "molecules" and "acids".
Clearly, the sciences differ in their content: this is fairly uncontroversial. But they also differ in their approaches and processes, which means aggregating them together is not as simple as Armstrong suggested in the 1880s. In our technologically advanced society, the sciences no longer need to justify their inclusion in the school curriculum: they don’t need to band together for moral support anymore.
2. It would aid understanding
Celebrating the differences between sciences helps students move away from the myth of a one-size-fits-all "science", to a more nuanced picture. There are valid reasons for drawing graphs differently in each science – and it is easier for students to understand these if they view the sciences as distinct areas of study with their own content, methods and standards.
3. It would boost self-perception
Representing the sciences as a single entity makes it more likely a student will write themselves off as not being good at "science" when they are struggling in physics, even if they shine in biology or chemistry. Or that they will dismiss all sciences because they abhor biology. This may be sufficient to prevent them from tackling a science at A level and beyond, which is not the point of science education.
4. It would be more consistent with how we structure other departments
Furthermore, students require a different set of skills to succeed in each science. Any overlap is comparable to the overlap between physics and maths because they both use algebra, or biology and geography because they both have fieldwork. And nobody seriously suggests amalgamating these subjects in schools. The term "sciences" functions more like "humanities". There are strong links between the humanities, but students recognise that they might struggle in history, even though they excel in philosophy, or that they can enjoy politics, even if they dislike classics. In stark contrast to "science", I have never heard a student protest that they are bad at "humanities".
Emily Seeber is head of science at Bedales School in Hampshire