Justification for the inclusion of science in the school curriculum
Some topics in our science curriculum owe their presence more to accidents of history than to anything else, though we could justify any part of our existing curriculum from a cultural point of view. If the ideas form part of our scientific heritage, humanity as a whole has a right to share this knowledge. We can justify including the cultural achievements of humanity from other disciplines of knowledge on the same basis: there is little distinction between studying the evolution of humans two million years ago (studied in science) and studying the rise of the Maya civilisation in Central America two thousand years ago (studied in history). Similarly, the second law of thermodynamics and atomic theory are just as much creations of human inspiration as the plays of Shakespeare and the music of Mozart, and children should be aware of these achievements.
There are, however, more immediate reasons to teach science, which 21st Century Science, mentioned below, has grasped (Twenty First Century Science Team 2003). Perhaps the most basic is that it has a utility value. If you understand the science behind everyday activities, you are more likely to undertake them safely. Once we understand the germ theory of disease, we are happy to follow basic hygiene rules, such as washing hands before eating, cleaning a cut, and storing cooked and raw meat separately. If they are followed only as rules, without the science, they are much less likely to be followed sensibly or at all.
Between these two extremes is what some have called the democratic justification for teaching science (Ratcliffe 1998). Some big ideas in science have no controllable effect on our lives. The idea of stars as element factories, for instance, is fascinating, and we are dominated by our nearest star, the sun, but there is nothing we can do about it, except to enjoy the knowledge - a cultural pursuit. However, there are some ideas that we need to understand if our lives on planet Earth are to be sustainable. Decisions are being made that affect our lives, and we need to understand the science to help to make choices ourselves.
At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 a common agenda for the twenty-first century, 'Agenda 21', was agreed to by 179 governments (Lakin 2000). One commitment was to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This could be achieved by burning less fossil fuel, meaning that less 'useful' energy will be available, or by finding ways of burying the carbon dioxide, an expensive option.
In a democratic state it is important that the public understands the reasons behind new legislation. We need to realise that the materials we use have to be (re-)cycled, just as materials are cycled in natural systems. We cannot continue to mine raw materials and dump them on land, in water and into the air, because the raw materials will become depleted, and the dumps will cause pollution. They also need to understand that this cycling needs to be fuelled. Natural systems rely mostly on sunlight, which drives both life and climate, but we have escaped from this reliance on solar power through our use of fossil fuels.
Many have said that the study of science is too difficult for this democratic justification to be valid. They claim that a little learning - for example, about genetic engineering or nuclear power - simply makes people frightened. A number of questions spring to mind:
■ Since not even the scientists can ever understand fully, why do we bother at all with the general public?
■ How can the public ever hope to understand 'enough' of these conceptual areas to help them to make democratic decisions?
■ In any case, is such an understanding really necessary before any real action on environmental issues can be taken by a democratic society?
■ Since the scientists cannot agree, why should the general public bother?
We must not fall into the trap that says that science is too difficult to understand, so the public has to rely on 'experts'. In this case the public has no choice but to build up emotional responses to issues. The science can be obscure, full of difficult words and complications, but it doesn't have to be that way.
Almost everyone can obtain a sufficient scientific understanding to make judgements on what the 'experts' say, as long as we teach science in the meaningful context of real issues, and begin from the ideas that the learners bring with them. A population ignorant of science will have a majority who don't care about the environment, and a minority whose only weapon is emotion, and who are dismissed by the majority as eco-freaks. A population that is ignorant about the nature of the scientific process will not appreciate the need for argument to continue among 'experts'. Science can only give us a 'best guess', and other considerations, for example moral philosophy, have their part to play - but we ignore the science at our peril. It is for this reason that the development of 21st Century Science is so exciting (see www.21stcenturyscience.org/home).
Continue reading here: Summary
Was this article helpful?