Judge the hypothesis

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Paul Black looks at how teachers can approach ethics in science. TEACHING ETHICAL ASPECTS OF SCIENCE Edited by Patrick Fullick and Mary Ratcliffe The Bassett Press Pounds 14.95. LEARNING TECHNOLOGY, SCIENCE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE: AN INTEGRATED APPROACH FOR 3-13 YEAR OLDS By John Siraj-Blatchford Educational Now Books Pounds 13.99

These two books aim to help school subjects expand out of their traditional boundaries to serve broader educational purposes. Their origins and strategies are however very different.

Patrick Fullick and Mary Ratcliffe have brought together and edited a set of nine case studies produced by the team who developed the Science, Ethics and Education project. The result provides a framework for a new style of teaching; guidance about possible classroom methods; and copiable resources. The studies are introduced by two main background chapters. One offers a brief introduction to ethical principles, analysing critically the different standpoints from which they may be formulated. The other explains four main teaching and learning strategies: the different case studies illustrate the application of these strategies.

The cases range from the ethical issues involved in the study of living things - illustrated by accounts of the work of Jane Goodall with the chimpanzees - to discussions of our perceptions of what is normal in the light of concepts of human genetics.

The general approach is clearly grounded in experience of the problems which this area of learning has to confront. Examples are the need to distinguish information from judgment, the need to ensure that information is comprehensive and accurate, and the need for testing any arguments for logical fallacies and linguistic tricks. It is emphasised also that in the end value judgments have to be made - but that these have to made with a clear view of the bases for the judgments and principles being used. If there is a weakness here, it is the absence of discussion of the need for accurate information from areas other than science when problems call for interdisciplinary study - so that the enterprise is presented as the responsibility of science teachers alone.

The editors appear to have decided to present no direct accounts of the practical experience of testing the case studies. A weakness that arises here is that no guidance is given about the ages and backgrounds of the pupils for whom the different studies might be most useful. Nevertheless, the studies will be of great value to teachers - particularly because they lay stress on the need for a global awareness of rights and duties, as in the case studies of personal use of energy and of the good and bad consequences of using cars.

Many will acknowledge that they owe it to their pupils to address the ethical judgments they have to make about scientific issues which will affect their lives.

Equally, they are rightly nervous in tackling issues which are of a different nature, and which might require different teaching and learning methods from those which they are accustomed to hand-ling. This book could give them an excellent start.

John Siraj-Blatchford's book is quite different. As its title suggests, there are two agendas, one on the way in which attitudes to technology, racism and culture are inter-related, the other on giving practical advice to teachers on teaching technology. The two interleave in rather confusing ways so that neither receives a clear treatment.

The author argues cogently that we must challenge the assumed technological superiority of the developed world, since this assumption can fuel racist attitudes. It is for these ideas that the book will be a most useful source - for this agenda is undoubtedly of great importance.

It is a pity however that the argument is overstated in places and combined with uncritical support for post-modernist views. For example, it is stated that historical and sociological studies show that "far from revealing an even more complete reflection of reality, science has merely developed a succession of more elaborate paradigms or models to explain observed behaviour." This might come as a surprise to Crick and Watson and the gene technologists, to the discoverers of the laser, or to the experimenters at CERN.

The practical advice is sound as far as it goes, but it sets out a collection of ideas rather than a strategy and has nothing to say about many important areas. Given the limitations of length this is inevitable, but it leaves the unfortunate impression that technology up to 13 is to be mainly at the level of straws and glue and simple electrical circuits with little to hint at the high quality of work of which 13-year-olds ought to be capable.

Paul Black is Professor Emeritus, Science Education, King's College, London

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