I have written before about the problem of engaging more young women in science education. I suggested that the reasons for a lack of interest are complex and relate to views about identity. I argued that common prescriptions for more ‘inquiry learning’, where students practically investigate phenomena for themselves, are flawed.
Since then, a couple of articles have been published that add something more to the discussion. The first piece is a quite brilliant essay by Emma C Williams. Williams is a teacher and author of young adult fiction who writes articles on humanism. Prior to that, she worked as an academic philosopher. I stress these elements of her biography because they demonstrate that Williams is a deep thinker, interested in the larger questions about human existence. As a science teacher, I sense a kindred spirit. And yet Williams’s experience of science convinced her that it was all a bit prosaic.
“Back in the 1980s I did many practicals, and I suppose that my teachers tried their best to pique my scientific interest. There were ping-pong balls and life-sized models; there were even bottles of acid kicking around on the laboratory bench right next to the gas taps, which some students never tired of lighting behind the teacher’s back. But I’m afraid I simply wasn’t thrilled when a powder changed colour at the bottom of a test tube, or when my lit splint made a squeaky pop, indicating the presence of hydrogen…
none of those practical lessons had convinced me that science was anything other than the pursuit of the mundane.
Most children are natural philosophers. In addition, and contrary to popular belief, not all of them are better engaged by hands-on activities over abstract ideas. In my case, somewhat romantic and thrilled by artistic ideals as I was, the seemingly humdrum realities of the science lab were a positive turn off. My head was bursting with the biggest questions imaginable…
As my interest in philosophy grew, it was nurtured and guided exclusively by teachers of the arts: numerous English teachers, a couple of historians and most of all my Classics teacher, who would eventually inspire my subject of choice at university. It’s ironic that the closest I came to doubting my convictions as to the unworthiness of science came to me through literature; in being exposed to the metaphysical poets, I couldn’t escape the fact that these exciting, romantic and raunchy philosophers were fascinated by science. But the “real” scientists had long since abandoned me as a dreamer and left me to discover — too late, as it happens — that my disregard for mathematics and the sciences would eventually limit my academic career; suffice to say, my first postgraduate seminar in the philosophy of logic was one hell of a shock.”
Science is full of life’s big questions: Where did we come from? What is our fate? Are there others out there who are like us? How do we know what is true? Even the smaller ideas can provoke wonder.
I have taught children from Grade 6 upwards about Newton’s cannon – the explanation for how the Moon orbits the Earth and why this happens for exactly the same reason that objects on the surface of the Earth – such as apples – fall. Each time, as this sinks in, I explain to my students that they can now comprehend something fundamental about the universe that most people who have ever lived have never understood and that most people alive today do not understand.
Is this less engaging than completing an experiment involving trolleys? Emma C. Williams is not perhaps representative of every student but her comments should at least give us reason to pause before we prescribe more hands-on inquiry learning as the solution to the engagement problem.
And yet a pause is not on anyone’s agenda. I am sure that the science teacher in this video put out by the ACER is inspirational and, no doubt, he has encouraged a number of young women to engage in science. He seems to have an interesting angle about astronomy that neatly bridges both the practical and the ‘biggest questions’ referred to by Williams. However, the message for anyone who wants to replicate what he is doing is to prioritise hands-on, practical activities.
Where does this prescription come from? I am sure that many hands-on interventions will result in students stating that they feel more positive towards science. This is probably true for any intervention that is a break from the norm. Yet if students are ultimately motivated by mastery then we need to use pedagogies that best equip students with knowledge and understanding. Inquiry learning does not have a good track record of this.
Instead, we can trace this idea at least as far back as John Dewey and the origins of progressive education, where the notion of experiential learning was elevated over explicit instruction. In this sense, we can see the whole question of engaging young women in science as not a genuine subject of open inquiry but as a fig leaf for returning to the well-worn rhetoric of a failed past.