What do the public need to know about science?

In my last post, I shot a few weary arrows towards adherents of the fashion for describing school subjects as ‘literacies’. My objection is that this takes a productive word and renders it vague. My suspicion is that people tend to do this in order to lend substance to the nebulous, significance to the trivial and prestige to a set of skills that they’ve just made-up.

There were quite a few comments on the blog itself and on Twitter and an issue arose that I would like to address in more depth. The issue is that of supposed ‘scientific literacy’.

One of my most vivid recollections of training to be a teacher was reading a piece by Robin Millar; “Towards a Science Curriculum for Public Understanding.” It was a dispiriting paper about which I was required to write my own response, now lost to a nondescript landfill somewhere in West London. I can no longer access Millar’s text, even as a PhD student. It seems that my university does not have electronic copies of the School Science Review. However, Millar has made similar arguments elsewhere and is by no means alone in making them. Indeed, Alex Weatherall pointed me towards a GCSE course that aims to teach scientific literacy.

The basic idea sets up a false choice between the kind of science that students need to learn in order to prepare them for further scientific study and the science that ordinary members of the public need to know. The contention is that much of school science is about arcane, technical facts and that many students see these as pointless and irrelevant, switching them off science entirely. Therefore, they miss out on learning about the processes of science, something that would serve them well as citizens and consumers.

It is a superficially appealing idea. It’s a classic educational shortcut of the kind often dreamt of by educationalists. ‘What if we could deliver the benefits of a scientific education without all the dreary bits?’ sits up there with ‘What if we could teach reading by just exposing kids to books?’ and ‘What if we could just get children thinking like historians without having to learn all that damnable history?’

Once you expose the hairy backside of this idea it seems less appealing. Advocates will talk of teaching a few ‘big ideas’ such as evolution and climate change alongside a whole lot of process; the scientific method, peer review, correlation versus causation. This fuses seamlessly with the vogue for ‘inquiry’. Soon we will have students who can parrot a formula for constructing a hypothesis, yet who don’t know the difference between a series and a parallel circuit.

And, of course, it doesn’t work. It is an attempt to teach critical thinking skills directly without teaching the content that students need to think critically about. One of the most ridiculous pieces of pseudoscience that our students are likely to meet in their adult lives is homeopathy. It is obviously nonsense. I know this because I know the science. I know what water is made of. I know about molecules. I understand what repeated dilution will do. I understand this because of my content knowledge.

How would knowledge of the scientific method help me evaluate homeopathy? Perhaps I could run my own trial or ask homeopaths about their evidence? What about looking for peer-reviewed sources? Well, they exist.

As ever, there are no shortcuts in education. Well-educated adults still need to know quite a lot of basic science. Scientific ‘literacy’ is not required.

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15 Comments on “What do the public need to know about science?”

  1. I can see your point about students not being able to apply knowledge without having gained understanding first and agree with your point. However, I think scientific literacy is very important to science learning. It provides a context in which to learn science. What is the point in learning about series and parallel circuits, if they have no real world application such as where they could be used? Are students expected to know this already? That would be great, but actually an unrealistic expectation. Teaching scientific literacy could be seen as ‘dumbed’ down science by some but abstract concepts need links to common experiences and real world examples. This also helps to memorise scientific knowledge and I would argue that scientific literacy is basic scientific knowledge.

    • Stan says:

      Are you being ironic? “I would argue that scientific literacy is basic scientific knowledge” – well go ahead and make that argument. But it seems you are offering up an example of exactly the problem Greg is pointing to. That is that the term scientific literacy means whatever someone wants it to mean and is therefore worse than useless as each writer has to go and define it for their audience.

      If to you it means basic scientific knowledge then why not just use that phrase? If by scientific literacy you don’t mean the subset of that knowledge related to the language used in scientific discourse then why not just say basic science when you talk about what students should learn.

      That too may need defining but there is no danger someone will confuse it with something related to being able to read and write.

      You could have a very clear definition of scientific literacy that means being able to read and write about science at the level found in typical popular science books. So it is being able to read and write about books such as The Selfish Gene or Bully for Brontosaurus but it doesn’t go so far as being able to follow a typical biology journal paper or PhD thesis.

