Science - Ignorance is not bliss

20th January 2012 at 00:00
Make sure truly useful science is understood and remembered

Picture the scene: a party where you meet someone for the first time. They ask what you do and you mumble something about teaching. "Which subject?" they ask. Then you are forced to admit it - you teach science. A smile spreads across the face of this new acquaintance. "Oh, I know absolutely nothing about science," they proclaim in a loud voice. A noticeable gap opens up between you and the other guests. The embarrassing silence is broken by the only question they can think to ask: "Have you ever met Brian Cox?"

People will openly say how bad they were at science, dropping it at the first chance or failing to get anything like a respectable grade. Even if they got a good grade, it is often qualified with "But, of course, I still don't understand it".

It seems to be socially acceptable to be ignorant of science. Imagine the same scene if the topic of conversation was music, literature or art. More often than not people hide their ignorance of these subjects, afraid of becoming a social pariah should they admit to never having read a book.

If we are to increase scientific literacy then we must make an ignorance of science less acceptable socially. Science is very much mainstream, seeking to improve lives, our understanding of the natural world and society in general. The awe and wonder of science, and knowledge of how our world works, should be cherished, not hidden.

The process starts in school. The basic job of science teachers should be to get children to understand scientific ideas and concepts, not just learn facts and figures. Scientific ideas are often composed of a series of complex connections. Sometimes seemingly unrelated facts can connect ideas to provide us with an explanation of a natural phenomenon - for example, understanding radioactive decay shows us how we can estimate the age of the Earth. This, in turn, helps us to understand deep time and the history of the Earth. Deep time is a necessary condition to appreciate the theory of evolution. Such connections deliver the "big pictures" of science.

Understanding how science and scientists work is vital. To address the problem of the social acceptance of an ignorance of science, we need to reconsider how we teach science in schools. The current results-driven system concentrates more on knowledge than understanding, which means the appreciation of science is no more than superficial. Appreciation comes from under-standing. Understanding requires more than knowing facts for exams.

Next time you are at a party, do not hide your light under a bushel. Talk about why you love your subject and how ignorance is not bliss. Science is human endeavour and the stories of science can be as interesting and surprising as some of the classic works of literature.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex School of Education and Social Work

What else?

Improve science grades - see how Hodgson School did so on Teachers TV or use mad.scientist's feedback comments to motivate apathetic students.

Help pupils to understand why science is useful with Bsidhu's essay "Why Study Science?"

Despite being our home planet, much of the world is still a wonder waiting to be explored. Get pupils thinking about Earth in comparison with its solar neighbours - try JubeJube's space top trumps.

In the forums

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