In search of human interest

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Why do children find science so hard and why does the country have such a negative attitude to the subject pondered. Science is not exact. It can provide evidence for decisions about important questions, such as is it safe to eat beef, or what can be done about world hunger, but it cannot give the answers.

It is a human pursuit, carried out by a community of scientists. It is central to everyone's life. Why then do so many pupils find it dry? And why do they find it so hard to understand what science is?

These were among the key questions discussed at last week's Association for Science Education annual meeting at Reading University, a three-day event which was attended by up to 5,000 people.

Lewis Wolpert, professor of applied medicine at University College, London, told an audience on Saturday: "If people knew less science but had a better feeling for what they did know it would be much better."

Meanwhile, Dr Bernard Dixon, former editor of New Scientist magazine, said science teaching should help people cope with the modern world. "Scientists can no longer proceed without the involvement of the outside world," he said.

The relationship between science, politics, culture, health and myriad aspects of life was explored in a seminar on values. Pauline Hoyle, science inspector in Islington, said social and moral perspectives had been lost in the latest version of the science national curriculum, and despite the promise of 20 per cent of time free to do what teachers want, staff still felt there was no time for the "nice bits".

Ms Hoyle said there was a growing emphasis in classrooms on getting the "right" answer. Pupils were getting the message that there was only one answer to complex questions, she warned.

Mary Ratcliffe, lecturer in science education at Southampton University, continued the argument that the subject could not be "value free". She gave Year 10 pupils in a boys' comprehensive a series of socio-scientific issues to discuss, ranging from "what can we do about the world food problem?" to "what material should we use for replacement window frames?" In discussing the issues, the boys drew little on relevant scientific concepts, despite having recently learned about them, she found.

"The cost and effectiveness of a proposed solution were the dominant criteria used in all the discussions," she said. "There was very little evidence of pupils thinking about the fairness to themselves and others of actions they were proposing."

One group considered the environmental implications of using hardwood for their window frame, but concluded, "we still think cutting down one more tree for our bedroom window is not going to make much difference". Some boys admitted they would be unwilling to give things up to help starving people.

"The complexity of the issue, the clarification of the values used; the skills needed in evaluating the nature and status of scientific and other evidence are areas which both pupils and teachers need to address in a systematic way, " said Mary Ratcliffe.

Kabir Shaikh, deputy director of education in the London borough of Ealing, said the most effective lessons had an emotional link for the pupils, and a direct connection with their lives - for instance, a discussion about nuclear energy that followed a powerful television film on a nuclear holocaust.

In another seminar Ros Driver, professor of science education at King's College, London, urged the science education community to think about what should be taught. "I think we need to put human beings back into science, " she said.

Drawing on the findings of the Children's Learning in Science Research Group, which she directed, she said pupils needed to be able to evaluate evidence, and understand the limits of certainty and reliability.

"Children talk about science in terms of hard facts and scientists are the ones who come up with the hard facts," she said. "We know that any observation has limits of certainty to it and that's important for the public to understand."

She said science education should help children understand the difference between observation and theory, contribute to their understanding in later life and enhance their appreciation of science as a human pursuit.

Professor Driver was speaking at a seminar which launched the CLISRG team's new book Young People's Images of Science (Open University Press), which explores the way school science could better equip students as future citizens. The research showed that pupils had trouble understanding that science could rarely come up with incontrovertible answers to social and political questions. They tended to believe that if enough data was collected the truth could be discovered. She said pupils should be able to understand more about the social and political contexts of science such as the communal nature of scientific endeavour. They should understand the distinction between what happens in the lab and in the real world.

Professor Driver added there should be an emphasis on process as much as on facts. She suggested some curriculum strategies, including children evaluating theories or developing their own, focusing on what scientists actually do, teaching about the revolutions in scientific thinking and setting up activities which address the social and political contexts of scientific work.

Professor Driver said she and her colleagues had been pleasantly surprised by children's sensitivity to social issues such as food irradiation.

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