Dark forces in the lab

6th January 2006 at 00:00
The move to 'scientific literacy' spells the death of real science in schools, argues dAVID pERKS

Are we about to say goodbye to the white coat and science laboratory in schools? From September the new programme of study for science will come into force. This two-page document seems to spell the end for the traditional science lesson. It consciously diminishes the importance of science as an academic subject in favour of "scientific literacy".

Are we about to deny a generation access to some of the most powerful ideas humanity has acquired throughout history?

I have heard it said that we can't carry on as we are. The decline in the hard sciences at school and university is undeniable. A recent University of Buckingham report even predicted the end of physics as a school subject.

We just don't have enough qualified physics graduates in schools.

But you could be forgiven for thinking things have already gone too far.

Visit any school science department these days and you are far more likely to see interactive whiteboards than white coats.

With initiatives such as the national strategy for key stage 4 and Ofsted's penchant for formulaic lessons, science teachers are already a pale shadow of their former selves.

Powerpoint presentations have displaced practical work in far too many lessons. Taken together with the official cynicism about GCSE science coursework - described as cheating by all and sundry - it is difficult for pupils or teachers to be enthusiastic about science lessons.

Science teachers need the confidence to teach their subject. And that means stepping outside of current thinking. I recently brought a group of Teach First student teachers to my school. I asked them to teach a practical science lesson with just two hours' notice to classes they had never met before. They were a real hit with the classes using simple practical activities to illustrate scientific concepts. Out of this experience, I was able to emphasise the importance of the asset we all have as science teachers: experimental work.

To a child trying to figure out how the world works, experimental science is a powerful tool. Add to that modelling their findings as theory and you have given a child a different way of looking at the world. What's more, they love it.

My Year 7 class are now enthralled by electricity after building model torches. Science taught in schools is fascinating, not boring. It provides a chance for young minds to leave the world of normal experience and develop abstract ideas about what we are made of and how it works. Science opens doors to new worlds.

But such goals are now thought to be unrealistic. The evangelists of the new science GCSE will tell you that it is the relevance of science to young people's everyday lives that will catch their imagination. By "relevant"

they mean dealing with our fears about the use of science and technology.

The Twenty-First Century science GCSE, the pilot for the new curriculum, is filled with notions of risk. Examples include cloning (module B1: You and Your Genes) and global warming (module P2: Radiation and Life). The specification emphasises the need to teach that science is "uncertain". In a profound sense this is correct. Science is a human project and is, as such, imperfect.

But acknowledging that our continuing attempts to comprehend the forces of nature are incomplete is not the same thing as acknowledging that science is dangerous. It is deceitful to pretend that studying the perception of risk surrounding, say, mobile phones is the same as our continuing quest to understand nature Science is a project with a pedigree. Hundreds of years of human endeavour have brought us to where we are. To elevate our irrational fears about the use of technology to the same status as science is to erode belief in science.

It is all too fashionable to believe that science is an arrogant claim on truth. The elevation of popular fears about science in educational circles is a cynical attempt to denigrate science and knock scientists off their pedestal.

As far as physics goes, I can only hope there are still enough of us to stand up for some of humanity's greatest intellectual achievements.

Newtonian mechanics sent us into space. Quantum mechanics brought us the information age. These ideas have transformed our lives - who knows what we could do in the future?

Set free from the fetters of religious indoctrination by Galileo's telescope we have come ever closer, as Stephen Hawking said, to knowing "the mind of God".

Are we stupid enough to give this up as an ambition for the next generation?

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney school, Tooting, south London.

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