Features, Science

Taking the Wonder Out of Science Education

A couple of years ago, the London Science Museum produced its own travelling act for children called “The Energy Show”. It was reported enthusiastically on the BBC, with loud film-clips of zany, steampunk characters shrieking and leaping about the stage, conjuring up the mandatory balls of flame and obligatory explosions that – we’re endlessly told – will encourage our children to get into science.

The madcap performers and their virtual lab assistant i-nstein (sigh) took an audience of excited young theatre-goers through a range of whacky demonstrations. The hope was that they would be inspired enough to take their study of chemical reactions further, even after they returned to the classroom and were reminded that they didn’t know or even care what a mole was.

One voice (I’ll confess to having several) in my head told me that I should be happy about this sort of stuff; that anything aimed at “Getting Kids Into Science” has unquestionably got to be A Good Thing. But as I watched the pyrotechnics, I had a familiar sinking feeling.

When I was fifteen, the film Dead Poets Society was released, in which an inspirational professor exposed a group of smart and cynical boys to the rapture of poetry. As the protagonist says of the eponymous club, “Spirits soared, women swooned and gods were created – not a bad way to spend an evening.” The film unashamedly presented poetry and the arts as the pinnacle of human endeavour, and science came out as one of several undesirable poor relations. Here’s a section from a speech made by the character John Keating, the inspiring teacher in question:

Medicine, law, business, engineering … these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love … these are what we stay alive for! To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer? That you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. … What will your verse be?

The painful irony for me now when I read those lines is that the questions trembling behind them are inescapably scientific. But to my young mind it was utterly convincing that science was nothing more than a tedious necessity, and this was confirmed to me again and again in the classroom. The very phrase “practical experiment” made me crave fresh air and illumination.

Happily, there are writers who understand. In Unweaving the Rainbow, a homage to science, Richard Dawkins raised concerns about the dominance of practical science in schools, and mused on how impoverished the world would be if only those who had practised and mastered the skill of playing an instrument were interested in and exposed to classical music. As a musician myself, the analogy speaks to me; the endless tedium of scales and arpeggios is enough to put anyone off, and their repetitive practice, whilst entirely necessary for success in the mastering of an instrument, is not for everyone; yet no-one would dream of suggesting that this should preclude a knowledge of, an interest in and even a passion for music itself.

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.

My teachers saw this as nothing but a failing on my part, and yet when they unanimously agreed that I was “not a scientist” I was overjoyed – triumphant, even. And why? Because 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, and much of the time I was going through the all-consuming existential crisis common to young people, an experience that should be celebrated and nurtured.

By the age of 9 or 10 I was already epistemologically-minded enough to have surmised that there was no more evidence for the existence of God than there was for Santa Claus (and the family had already ‘fessed up on that one), but my views were mocked at my traditional faith school; more importantly, not one single science teacher took the opportunity to point out to me that the approach I had taken in my reasoning was logical and evidence-based.

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.

I now work in a large comprehensive, and most of the students that I teach have already decided whether or not they consider themselves to be “a scientist.” Too often, it seems to me, the deep and soulful thinkers are the ones that are turned off by science. Why does this bother me? Well, there are lots of reasons. Firstly, I fear that we may be driving some of our best potential thinkers away from science — not a happy situation for the future. Secondly, I believe that an emphasis on the practical over and above the philosophical may well be a part of what puts many girls off science. Thirdly, and to my mind by far the most pressing worry, is the increasing chasm that we seem to be creating between scientific thinking and “the big questions.” Science should now be at the centre of philosophical reasoning and debate, and yet it tends to get pushed to the side because so few teachers have the knowledge and the skills to apply it.

If you walk down the corridor from our school science labs to the Religious Education rooms, you are faced with a plethora of exciting philosophical challenges plastered across the walls. Are some people evil? When does life begin? Why are we here? Is there such a thing as the soul? What happens when we die? These questions are terrific, but a brief glance through an RE text book will show you that “What scientists think” is generally presented in a colourful bubble alongside other colourful bubbles of equal size summarising “what Christians/Jews/Muslims/delete-as-applicable think.” For any child reading this material, the implication is that scientific thinking is just one option of many; sure, you can choose to look at the world from a scientific angle, but hey, it’s okay not to, especially if it doesn’t sit comfortably with your beliefs! Glance back at those inspiring walls and you’ll find a poster of Rudolph Zallinger’s “March of Progress” pinned up next to Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”: it’s all up for debate, it seems, and everyone’s opinion is equally valid — a mindset in schools which I am finding increasingly irksome, not to mention worrying.

