Friday, January 24, 2014

Problems with science education

Rod Holland writes one of my favourite blogs, Northern Rivers Geology. In a recent post, Our Clarence-Moreton Basin and Middle-Earth, he reports that a researcher from the University of Bristol has released a paper comparing the climate of Earth with that of Middle-Earth (As in Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit).

There was one quote that I really liked. Reporting on one aspect of the study, the researcher concluded that "Mordor would have had an inhospitable climate, even ignoring the effects of Sauron".

In terms of the continuing discussion on the review of the Australian curriculum, Rod wrote a comment on Monday forum - how would you introduce Gaia worship into schools?. Subsequently he apologised for letting his anger get the better of him. Still, I think that the comment is worth running in full because it does illustrate process problems. Comments follow the quote;

Rod wrote:

Step 1 - introduce education of the using "popular science"... e.g. Environmentalism and String Theory.

Step 2 - make the "hard sciences" unpopular by creating a "geek" stereotype.

Step 3 - Since so few people study the "hard sciences" stop teaching these because they are now uneconomical or;

Step 4 - replace "hard sciences" with "popular sciences" to keep the number of science students (and teachers artificially higher).

Step 5 - Find that "science" teachers now can't understand "hard science" and therefore dumb down maths, physics, chemistry etc to home finance, welding, and pollution studies respectively.

Step 6 - come to the realisation that we are no longer teaching science but philosophy and therefore include concepts such as Gaia as integral to the learning experience

Step 7 - Science is now destroyed since "science" is now dominated by un-disprovable philosophical hypotheses.

Science education is bit of a sore spot.

I do not know to what degree this is an accurate reflection of the process that has happened. Still, I suspect that Rod has a point re the dynamics of the process. This holds independent of the current debate about the Australian national curriculum.

Part of the problem lies in the crowded nature of the curriculum, including the focus on process. There is less and less time to study content in depth, making it harder to achieve higher knowledge levels in particular areas.

I suspect, too, that part of the problem lies in misplaced expectations. Some subjects are simply harder, especially at a higher level. You can't dumb down a subject without penalising those capable of achieving at a higher level. With much higher participation rates at higher school and university levels, you have to set subjects studied at levels that best suit the majority of students. The inevitable result is a dumbing down process.

Maybe with some subjects you just have to set a high bar independent of demand, then let the results flow regardless.


Evan said...

"The curriculum is always full" - Edward de Bono.

We don't have a hope of teaching the main concepts of even one domain. If this is the goal of education it will always fail.

I'm not sure that some subjects are necessarily harder than others. Though I'm sure there are for some people. For me sport was horrible and art I had not a clue. For others quite easy. Same with maths and science I think. To my shame the subject I found easiest in high school was economics - thankfully I haven't had to look at it again.

Jim Belshaw said...

I wonder what de Bono meant by that comment, Evan? I suppose that the curriculum is always full in that it is written for specific time allocations, the amount of time available in the school day. I would argue, I think, that the curriculum has become broader at the expense of depth.

Abilities and interests vary, and thank heaven for that. I would defend economics, I am an economist by training and professional practice. But I still think some subjects and especially science and maths are intrinsically harder.