Understanding science of progress

11th September 2009 at 01:00

I am an academic natural scientist, a geologist, with no grounding in educational theory or any experience in teaching young children (apart from sceptical and demanding daughters). But I have a passion to help my students to learn to observe the world around them, to question and to experiment in deducing how and why it operates as it does and, in the process, to develop a deeper understanding of its amazing beauty, diversity, complexity and elegance of operation.

Why does science learning matter? To the usual reasons - its role in the economy, its contribution to every human's innate need to understand ourselves and our relationship with the world we live in - I would add another. It is the dawning realisation that humanity has now become as powerful in changing our planet as the other great agents of change - the oceans, rivers and volcanoes. We, and our economy, are part of the environment, not separate from it. If governments and society are to make the difficult decisions needed to adapt to this reality, and if citizens are to play their proper democratic role, the sciences have a vital role to play.

It is also important that we understand better the reality of the scientific enterprise. It has come to be seen in the West as an arcane, technical specialisation, represented by bearded men in white coats who, Frankenstein-like, pore over brimming test tubes or interfere with the very stuff of life. But science is an intrinsic part of the instinct to understand, to find meaning, to map oneself and one's actions and the world, that is the essence of being human. The experimental tradition of science has proved to be an immensely powerful way to further this enterprise of exploration and understanding. And from the cave man to the present, it is understanding of nature and ourselves that has been the rock on which social, cultural and economic progress has been built.

One of the crucial phases of children's growth has long been recognised as the transition from a state in which they live in an empirical world of the senses to one in which they add the capacity to deal with the abstract. In the earlier stages, they learn by playing, by touching and by sensing the external world and learning to represent it with words and images, beginning logically to order it and to solve problems in that concrete, sensed world by the use of explicit logic. It is a world of recognising patterns and of classification, a world wonderfully enriched for our children by our many highly creative teachers.

The difficulties in learning science lie in creating a mental bridge - from an empirical world of the senses to a world of abstraction. It is a bridge that many fail to cross. You can't see gravity, you can't see a force, but we deduce their existence from the way objects behave. They are parts of the construction we put on reality that structures the scientific view of the universe. They are often counter-intuitive. If I fire a bullet horizontally from a gun, and at precisely the same time let a bullet of exactly the same form and mass fall from my hand and from the same height, which will hit the ground first? The intuitive answer is: the one that I let fall from my hand. The counter-intuitive reality is: both will hit the ground at the same time. The reason? Gravity (by the way, it's a good classroom experiment, but don't use a gun!).

The other problem is the widespread misapprehension that science always gives unambiguous and definite answers. The misapprehension is comprehensible and unfortunate, because the science taught in school is about things we really understand fully. Unfortunate, because although much of science deals with things that are well understood, many technological or scientific innovations and forecasts of risk which engage public attention lie at, or just beyond, the frontiers of what is currently known well.

The progress of science is like making a clearing in an infinite forest. The bigger the clearing, the more trees you see. But many of the issues which engage public attention lie just beyond the edge of the clearing and are seen dimly. So as the clearing grows, not only does our knowledge grow, but also the list of things we do not understand; and public perception is one of increasing rather than decreasing uncertainty. It creates a context of confusion for our children.

Parents, too, are confused by scientists' conflicting views about nutrition, vaccination, HIV and global warming. Part of the challenge to teachers is how to cope with Wilhelm Gauss's comment that "uncertainty is a fundamental part of human understanding", and how to address the corrosive effect of this uncertainty on public confidence in science and children's confidence in learning.

These are some of the great issues affecting how we educate children in science. How do we create the bridge from the tangible to the abstract? How do we deal with uncertainty?

A current danger is that the global financial crisis will squeeze educational funding. We are, in effect, stealing from our children's future through the mountain of debt that we are bequeathing to them. Let us not also steal their education, when we have already bequeathed them global climate change and a resource-depleted planet, which will require an educated population, as well as international understanding and collaboration, on an unprecedented scale.

As Lord Brougham put it in a speech to the UK Parliament in the early 19th century: "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave."

This article first appeared in Children in Europe magazine, issue 16. The Children in Europe annual conference has as its theme "Exploring the world and beyond: young children as scientists". It will take place at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh on September 16

Geoffrey Boulton is professor of geology and mineralogy at Edinburgh University and a member of the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology.

He puts the case for the importance of science learning for young people.

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