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Teachers note: science and society are intertwined

A more “authentic” science curriculum can be achieved for schools. aDecorusUniversitas

Teachers note: science and society are intertwined

Is science being taught badly? In the broadest sense, yes.

Most Australian school science curriculum documents I see today seem to be about teaching students how different science is from the rest of society, and how scientists are different from ordinary people.

This approach gives a false impression of separation between science and society, and disregards an accumulation of studies from the history, philosophy and sociology of science that shows how interlinked science and society are.

The false idea that science can be treated as isolated from society is destructive in several ways:

  • it restricts the vision of science that school teachers can give their students
  • it restricts our vision for ways to address the reported problems with science education in schools
  • it has adversely affected implementation of appropriate science curricula in schools for students who don’t want to be scientists
  • it restricts the potential of the school education provided for intending scientists

School science has never been the same as the scientists’ sciences, so people who write curriculum documents make decisions about which aspects to foreground. The strong trend over recent decades of outcomes-based education has been to foreground content knowledge and a narrow set of skills rather than to tell a complex story of the ways in which science is a social activity.

The lack of a complex account of science is particularly noticeable, at least in Victoria, to those of us who remember previous school curriculum documents, such as the Science Framework (1987) or the first Victorian Certificate of Education Physics Study Design (1991), which asked teachers to explicitly situate science in social contexts.

Post-war dreams

A major change in society since the immediate post-war period is the relationship between people who have particular expertise and those who don’t. In the past, people expected to take advice from experts; today, people are generally expected to make up their own minds about things and they expect to be able to express their views.

If the issue is one that involves some expertise, there are differing ways for people to learn what they need to know. One way is to say that each individual must learn enough to hold their own in a competitive marketplace: caveat emptor.

The University of Western Sydney’s Professor Anna Yeatman has proposed another approach: those in society with some expertise learn to interact with those who don’t have that expertise in ways that support choice and voice.

She calls this approach the “new contractualism”: it is a very different approach from the paternalism that characterised post-war science.

If a scientist is to interact successfully with the broader community today, she doesn’t just need to understand science content knowledge; she also must be able to see that knowledge in a variety of contexts, choose what is important for the context, reframe and explain it in ways that make it accessible.

It’s possible to teach school science in ways that allow future scientists to learn science content and also develop contextual understandings of science. Let’s take one example. Evolution and natural selection is specified in the Australian Curriculum in Year 10.

There are at least three ways to teach this:

1) study of the fossil record
2) explicitly contrast a scientific account of evolution with creation stories from various cultures
3) teach the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria

The above methods involve teaching roughly the same science content knowledge; the first – fossils - and the third – antibiotic resistance - also allow a range of experiments.

Of these approaches, the third is congruent with the curriculum approach I propose. It allows a complex account of science and its processes, and deals with an issue of immediate and future relevance.

Not every student will grasp all the details of how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance – the science here is complex enough to challenge the most committed future scientist – but every student does come to understand that how he or she deals with antibiotics is important and has consequences for society as a whole.

Broaden the picture

The purpose of most secondary school science curricula today seems to be to induct all students into to a narrow version of science. Because this is a school education rather than a tertiary one, the best it ever achieves is a partial induction.

That’s not a useful goal for the vast majority of students who will never have a further education in science. It’s not a useful goal for intending scientists either.

The chief purpose of a school science education ought to be to educate all students to see science from the perspective of a future non-specialist. That approach would provide all students with a strong basis for citizenship and would help intending scientists develop skills they will need in the future.

Learning science this way will allow intending scientists to develop a sense of how science is intertwined with society. It may show them how to become insiders to a broader, more complex, more interesting and more authentic science.