Andrew Morris explores the implications of an experiment in informal science education could have profound implications not only for adult education but also for the school curriculum and pedagogy and for promoting the public understanding of science.
Discussion groups have been meeting in places such as a wine bars every month for a number of years as part of an attempt to introduce adults with no background in science to fundamental scientific ideas. There is no planned syllabus – discussion simply starts from the questions people bring. ‘Why are clouds white?’ Diane asked following her holiday in Greece; ‘Why does light get weaker with distance?’ Anya asked, reflecting on distant stars; ‘Does the brain record true and false memories differently?’ Lucy asked when discussing police testimony.
But, in a radical departure from traditional teaching, these questions are not posed for an expert to answer, but used instead to activate discussion. Members of the group begin to tease out their own thoughts about the question and challenge each other, drawing on their experience of life, books and documentaries. As opinions are exchanged and fragments of knowledge recalled, contradictions, paradoxes and gaps in understanding are exposed. Only then, when the group is thirsting for understanding, is an experienced science tutor, who leads the group, called on for scientific input.
This approach, starting where people are at, rather than with what science has to say, represents an important reversal. It pushes us to want to know more and to challenge the superficial kinds of answer that often pass for explanation. From the specific issues that intrigue them – in the home, with the family, on the street, at work – a pathway is constructed into the fundamentals – atoms, cells, organisms, galaxies, matter, time and space.
The power of the approach is plain to see – the groups have lasted years (eight in one case). But does its effectiveness also shed light on why so few adults feel confident about their scientific knowledge? Almost all members of the groups have had a negative experience of science at school where it allowed little room for self-expression or flexibility over content. Fear of maths put some off, dull teaching affected others, and exam pressures killed off hopes for deeper understanding. Failure to grasp one topic meant it was difficult to follow the next one.
A recent report to the Nuffield Foundation shows that such experiences are common, and not restricted to the UK. Yet, paradoxically, the success of these adult learning groups, as well as the general popularity of science books and documentaries, shows that fascination with the natural world persists into adulthood, in spite of poor experiences at school.
The alternative approach developed in these adult groups turns many conventions of science education upside down. Subjects, for example, cease to be important in their role of compartmentalising knowledge. A recent session on colour television began with discussion of electromagnetic waves, moved on to primary colours, then retinal cells, nerve transmission and the psychology of perception. Such a pathway would be hard to cater for in a school or college timetable, yet it is exactly the way the story can unfold for the curious enquirer.
The role of the teacher is also necessarily transformed – no longer able to command specialist knowledge in all fields, the tutor becomes a kind of scientifically trained facilitator whose primary role is to help articulate and make sense of the questions – to link them to fields of knowledge and set them in the context of underlying concepts. In essence the intellectual repertoire is being extended so that basic concepts from science come alongside those from the humanities and arts, helping us interpret the everyday world in which we think and act. This is increasingly important as the level of scientific understanding needed among the public rises. In its absence, ill-informed voters can hamper crucial political decision-making – on greenhouse gases, energy sources, food supply or vaccination programmes, for example.
The overwhelming message of this experiment is clear: people are consistently fascinated by the world about them and make efforts to understand it. But the way the majority of people need to learn about it differs fundamentally from the way future scientists need to learn. The upper school curriculum, geared to university entrance, focuses on the future scientific professional. For others, the overwhelming majority, there is little choice but to put up with an inappropriate offering or to reject it entirely – as most do.
This experiment demonstrates the need for a different kind of subject, linked to others in the arts – sociology, geography, philosophy, visual arts, literature and religion. A subject that starts from real, personal interest, that pursues lines of learning in and out of the natural science domain building a route to conceptual understanding that is not through a linear sequence of facts and formulae, but through spiralling round the fundamentals – relativity, gravitation, chemical reaction and biological structure – returning time and again to the basic science, deepening insight at every turn.
Of course, it may be argued that such a new and different kind of science-based subject – science in the humanities – would pose a serious threat to the professional training of future science professionals. It is true that scientists, engineers and medics need a thorough grounding in mathematical methods and laboratory skills. But might their numbers actually grow if fewer youngsters were put off science at an early age? Could the specialised training of future scientists in fact be deferred to higher education, as it is for lawyers and architects, for example, rather than imposed on the entire school curriculum?
Perhaps the biggest conundrum thrown up by the success of this alternative approach is why it is not more widespread. If research shows that the pedagogy and curriculum in school need to be modernised and radical approaches with adults are succeeding, what is preventing change?
There has been, in fact, a proud tradition of reform in science education in the UK for many decades – from the Nuffield A levels to 21st Century Science GCSE. But many practical and cultural difficulties beset fundamental change. Separate subjects are fiercely defended by those who have done well from them; examination grades dominate political and economic thinking, science teachers arise inevitably from those who have succeeded in the current system.
To develop an adult population conversant with scientific ideas will require changes in many areas – alterations to the curriculum, the training of teachers, the guidance and assessment of learners. Such changes require a radical readjustment in how we conceive science and whom we think it is for – a cultural shift is needed that involves us all. Nevertheless, the sheer power of our natural curiosity as human beings and our thirst for understanding the world about us provide an inspiring starting point. Let us shake off the heritage of nineteenth-century teaching methods and open up the riches of scientific thinking to everyone.
Andrew Morris, The Policy Consortium
May 2011The Policy Consortium on Twitter