      This definition would imply having enough knowledge not to have to run off and find the meaning of words the authors of these books thought were common knowledge. You might argue I am also just deciding what the term scientific literacy means but mine would be a definition that matches the general understand of the two words and not a redundant one that just means whatever someone means by “basic science”.

      This definition would be a good minimum goal for high school students. It doesn’t exclude further goals for students planning to study science further.

      • Geoff Wake says:

        I think that you are both wrong to some extent and Stan, I get the impression that you have a typical deficit view of scientific literacy. Maybe there has been a lot more done in the field of maths ed on mathematical literacy but I think that there are many parallels. From that point of view school science knowledge should be considered a subset of required knowledge, skills and understanding when developing scientific literacy. A recent special issue of the Maths Ed journal ZDM (http://link.springer.com/journal/11858/47/4/page/1) explored aspects of mathematical literacy (or numeracy) in more detail. Scientific literacy is more than school science knowledge not less.

      • Stan says:

        Geoff,
        I went and had a look at the link you offered. The only paper mentioning mathematical literacy in the abstract is the one by Jablonka. I don’t see any attempt there to distinguish numeracy and mathematical literacy. It is just a litany of verbose assertions about what the author and others have said previously without an attempt to create a clear definition of the terms or make a sound argument.

        As help in clearing up this semantic question I would hope you can offer a better link.

        As for your link here is one quote where Jablonka is paraphrasing someone else:

        “Interestingly, the PISA mathematicoscience-based citizenship
        skill apparently applies to all types of political
        systems across the world (with 65 participating countries/
        economies in the last round). Inspired by poststructuralist
        and psychoanalytic theories, however, the point has been
        convincingly made, that mathematics education, if conceptualized
        as enculturation into dispassionate reason and
        analysis, might lead to political apathy as it excludes imagination,
        fantasy, emotion, and the particular and metaphoric
        content of problems”

        You will note that it is not at all convincing and simply saying it is without support points to the emptiness of value of the entire paper and those it quotes.

        If you wanted an illustration of the worst of what Greg is complaining about I doubt you could find better one.

      • Geoff Wake says:

        I agree with what you say about that particular abstract.
        I believe my article that discusses numeracy is available for download at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281834079_Preparing_for_workplace_numeracy_a_modelling_perspective
        I use the term numeracy there rather than mathematical literacy because of the journal context but the term itself is unimportant – the issue is that of applying knowledge in meaningful ways beyond those usually met in school knowledge domains.

      • Stan says:

        Geoff,
        I read the paper you linked to. One question that I have based on the examples given. In both cases of a signal engineer and a financial expert of some sort I would expect these people have post high school domain specific training or education.

        So rather than try to analyze workplace numeracy requirements for these people why not simply go to the experts in training these people and inquire about what prerequisite mathematics would be optimal.

        This is a general concern about efforts going back as far as primary/elementary school to identify and prepare students for 21st century life and work. It just seems like it would be a whole lot easier to simply propagate backwards year by year the requirements for next years life and work or education.

        For high school students this is most likely going to be some form of further education rather than a workplace.

        Now I do think additional high school math would be great – a course following Korner’s text http://www.maa.org/press/maa-reviews/the-pleasures-of-counting would do a lot of what you suggest and be a load of fun for motivated students.

        But here in Ontario the high school curriculum already doesn’t find time to cover integration or differential equations so if adding something means removing something the choice would be difficult.

  2. I just don’t see it as a choice between only teaching extremely valuable knowledge or scientific processes and concepts. Teaching the scientific method without facts would be hollow no doubt.

    There are hundreds of pseudo sciences out there and every day newspapers make spurious health claims on very flimsy evidence. These can be evaluated, looking for common themes such as the reproducability or the quality or the data with out being an expert in those fields.

