A moral jungle

1st January 1999 at 00:00
Science can come alive for students when they consider its ethical implications, says James Williams

It is not easy teaching about the morality of inventing dynamite, developing chemicals that ultimately damage the ozone layer or about genetically engineering humans. Yet these are the kinds of issues about which young people have strong opinions.

Some scientists argue that we should not be teaching about such things, only about the "facts" of science that will allow pupils to make up their own minds about issues that are discussed every day in the media. In the film Jurassic Park, the character played by Jeff Goldblum postulates that just because scientists can do something, it doesn't mean that they should do it. Professor Lewis Wolpert, chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, takes the opposite position. He argues that scientists should not be burdened with the responsibility of making moral decisions about their work.

Since the introduction of the national curriculum, there has been a tendency to teach to the statutory order or exam syllabus. Too much has been prescribed, stifling the subject and leading to a reduction in the numbers of students taking science beyond GCSE.

The notion of broad and balanced science for all was introduced in the 1980s. The tenet was simple: make all children study science and we are bound to catch a few more in the A-level nets. The strategy failed. Even introducing science as a compulsory subject in the primary curriculum has not reversed the trend. You cannot force uninterested pupils to like the subject. Children are discerning customers in the curriculum shop. The slick marketing and magical properties of the flash and bang of chemistry and the beguiling Bunsen may initially take them in, but they soon realise there is something missing. Science - despite many textbooks conveying the opposite impression - is a human activity, and to divorce humans from the picture is to give a false sense of the history of the subject and its impact on society.

Talking to children about what makes an interesting science lesson is revealing. They understand the need for basic fact learning but, and this hits at the heart of the matter, they like to debate. If pupils are asking questions it means they want to learn. Too many lessons are fact-checking sessions where the teacher's questions are not designed to prompt thought and debate or pupil questions.

Secondary science needs to move away from fact learning and checking towards stimulating debate. Debate (a neglected skill) requires a thorough understanding of the arguments. By giving a purpose to the "learning" of a fact, pupils will be more inclined to strive for understanding of the facts and issues in science.

Should we condemn or condone xenotransplantation? Can we unconditionally accept the hand transplant recently revealed in the press? One thing is clear: simply teaching about facts and figures will not resolve the issues that we and the next generation will face. It's time that the social and moral aspects of science took a more prominent position in school study. The Programme of Study, popularly called Sc0, is not currently assessed, yet it contains some of the most interesting aspects of the subject, such as how science can influence the quality of life, the benefits and drawbacks of technological developments, and creative thought in the development of scientific ideas.

With the revision of the national curriculum comes an opportunity for scientists to become more human and science to come of age in schools.

The Royal Society has various grants available linked to education and the public understanding of science such as their Science Education Partnership grants and the Advancement of Science Millennium Award. Details can be found on the Internet at: http:www.roysoc.ac.ukThe Northern Examining and Assessment Board's AS-level exam 'Science for Public Understanding' is to be examined for the first time in 1999. James Williams, a former head of science, is a lecturer in science education in the school of education at Brunel University, London

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