Has the time come to establish a new kind of science subject, one based in the humanities? This is the key question arising from an unusual experiment in science education, originally reported in this magazine in June 2003.1
It involves discussion groups, led by an experienced tutor, exploring the scientific ideas behind questions posed by the participants. There is no prescribed syllabus, no mathematics, no laboratory. The tutor acts as a facilitator and guide rather than as a font of knowledge. Specialist knowledge is filled in later, through reading or visits to experts.
Increasing motivation and confidence
This experiment, having run now for eight years, is beginning to show how the kind of teaching and learning approaches normally used in literature or sociology classes can be successfully adopted for science. Issues are raised by participants rather than the tutor and are chewed over within the group; preconceptions are revealed and subjected to scrutiny. All points of view are encouraged and respected by the peer group and tutor. Confidence builds through self-expression and challenges arise through comparing the various perceptions.2
A recent discussion of spacetime, for example, revealed widely differing perceptions of classical relative motion – as to whether a cyclist approaching a waste bin should drop their used drinks can before, while or after passing it.
Motivation as well as confidence grows dramatically with this approach. After batting around their own suggestions and thoughts freely, the group then develops an appetite for the fundamental scientific concepts. Discussion ranges across the boundaries of traditional disciplines.
A recent sequence about colour television for example, embraced electromagnetic waves, primary colours, retinal cells, nerve transmission and the psychology of perception. The path of discussion is unpredictable as the scientific material induces a flurry of further questions about one or other of its aspects. The inquiry then deepens with further cycles of questioning, exchanging and explaining.
By allowing for self expression and exchanges of view, confidence and motivation for learning about science are raised. By transcending the confines of particular disciplines, scientific thoughts are brought into closer correspondence with everyday experience. These are important aspects of pedagogy and have been influential in several initiatives such as the new GCSE 21st Century Science. What is it in particular that this experiment with adult learners throws up?
Traditional science stands out from other school subjects with its role in preparing the next generation of scientists.3 An equivalent vocational purpose does not pin down curricula in history, literature, art or geography. As a result, science education has become infused with the future requirements of the specialised university degree — mathematical proof, experimental method and acquisition of factual knowledge. These are all very important indeed, but hardly attractive to all at school.
Ideas in science
By focussing on the ideas arising from science, this experiment invites us to imagine a new science-based subject capable of engaging citizens more widely: a subject in which such concepts as molecules, cells and galaxies sit comfortably alongside those such as class, religion and democracy.
Of course, attempting to prise science, with its time-honoured curriculum, away from its vocational role would be neither an easy nor a sensible thing to do. But to continue to half-equip citizens for life in the modern world is equally unwise.
Is it not time to consider an entirely new approach, in schools and adult education, through which serious, challenging thinking based on science is promoted alongside that from other humanities subjects? Then scientific ideas might take their place, alongside literary, political and historical ones as part of the normal intellectual furniture of the educated citizen.
1 A Morris, (June 2003). ‘Harnessing scientific ideas for adult learning’, Science & Public Affairs, p24
2 for further evidence, see J Gilbert J. (Ed.) (2006), Science Education in Schools :issues , evidence and proposals, TLRP, London (p8)
3 See J Osborne and J Dillon (2008), Science Education in Europe: critical reflections, Nuffield Foundation, London (paragraph 1.9)