Thursday, April 05, 2012

High School Science - If I ran the world

A wee while ago I was eavesdropping on a Twitter conversation in which people were debating what could be done to improve junior science in high school. There were suggestions about teaching styles and syllabus changes, but I think the problem is much deeper than that. I kept returning to the question posed by one of our lecturers last year "What do we want all students to know before they leave school?". This, we were told, was the basis of the new national curriculum. That, right there, is the problem with high school science.

It seems like a sensible enough question, until you start to answer it. Science is huge, and what I think is valuable and fascinating is yawn inducing to you. But even more importantly, it isn't possible to scratch the surface of science at school. If our aim is provide kids with the science they'll need for the rest of their lives, we are doomed to fail. Anyone that's set foot in a junior science class in NSW recently knows that we are, indeed, failing. Spectacularly.

We're asking the wrong question. The right questions are quite different. "How do we want our kids to be able to think?" "What do we need to do to teach them to think that way?" "Is any content actually more important than engaging students enough so that they can be persuaded to think critically?" "How do we teach students to teach themselves science for the rest of their lives?"

We don't need students to "know", we need to them to enquire. The only way to fix the syllabus is to throw it out the window, and not replace it. It's absolutely useful to have a document with suggested topics and ideas for ways to approach them. Text books are handy. Programs are a good basis to work from. But all of those things should be secondary to the interests of the class.

My personal interest is physics. Electromagnetism is the area in which I excelled at uni. I find it fascinating and essential to all sorts of aspects of my life. However, standing in front of a group of utterly disinterested year 9 students with a bunch of circuit diagram handouts, all I could think was "WHY are we teaching this?". All they need to know about circuit theory is electrical safety, which they've pretty much covered in primary school. There is absolutely zero spirit of enquiry in a lab full of leads and lightbulbs. This was demonstrated eloquently when my fellow teaching students and I attempted basic year 7-type circuit theory experiments. We all immediately tried to find the "right answer". There was no playing. There was no investigation. There was quite a lot of blaming dodgy equipment. And we are now teachers. Why on earth do we think high school kids will engage with these "experiments"? At the end of the topic, they might well be able to recite V=IR, but they won't have learned a thing about science. What good is knowledge if you don't know how to assess its validity or usefulness?

We see hints of how it should be done in senior science. There are requirements to look at current issues and to understand science as a work in progress, rather than received knowledge. There's no reason why junior science can't be conducted on the basis of some current controversy, or recent scientific finding. Pick some article in the newspaper that describes a scientific concept. Work out what you need to know to be able to critically assess that article. Help the students learn what they need to know and then really pull apart the article or issue. This is what context based learning really looks like, and it doesn't require (although could include) more than one traditional discipline.

You want to teach what a "fair test" is?* Find some reporting of an epidemiological study and show them what it isn't. Encourage them to think about why me might do epidemiology anyway, while getting them to really think about its limitations. Give them lots of opportunity to discover than correlation does not equal causation. Show them lots of bad science as well as good science and help them to tell the difference. The content is irrelevant - just pick what they're interested in. The content is out there, it's on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. It's in senior science and university courses. Bugger the knowledge, teach them to think, to analyse, to really get how science is done. Then at least whatever content you use to demonstrate all that has some chance of being retained.

By all means, let the bureaucrats make up a syllabus, but it should be a reference document, not a prescription.

* For the non-teaching world, a "fair test" is a made up name for an experiment in which only one variable is manipulated at a time. ie a very rare beast.


  1. I agree absolutely. And this applies to more than science (and more than school, for that matter).

    Do you listen to the token skeptic podcast? Ep 105 is exactly on point here:

  2. No, I don't listen to it. Will go and listen. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it applies to other contexts, but I only feel qualified to comment on high school science. :)