Spoon fed or diet of discovery?

8th September 1995 at 01:00
Science has to enter our world and our experience if we are to understand it, John Durant tells Gerald Haigh.

Underneath all that is said about the "public understanding of science" I suspect that scientists are irritated with we ordinary folk. If only we knew that the Earth went round the Sun; that a bullet dropped from the hand takes the same time to hit the ground as one shot horizontally from a gun; that action and reaction are equal and opposite; that Jupiter is huge and Saturn has rings, then our lives would be as rich as theirs are. They, after all, never buy anti-cellulite creams or read Russell Grant's predictions.

One person whose views on the public understanding of science matter is Professor John Durant. As assistant director of the Science Museum - one of the nodal points at which science and the public come together - he has, after all, a clear interest.

In fact the very existence of the museum shows that the issues have always been there. What, for example, is the institution for? Is it a resource, slaking, on demand, the people's thirst for knowledge? Or is it carrying out a more didactic duty, telling us things that scientists feel we ought to know? Do its exhibits, many of them founded in concepts of great subtlety and infinite complexity, make for a democratic celebration of learning and progress, or do they serve to remind us that beyond our simple lives there is a more sophisticated world at which we must gape and marvel?

Speaking at a conference this summer ("The Public Understanding of Science - a controversial issue?") organised by ASE Inset Services, the Association for Science Education's training arm, John Durant suggested that there are indeed different ways of interpreting the widely held belief that the public needs to know more about science.

One view is that "the problem lies in the ignorance of the public, and the answer is more and better science education". Communication, therefore, is to be one way - from the scientist to the public - "attention is focused on the public and not on science".

From this assumption has grown, particularly in the United States, the notion of "scientific literacy" - the idea that there is a minimum body of scientific knowledge that each citizen should possess - and which, by definition, can be provided for them in books obligingly written by scientists.

Much of what is said and written about the public understanding of science assumes that this is the only view - and John Durant accepts that there are some obvious truths within it. At the same time, he suggests that there is an alternative that says that the problem arises because the public see scientists as living in a separate world, with its own rules. As a result, there is a loss of confidence in what scientists are up to. What is needed, therefore, is a reminder that scientists are part of the public too. "The solution is the reintegration of science into the public domain - not one way instruction, but wider discourse; listening as well as talking."

What does this mean, though, for the teacher and for an educational institution like the Science Museum? Talking to John Durant on his home ground, where he was anxious to show me the museum's new and exciting educational section, it soon became clear that his philosophy aims "to relate science and technology together and to enable youngsters and the public to reach it through the real world".

Thus it is that the Science Museum aims to give its visitors experience of science in action in society. After all, he says, when people have left school their most arresting experience of science is likely to be through real life issues. "Should I change my diet? Will there be a cure for Aids?" This is not, as John Durant will acknowledge, a new idea. There have always been teachers ready to recognise that science, its traditions founded in a rigorous search for truth, all too easily becomes austere, impersonal and daunting. The white-coated master doing his demonstrations at the front of the lab, laying down implacable rules as to how his students are to write them up exactly personifies, at school level, society's view of the elitist scientist, gatekeeper to the higher knowledge. Which is why the ASE, through its Science and Technology in Society (SATIS) initiatives has for some years now been preaching the gospel of bringing pupils to science through real-life problems in medicine, technology and the environment. And the Science Museum's own Children's Gallery, pioneer since the Thirties of all the interactive exhibits which have followed, is a childhood memory for us all.

"Science and Technology", incidentally, is clearly the verbal formula preferred by those who want to see students engaging with "real" science. Because science so often reveals itself in technology, John Durant and others who share his views believe that the two ought not to be widely separated: "It's through the real world applications of science that people find a way in - it's a great shame that the national curriculum has set science and technology into different areas."

What John Durant is doing in new initiatives at the museum is demonstrating that you can take this principle a step further by saying that the experience, so far as possible, should be with the real thing. "Instead of looking at models and simulations, let's look at actual objects and artefacts from the made world and see what we can learn from them about the worlds of science and technology."

His aim, simply, is to cut down on mediation - to leap across the textbooks, workpacks, computer programs and simplified models and put children directly into contact with science as it happens. "Mediation", for him, has damaged science teaching, and he recalls his own sixth-form days when "we had lectures from a teacher who hadn't done the original work, and the people he was teaching from hadn't done it, and you went back layer by layer till you found the people who had done the original work".

The most significant icon of mediation, for him, is the textbook. "Textbooks are more or less the kiss of death. If you want to kill someone's interest in a subject, the best way, in my view, is to give them a textbook on it."

This is not, John Durant is careful to emphasise, a plea for the diminution of the teachers' role. Education, he believes, has seen opposing sorts of political correctness come and go: "One sort said that so long as students are having a constructive collaborative engagement in the classroom, the teacher's job is done. And a later PC, in reaction to that, said we must get back to fundamental basics. In fact, I believe that good teachers are going for a strategic mix."

Many teachers will say that while first-hand experience is what counts, the curriculum is so overloaded, their teaching groups are so large and their departments so strapped for cash that the best way to survive, in the end, is to "sit 'em down and tell 'em".

The question that the public has the right to ask, though, is whether those reasons are valid, or whether they are rationalisations adopted by those gatekeepers who are unwilling or unable to permit students more access to real live science. After all, if we really want to see what John Durant calls "the reintegration of science into the public domain", then it has to start in school. If it does not, then institutions like the Science Museum are swimming against a very strong tide indeed.

* The Science Museum's new educational facilities will be reviewed on the Resources page in The TES soon.

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