How does the world work?

11th November 1994 at 00:00
A good educational television programme should at the very least stimulate debate and at best stimulate action. Simple Minds, a provocative documentary which in September claimed that science teaching was failing, has certainly cleared the first hurdle, by inspiring a seminar, "Misconceptions in Science".

Presented last month at the Science Museum, by BBC Education and The Times Educational Supplement, the well-attended seminar addressed the programme's two main propositions that children come to school with firm and often incorrect views on how the world works and that what is taught in science by teachers is not necessarily the same thing as what is understood by students.

So what can be done to tackle scientific illiteracy? The panel addressing this issue, chaired by Dr Joan Solomon, brought together some of the best-known names in science education and research in this country. The experts were discussing the claim by Harvard researchers, reported in Simple Minds, that some students had a better grasp of scientific concepts before being taught than afterwards. While not going along with this fully, the panel were in agreement that teaching something in class does not necessarily mean that pupils understand it.

Why should this be? According to Professor Lewis Wolpert, chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, it is because science is not "common sense". The common-sense explanation is rarely a scientific one. These common-sense explanations grow out of personal experience, beginning early in childhood and are hard to change.

But if children run the risk of learning "false" information, a key question for correcting this is to find the process by which people absorb ideas.

Rosalind Driver of Leeds University identified three ways in which we all learn personal experience, discussing ideas with others and "enculturation", where pupils are taught the knowledge systems of science. But however children learn, the predominantly teacher audience was acutely aware of the pressures of the curriculum and they queried whether what was being suggested could be achieved in the time available.

In Simple Minds, part of the Education Special series, Harvard researchers confronted teachers with video evidence that concepts, assumed to have been successfully taught, were not really understood by pupils. The seminar addressed this potentially destabilising discovery. As an example of what could be done, Teaching Today, in the BBC Primary Science project, showed the principles of scientific classification being taught to 10-year-olds. Here a professional scientist was shown at work, deploying the same principles as the children in the classroom.

This process by which children were learning to classify, echoed the view of Professor Paul Black, of King's College London, that teaching children science requires the teacher to develop a structured scheme for "guided observation".

One cannot help feeling that if this message had come out louder and clearer before, much of the heartache suffered by teachers and parents in the more laissez-faire "discovery approach" years would have been avoided.

Training teachers for science, particularly primary teachers with little or no background in the subject, is fundamental to delivering the science curriculum. Simple Minds made the point that teachers may carry around as many misconceptions as their pupils. If experience, discussion and levels of scientific knowledge are important for children to learn, surely then it is even more important for the teachers who are going to teach them.

Simple Minds and the seminar placed this debate firmly in the political arena, echoing fears that without an understanding of science, being "science empty" as Lewis Wolpert described it, "you have effectively lost the right to comment on those issues of science that affect you. It's very hard to enter the public debate if you know no science at all".

Eurfron Gwynne Jones "Simple Minds" is available on video, Pounds 32. "Teaching Today", video and notes, Pounds 26.99. BBC Education Information, White City, London W12.

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