Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Dr Jerry Ravetz

  1.  The inherited institution of science education is one of the last surviving authoritarian social-intellectual systems in Europe. Its teaching style is dogmatic, and it is designed around the social function of the training and selection of future scientific research workers. By example and exclusion, students absorb the lesson that every real scientific problem has one and only one simple, correct answer. This mindset can be seriously disabling for all who eventually deal with science-related policy problems.

  2.  As students become more aware and independent, the inherited ideology of value-free, incontrovertible scientific truths becomes ever less sustainable. Although there are still many bright pupils who are content to engage in abstract puzzle-solving, the pool is steadily shrinking. And the corps of teachers competent to teach this sort of material to a high level is shrinking even more rapidly.

  3.  There is no doubt that "context" will soon be imported into the curriculum in one way or another. The danger is that the end result will be a mixture of vulgarised and degraded technical material, together with a confused medley of opinions and emotions.

  4.  There must be a coherent understanding of the design of a future science curriculum and also of its societal functions.

  5.  For the design, I suggest two themes. The first is "Discourses and Demonstrations", the title of Galileo's great work on "Two New Sciences" in which he laid the foundations of modern physical science. The "discourses" come in Book I, an extended ramble extending from the practical wisdom of craftsmen to the paradoxes of the infinite. The "demonstrations" come afterwards, and include a mathematical theory of the strength of materials, followed by the famous study of accelerated motion. For Galileo, the two approaches were complementary, the discourses raising important issues that could not be dealt with in the abstract mathematical arguments of the demonstrations. The complementarity of "discourses and demonstrations" would be the key to the design philosophy of the new curriculum.

  6.  The second theme is "Issues and Arguments"; this defines the general plan of the instructional material. Learning would be organised around particular issues in science-related policy. Students would be provided with guides to materials where the debates are framed, and (most important) with indications of the key technical terms whose comprehension is essential. Mastery of those would be achieved through a variety of methods; and assessment would be relatively straightforward. A link between the technical aspects on the one hand, and the political and ethical aspects on the other, would be provided by studies of debates on quality of research. These are common in most of the issues now before the public; and considerable sophistication is presupposed even in the popular press.

  7.  The ideal product of such a course in "issues and arguments" would be a person who combines a basic technical competence in science with a critical awareness of the whole range of problems of science in contemporary society. The person should be able to organise their own learning, and also to evaluate both technical and discursive materials. They should have the skill of analysing and where possible resolving issues, where the solution of simple technical problems is just one component of the work. The complementarity of both sides of their educational experience, expressed in "discourses and demonstrations", would be central to the teaching and assessment.

  8.  The student who would not be well served by such a course is the one who under present conditions constitutes the elite of secondary and university students. Many of them quite genuinely have no interest in matters outside the technical material, and never could. But many others, or rather their successors in future years, could welcome a chance at such a rounded and balanced education in science. Given the amount of freedom that would be inherent to the "issues and arguments" approach, a student who focuses nearly exclusively on the technical material, along with one who tends to avoid it, need not be unduly penalised in the assessment.

  9.  Teaching on such courses could be done by teams. Given that relatively few science teachers are now skilled in handling "discourses", that side could be managed by colleagues on the humanities side. There would be a lot of group and project work, as well as self-tuition using prepared materials, and so the timetabling could be flexible. Provided that the core of relevant technical material is rigorously assessed for content and for integration into the final product, the students' work could take many imaginative forms, including debates, plays, videos, or surveys.

February 2002

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