Should hard words mean hard luck?

10th May 1996 at 01:00
The days of certainty, proof and simple causality have long gone, say four academics, who advocate a shift in the focus of science education to make way for messy ideas.

As a young boy attending a grammar school some 30 years ago, I struggled, without much success, to make sense of the science that was put to me by my teachers. Comments such as "this subject would seem to be completely beyond his understanding" and " he has remained consistently at the bottom of the [streamed] class" regularly adorned my physics and chemistry reports. Very occasionally I managed to push another poor soul to the bottom position in biology.

This lack of understanding, I was told, was because of a lack of any effort on my part - it was my fault. Over the five years of my secondary education my self-esteem sank ever lower and reached its nadir when, at 16 years of age, I was not entered for an 0-level in a single science subject.

It took a number of years in the outside world for me to put all this behind me, to realise that because my school had not deemed me suitable material for learning a second language did not mean that I was not capable of doing so. I obtained O and A-levels at night school which earned me a place at university as a mature student, where I graduated with an honours degree - a BA, of course.

Thirty years on, as a father attempting to help my 11-year-old daughter with her science homework, alarm bells started ringing inside my head. Not only did I still find science difficult but so, obviously, did she. Reading through some work which she had been given I realised that, in attempting to make sense of it, I was reading aloud. Old enough now to be able to analyse my actions, I realised that my reading aloud indicated some fault or complexity in the text and not a deficiency in my brain or my daughter's.

Random samples of text from her science books gave reading ages of between 16 and 18 years - something not achieved by many of the adult population! Believing I had identified a major problem, I presented my findings to my daughter's school. The response was that it was only to be expected as some aspects of science were very difficult.

If the Government is serious in its wish to achieve a greater scientific understanding in our children, I would suggest the following, cheap remedy: secondary authors should hand their intended texts to primary teachers who, generally speaking, have the skills to match written text to the reading age of the children in their class, unlike some of their colleagues in the secondary sector.

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