Skipping Science Class

Via Melanie Phillips comes a disturbing story about educational trends in the U.K. Apparently the GCSE science curriculum, studied by all pupils from 14 to 16, will no longer have much actual science in it…

Instead of learning science, pupils will “learn about the way science and scientists work within society”. They will “develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others’ decisions about lifestyles”, the QCA said. They will be taught to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the “social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions”.

They will learn to “question scientific information or ideas” and be taught that “uncertainties in scientific knowledge and ideas change over time”, and “there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address”. Science content of the curriculum will be kept “lite”. Under “energy and electricity”, pupils will be taught that “energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use”. (The above is from John Clare’s article in the Telegraph.)

Melanie says: “The reason given for the change to the science curriculum is to make science ‘relevant to the 21st century’. This is in accordance with the government’s doctrine of ‘personalised learning’, which means that everything that is taught must be ‘relevant’ to the individual child.”

There are so many things wrong here that it’s difficult to know where to start. First of all: it’s a natural human characteristic to be curious about the universe you live in. Schools should encourage this curiosity, not smother it in the name of a fake “relevance.”

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. “Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”

One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves. And by insisting that everything be “relevant” and discouraging the development of broader interests, the educational authorities in Britain are doing great harm to the children put in their charge.

There are also more directly-practical reasons why the new science-teaching policy is a malign one. Failure to learn anything at all about science while in high school will significantly foreclose one’s career options. Evidently, the educational authorities in Britain must think that future biochemists and electrical engineers will come from China or India…but even if one is not pursuing a scientific or engineering career path per se, one needs some scientific context. How likely is it that a person will become, say, a biotech CEO if they have no idea about how science actually works…if their total exposure to science consists of “social science” platitudes like those stated in the excerpt above? The same applies at lower levels of the career ladder…see my post below about what manufacturing executives are looking for in new shop-floor employees.

Furthermore: as voters, citizens must form opinions about scientific matters. How much of a threat is climate change? Is DDT so dangerous that it should be banned even at the price of thousands of deaths from malaria?

At least in the U.S., the vastly-increased spending on education over recent decades has been driven in large part by the conviction that we are living in a more scientific and technological society, and that schools must provide students with appropriate knowledge in order for them to be able to succeed in the job market and to fulfill their roles as citizens. I feel fairly sure that the same kind of reasoning has been used to justify educational expenditures in the U.K. So, the schools have taken the money on pretext, and are now failing to perform the duty that should go with it.

An education needs to consist of more than “social science” platitudes…but the proponents of these platitudes seem to feel threatened by any rigorous discipline whatsoever, be it science, foreign languages, or history.

7 thoughts on “Skipping Science Class”

  1. I have often thought it more important that people learn scientific methodology than that they learn any particular set of scientific facts. I don’t think however, that is what the UK mis-educators have in mind.

    Science has always presented a positive danger to post-modernism. They will do almost anything in order to neutralize it. This sounds like it is grounded in the pomo crypto-fascist concept of subjective knowledge i.e. what you are determines what is true for you.

  2. Shannon…I agree with you about the importance of learning scientific methodology; however, I think this is best done through study of tangible specifics…preferably involving lab work. That’s the only way it’s really likely to mean something to the student.

  3. One of the things I failed to learn during high school and college was really how to setup proper control experiments. I don’t think high school labs are really designed to teach scientific methodology. They tend to focus more on imparting knowledge about the subject matter to the student.

  4. Slightly OT: I saw Newt Gingrich give a talk at AEI a while back on C-Span. He said “science and math are difficult subjects” and that we should consider paying the kids minimum wage for their time and effort if they are willing to actually learn it. He said something akin to that anyway. That was the gist of it. It sounds like a good idea to me. I certainly would have taken advanced calculus if someone paid me to.

  5. much would they have had to pay you..a token amount, or something really big?

    I’m not sure the “pay ’em to learn it” strategy would work unless the $ were enough to provide meaningful prestige to the recipient among his peers…

  6. Minimum wage would have made it worth trying in lieu of hangin’ out at the mall. The idea is to incentivise the students on a time scale they can more easily understand than “when you get a job after college you’ll make more money. Probably.”

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