Monday, 26 October 2015

On Teaching Science and Raising Scientists

Today I jumped into a twitter debate about the merits of science practicals which centred around two propositions. First, that teachers, not scientists, are the most qualified arbiters of science education and second, that conducting experiments is an inefficient use of time that would be better spent teaching the facts. This Guardian article by Alom Shaha was referenced which puts forward those views. I’m neither a scientist nor a teacher so I could be considered a neutral in this debate, or just an ignoramus. You decide.

To me it seemed like two groups arguing past each other. The scientists were arguing about the best way to educate scientists, while the teachers were arguing about the best way to teach Science GCSEs and A Levels. Shaha says of practicals:

Teachers are under huge pressure to carry out practical lessons for the sole purpose of ensuring students meet the assessment criteria, thus ending up using practical lessons to teach students how to jump through hoops more than anything else.

This is undoubtedly a valid criticism of the role of practicals in science education though the conclusion I draw from it is not that we should stop doing practicals but that we should change the way we determine the success of our science teaching.

Science is not a body of knowledge, it’s a method. A Neanderthal capable of devising a test to see if cow gut or horse gut makes a better bowstring has a more convincing claim to be a scientist than someone who has read reams of scientific research and accepts that research as true because it was published in a journal.

The method we use to assess science education, the exam, tests a student’s ability to uncritically absorb knowledge from an authority figure and to reproduce it. It’s a method well suited to assessing the humanities, imposed on science by the humanities graduates who decide what the school curriculum should look like. The result is that in science lessons students are far likelier to be told ‘these are the effects of climate change’ than they are to ask ‘how do we know climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity?’

A response to my defence of practicals on twitter were that students must learn knowledge first and that enquiry into that knowledge, testing it, comes later. The problem with that is for the majority of students there is no later, GCSE science is the last they will learn. I’m not saying they should derive all their scientific knowledge from first principles, rather that the ability to design experiments to prove hypotheses for themselves is an essential part of science education. It’s worth doing, even though the time required to do it well means covering a smaller body of knowledge in the curriculum.

As teachers are regularly assaulted by pseudoscience like learning styles and Brain Gym I think they should welcome a science education geared to producing a reflex action on being presented with a claim by a supposed expert of ‘Stop. Where is the evidence that what you’re saying is true?’


  1. The trouble with what you are saying is that science *is* a body of knowledge. The method sets the boundaries and allows the body of knowledge to expand, but if the method didn't lead to us knowing things it would be useless.

    1. I said "I’m not saying they should derive all their scientific knowledge from first principles" and I could have made it clearer that students do need to be taught scientific knowledge. My main point is though that scientific knowledge is useless without a solid grounding in the methodology required to test future claims. If students' only experience of science is writing down what the expert tells them then we leave them vulnerable to all manner of charlatans.