A previous Head of Science once confessed to me that he sometimes exploited the popular misunderstanding of the scientific term “theory” in order to avoid causing offence to religious students when talking about evolution — in other words, he allowed the students to think that it’s “only a theory”. I don’t mind admitting that I blew something of a gasket at him, and he seemed puzzled by my reaction — perhaps he had thought himself to be on safe ground by admitting his betrayal of his science to one of those ‘arty’ types. But I think that my rage was legitimate — “righteous anger” to quote Aristotle, the forefather of the scientific method.

And yet, perhaps some of my antagonism stemmed from my own sense of betrayal. I was frankly let down by my science teachers; they failed systematically to provoke a desire in my young mind to understand the world around me, and I regret those lost years bitterly. The young people that we teach deserve a whole lot better.

 

Emma C Williams is a teacher, a freelance writer and author. Follow her on Twitter: @emma_c_williams or visit her website www.emmacwilliams.com

This article was originally published by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS) . Read the original article here.

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Emma Williams is a private Latin tutor and a teacher in a large comprehensive school in Woking, Surrey. She is also a freelance writer and author. You can find her on twitter @emma_c_williams.

10 Comments

  1. Michaelb says

    I’ll bet your maths teachers let you down as well. I found a girl crying over a maths assignment one day. She was trying to use trigonometric functions to say something about the moon’s influence on tides. I immediately assumed that she needed some kind of help to step through the problem, but that wasn’t it at all. It was her realisation that the moon could never again be just a pretty object floating in the sky. Periodic functions were killing her sense of wonder. That’s what upset her. I thought that maybe some pure maths might substitute, introduce a new kind of poetry to her adult soul, but there was none – not a single pure maths unit in the curriculum, at least not where she went to school. She ended up doing a business degree. Oh dear!

    • simon says

      I think this comment actually misses the point of the article.

      It seems that you’re suggesting that finding the answer to a question kills one’s sense of wonder. For myself and many others, it enhances it.

    • Pascal Baumann says

      I can of course only speak for myself, but the more I learn about how the world works (or at least what we think how it does) the more I’m in awe. One thing that will stay with me for the rest of my life is when I learnt what makes a rainbow appear. And that this “one” rainbow I’m seeing is only seen by myself, nobody is able to see this rainbow; sure they see a similar one, but not exactly the same one. Although I know this tidbit now, it does not make the world seem more mundane, it makes her more beautiful for me. And I think that sense of awe and enjoyment is what makes a good teacher for me. So yes, this math teacher might has well failed her, but only because he could not convey the joy which made him get into that field in the first place.

    • simon says

      Your link is possible the best example I could provide of unscientific thinking. Pure science is our interpretation and synthesis of observable evidence; the study of what ‘is’, not our ideals of how we would like things to be.

      Your comment and link also betray a poor understanding of the meaning of a scientific theory. Scientific theories, such as gravity or mechanics represent the only feasible explanations of observable phenonena, given the current body of evidence we have collected. A theory can only be disproven if we have verifiable, observable data which completely refutes the original theory. Sudying the belief system of an ancient culture is not evidence which can be used to contradict a scientific theory.

      • You illustrate precisely the issue at stake. I am putting quality of experienced life ahead of conformity with science. For you I gather this is meaningless, Or, science’s contribution to quality of life is so vital it overwhelms any other consideration, without need for discussion.

        The humanities have traditionally given conscious experience top priority. Since the methods of science can’t apply to properties that it deems non-physical, such as conscious experience, that leaves us mainly with the methods of the humanities. I serve this concern at evolutionforthehumanities.com,

        Do you really put conformity with the science of today ahead of considerations of the quality of your conscious experience?

        • What an extraordinary question! I should say that the ‘quality of my conscious experience’ can only be maximized by conforming my ideas about the universe, so far as possible, to what can be observed of the universe.

        • What do you mean by “conformity”? Evolution is a fact. How does disbelieving a fact improve your “quality of experienced life”?

  2. I’m not sure that lack of wonder is the main reason school children drop out of or fail to take up science. Another reason may be their realistic assessment that there are not many good jobs in science, they are not well-paid and they are usually not secure. I know several science PhDs who have been un- or under employed for some time and unable to get work beyond temporary stints as lab technicians, or even as supermarket shelf-stackers. Government science jobs are regularly cut in “rationalisations” that typically slash scientific positions while increasing administrative roles and beefing up the salaries of top executives (as has happened in Australia recently in both the CSIRO and Sydney Water). University and other research positions depend on getting project grants, which is why the most important recommendation at the end of every paper in biomedical journals is “More research needed” (even if it is not). The vital thing is to keep the funding flowing so that the research team can keep their jobs.

    As for wonder or lack of it, the search for answers to the riddles of nature etc may begin in wonder; but, after all, the purpose of science is to replace wonder with certain (or reasonably certain) knowledge. Personally, I find an explanation for the mysteries of the universe far more wonderful and exciting than merely gazing in rapture at the unknown.

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