  3. Geoff Wake says:

    This is disappointing polemic and certainly lacks the depth you claim.
    Some educationalists – as you call us – care deeply about how we structure knowledge in the ways that are both accessible in school and better prepare for the science that students will meet in adult life. My own particular concern is the knowledge domain that is mathematics and I’ve written about this here http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10649-014-9540-8
    This concern means that we question what currently counts as school science/mathematics. For example, I question why science in school does not prioritise emphasising underlying mathematical structure to a greater extent than is currently the case. To exemplify – Hooke’s Law, Newton’s second law, Ohm’s law and other constructs such as density, speed and so on are all mathematically models of direct proportion. However, in school science they are all introduced without the underlying mathematical structure being emphasised in ways that allow connections to be made and in ways that allows the student to develop insight into each as a mathematical model with useful different algebraic and graphical representations. Such an approach in design of the curriculum might better serve students to become both literate in the sense of using and applying science in situations they will meet out of the school classroom and in pursuit of academic science.
    I suggest that we really do consider how we might ensure better preparation for what might be considered scientific literacy even if you object to this term.

    • Hi Geoff, as a science teacher who has also taught maths, it is great to have knowledge of maths curriculum. Whenever possible I link maths concepts to my teaching and I believe students really benefit. Barriers to better intergration are often teacher knowledge and when these topics are taught.

    • Chester Draws says:

      I question why science in school does not prioritise emphasising underlying mathematical structure to a greater extent than is currently the case.

      Oh, that’s an easy one.

      Because unless you are born with that unusual ability to transfer between mathematical relations and physical representation by instinct, teaching science by stressing the underlying mathematical relationships is a waste of time.

      I don’t even teach Maths that way. We start with skills first. That leads to theory, if required, And then that in turn reinforces practice.

      Stressing theoretical mathematical underpinnings before people even understand the concepts themselves is not helpful. One of the standard criticisms of clever teachers of Maths and Physics from students is that they are too prone to thinking that once they’ve taught the theory they’ve taught the topic.

      • Geoff Wake says:

        Well that’s what might be considered disputational talk in Alexander’s terms. I’ll respond in kind.

        “teaching science by stressing the underlying mathematical relationships is a waste of time.” What evidence do you have for this assertion? As far as I know there is none- that’s why I question whether we should emphasise such relationships to a greater extent.

        I’m not sure what you mean by skills. Do you mean you make sure facility with rules and procedures? If you mean you seek instrumental rather than relational understanding in the sense of Skemp then I think I know where you are coming from.

        I think you might also mean clever scientists and mathematicians who are teachers rather than clever teachers because surely clever teachers would be sensitive to student understanding and certainly wouldn’t teach in the way you imply?

        My whole point is to consider how to move forward with the curriculum so that it better meets the needs of young people in this day and age. This deserves a debate rather than defending the status quo.

      • Chester Draws says:

        I’m not sure what you mean by skills. Do you mean you make sure facility with rules and procedures?

        Yes, basically. I teach Calculus, for example, initially with no reference to the theory. The students learn to calculate rates and areas, with fluency. Then, when they are comfortable what Calculus does, I show them why it works in general terms, to stop it being a “magical formula”. I don’t give them formal derivation from first principles though unless they are a top student. It adds nothing to their ability to do the practical stuff and just confuses them.

        My whole point is to consider how to move forward with the curriculum so that it better meets the needs of young people in this day and age.

        I’m unconvinced that we need to “move forward” for that reason.

        I think the basics of education haven’t actually changed all that much, and that sticking to what worked well in the past is better than trying to update things merely because we have this concept that things simply must be done differently. Teach numeracy and literacy well, and the rest will more or less sort itself out.

        This is different from not wanting to change how things are done. Just that we should do things that are shown to be most effective — even if that means doing things the old-fashioned way.

  4. Gary says:

    Chester’s absolutely right. Mathematics is just an abstract representation of the underlying concepts. You should be able to explain every single concept in physics (I assume that’s the subject you’re referring to, since the others contain vastly less maths} without recourse to anything other than basic mathematics. Even quantum mechanics and general relativity. If you can’t, then you haven’t understood them well enough yourself. Getting to that point in quantum mechanics and general relativity is massively hard, and is something the majority of undergraduates or even postgraduates never manage to do. It’s fortunate those topics aren’t on the syllabus, but it’s useful for those moments when pupils ask “Why does…”


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