Come in from the cold

30th December 1994 at 00:00
Science is in danger of alienating pupils by pursuing an obsession with objective language at the expense of capturing the imagination, warns James Williams.

I sometimes wonder whether today's textbooks should be renamed picture books. Text seems to have gone out of fashion. There are sound educational reasons for this - children understand more when illustrations are used and perhaps publishers sell more books if they use interesting diagrams and colour photographs. But I suspect one of the main reasons has to be that children are simply not used to reading books and that the reading ability of pupils has declined.

Ask pupils to read some text and they genuinely find it difficult to cope with long passages. The problem is that if we reduce the text in the books accordingly we will move into a downward spiral where the less children read the less text we will print.

No one will deny that good illustrations help understanding, but there is a far more basic need in the writing of text books. Science text- books are boring. They are technical manuals that are delivering science to pupils in a way that does not encourage them to read or make them want to read. The jargon used gets in the way of learning - and they remember little.

Some time ago I caught the tail end of a television programme which asked the question how does a "memory man" remember so much so quickly? The answer was to go on a journey and picture what you are trying to remember as points on the journey. I couldn't help thinking how little we do in science to present it in a way that helps understanding.

The key to a successful book and, I believe, to successful teaching, is a cracking good story. A beginning, a middle and an end. A best-selling book leads people along a well-defined road that is broad and allows for a little deviation, but has well appointed signposts that will get you back on the middle of the road.

Most best-sellers get their readers to identify with the main characters - you either have to love them or loathe them, you are certainly never indifferent about them. The problem in science is that we do the opposite.

There is often very little storyline (if any) and the path is straight and narrow with very little deviation. Hard fact is the currency and as for the characters, well they are mostly presented as boring and bland and their biographies are stripped of any human interest, that is, of course, when the men and women of science are actually mentioned. As for signposts, well we have them in science, but unfortunately they are often in Latin or Greek and sometimes they are not even bilingual, they may be defined but, we do not know what the root of the word is.

Let's face it, a lot of science text books are about as interesting and captivating as a technical writer's manual on pipeline specification or, the guide to the PC that I am using to write this article, a book I must confess I have never read.

This situation is also not helped by the fact that as science teachers (and here I have to plead guilty to past offences) we often knock the natural tendency for children to tell us about their thoughts and experiences in science in their own words. We say that the "correct" way to report science is in an impersonal way. We discourage the use of I, we you they, my friend. ... But if we let children tell us in their own words it can be quite surprising what their concepts of science are. We may also be able to move them conceptually further and faster if they can retain some ownership of the science that they are doing. Let them report in a personal way and the science is theirs.

Dr Clive Sutton of Leicester University has a particular interest in this aspect of learning and is setting up a project to look at children's writing in science. He hopes to collect examples of not just the everyday benchwork that pupils carry out in writing up their experiments, but newspaper articles, letters, notes for debates etc.

As Dr Sutton says, he is interested in "anything in which the pupils are conscious of trying to convince another person of the validity of an argument, or why a certain topic is important, or what the topic means". There was a similar collection 20 years ago which resulted in Through The Eyes of Children by C G Carre and J O Head (now out of print). Dr Sutton's collection is intended to be a resource for teachers and learners that will explore the ways in which arguments can be constructed on scientific matters.

In another project, School Science after 2000, Dr Sutton aims to recover the human voice in science. Since science was introduced to schools in the last century, objectivity has been the watchword. Objectivity, however, is not always the means by which scientific advances are made. Creativity is often as important, Darwin and Wallace's "flash of insight" for evolution, the apparent visualisation of the benzene ring, the elegant theory of continental drift, Arthur C Clarke's vision of a global communications network with telecommunications satellites.

So how can we improve the status of science and encourage pupils to read about science? The answer probably lies in the way in which textbooks are constructed. They should present science as a human endeavour, reintroduce the personal touch, make the descriptions of scientific principles and discoveries stories that involve humans. Some of the greatest discoveries this century such as the structure of DNA and the theory of plate tectonics make cracking good detective plots. Take a leaf out of the book of some of the more successful popularizers of science, don't go for the technical manual, go for the best-seller!

o If you are interested submitting material to either of the projects mentioned in the article, contact Clive Sutton at the School of Education, University of Leicester, 21 University Road, Leicester LE1 7RF. Tel: 0533 523 714.

James Williams is head of science at the Beacon school, Surrey.

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