Monday, 16 July 2012

"How should we teach science?"

Earlier today I did an egosearch to check that potential employers googling* my name weren't going to find anything embarrassing.

The first page of results lists my LinkedIn profile, my Facebook profile, my Twitter feed, a page I set up about ten years ago on SoundClick with a song link I really don't want to click on and finally a post I wrote for the "How Should We Teach Science" campaign around three years ago. (No direct link to this blog, which is unsurprising seeing as "Arkady Chenko" is a pseudonym.)

While the science curriculum has changed I still think this is largely relevant, so here it is:

Link to the original.

In trying to make science more vocational, more applicable to the real world, we only patronise those who really want to do it.
Arkady is currently studying for an MPhys. at University of Sheffield.
I was blessed at my local all-boys comprehensive school with some exceptionally good science teaching, and some exceptionally bad. I was fortunate that the good outweighed the bad but, as you will read, many very intelligent people were sorely let down by bad science teaching.
TEACHER A The bad teaching was based on a misconception. The idea was that the class generally misbehaved because we didn’t understand the topic. The real reason was because we were bored (I should state that despite use of “we”, I didn’t personally take part in the misbehaviour, although I was very bored). The teachers response was to cover the topic again, but we’d understood it - and found it simple - the first time. We were the top set in a large school. The teacher, when he took over the class, decided to keep things elementary and simple and take it slowly. We found this patronising, and he didn’t realise when we told him “this is simple, sir” that we were telling the truth. So he kept taking things at an easy to comprehend pace, and we got bored and restless. Imagine, if you will, leading a maths professor through a second order inhomogenous differential equation, stopping to integrate from first principles every time, and you’ll get the idea. This led to a vicious cycle, where even the most teacher’s-pet type students got up to some sort of mischief at some point.
TEACHER B In contrast, the physics teacher we had immediately before this train-wreck was superb. She saw we were all top set and assumed that we’d all want to do A-levels in her subject (which was mostly true until the teacher in the previous paragraph took over). In her lessons we would fill pages with equations and worked examples and notes. She took us through topics in a level depth that we didn’t really need for the SATs she was preparing us for, and which stood us in excellent stead for GCSE. As a top set, she assumed we’d be able to keep up, and that those who couldn’t would either seek her out for further help - which was not unusual - and those who did neither didn’t show enough interest and would be dropped into lower sets.
While not everyone understood everything on a first pass, because we were doing real science and getting to the meat and bones of the physics, not one person had to be dropped a set. Furthermore, even the most troublesome of boys (to most teachers) were quiet, attentive, and would only speak out to ask intelligent questions. The major troublemakers of the school were model students because they were actually faced with material that they didn’t find patronising, but that they found challenging. They weren’t troublemakers because they were stupid, but because they were clever (in top set, at least). We didn’t mess around looking at practical situations where you have to calculate torque, but instead at exotic/esoteric situations where the torque was tricky to calculate.
I fear that the Governments constant move to making science more accessible by making it more applicable to real life all the time will have the effect that teacher A had. Furthermore, students with a real interest in science will find science teaching unstimulating and uninteresting. Teacher B showed me that if we want more people to take science to A-level and University, we must make it challenging and forget about real world applications. Very few major physics break-throughs have many obvious real world applications. But, to quote a Nobel prize winner “physics is like sex. Sure, it gives practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” We do it to satisfy our curiosity and to see what the limits of things are. The greatest scientific achievement of the century was launched with the words “we do this, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
The students we want doing science at A-level and beyond are the students who do it because it is hard, because they want to challenge themselves, and because they are interested in it. In trying to make science more vocational, more applicable to the real world we only patronise those who really want to do it out of the subject.
I would suggest, then, making science GCSE significantly more mathematical, more practical based, and also teach students about the history of the philosophy of science (i.e. empericism, the idea of submitting falsifiable theories and then throwing out those which do not stand up to testing) at a much earlier age, because it is my belief that the single must useful thing a non-scientist can learn from science is how to tell the difference between an excellent idea and an eloquent con.
Anyone interested in teaching standards should also read Michael Rosen's excellent (and far more regularly updated) blog.

* When does a brand name become a verb? When you no longer feel the need to capitalize it.

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