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
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
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
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
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.