Clever folk wrong over new science exam

20th October 2006 at 01:00
Would we teach English only for aspiring novelists? Or music only for aspiring composers? I think not. Yet the equivalent view - that we should teach science solely for those who may one day become chemists, physicists or biologists -persists among members of the English elite.

As a new GCSE course in "scientific literacy" begins, they have rushed to defend half a century of failure in science education and to dismiss the new syllabus as "dumbing down".

In the new course, children will learn about the science that dominates public debates and touches everybody's lives: food, genetics, vaccination, climate change, nuclear power and so on.

The idea that teachers will handle these subjects as though they were civics lessons - "more suitable to the pub than the classroom" is one gibe against the new course - is preposterous. The whole point is to reduce scientific ignorance and to ground future debates in sound understanding.

For example, pupils will learn about the immune system, how diseases overwhelm it, how vaccination works and how the drugs industry develops new vaccines. Thus they will be able to talk intelligently about the merits of, say, MMR or how to beat bird flu. With luck, the next generation will then be less likely to panic about a vaccine or to fall for the dubious remedies of alternative medicine.

If there is any dumbing down going on, it is among critics who fail to grasp what the new course is trying to do. "Has electromagnetism suddenly become irrelevant?" asks a Times columnist. Of course it hasn't. Children spend nearly 10 years in school before they start GCSE. Electromagnetism is taught at key stage 3. The critics include Baroness Warnock, the philosopher and former headteacher, and Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College, London, and former chairman of GlaxoSmithKline.

Lady Warnock has spent a lifetime chairing committees on subjects such as embryo research. She presumably thinks these matters should be left to clever folk like herself.

Sir Richard, as a drugs company boss, would have been horrified if the public had been capable of questioning the efficacy of his profitable products. The proles, the critics think, should stick to Bunsen burners and magnets and leave the big subjects to their betters.

What they are defending is a double failure in science education. It has not inspired young people to take university science courses. Nor has it created a population that understands scientific method or evidence.

Even supposedly well-educated people think that every cold snap refutes the theory of global warming; that research into the human genome will reveal a gene for homosexuality; that if MMR vaccination is followed by the development of autism, one must cause the other.

If school science had properly taught the nature of scientific hypothesis and causation, they wouldn't think these things. Instead, they learnt de-contextualised laws and formulae which, once used in an exam, were entirely forgotten.

Will the new course leave us bereft of professional scientists? No. Some pupils will also take courses specifically designed for further, more conventional study.

As any teacher knows, disaffection and disengagement are the biggest obstacles to learning in the early teenage years. Fourteen-year-olds want to know the point of what they are doing.

They want to be excited and inspired, and if they are not then some of them will switch off or smash the place up.

Boredom is the worst sin, and in the past science lessons were boring. Far from ruining science education, the new course could be its salvation.

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