Practising 18th Century Science, Today
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for Hasok Chang's inaugural lecture as Professor for the Philosophy of Science at UCL. He used this lecture in part to make points about science education, so I thought it was worth blogging some of his ideas (and my response) here.
Much of Chang’s talk was inspired by his (re)discovery that water doesn't boil at 100°C. Seriously, sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn't - and I don't just mean because there might be an impurity in it or you are working at altitude. You can read about the details of these experiments and watch videos of them at Chang's website. In fact, I'd recommend it: fascinating stuff. But, to put it in a nutshell, I'll quote the man himself:
We all learn at school that pure water always boils at 100°C (212°F), under normal atmospheric pressure. Like surprisingly many things that "everybody knows", this is a myth. We ought to stop perpetuating this myth in schools and universities and in everyday life: not only is it incorrect, but it also conveys misleading ideas about the nature of scientific knowledge. And unlike some other myths, it does not serve sufficiently useful functions.
In his inaugural lecture, Chang argued that this has implications for the public understanding of science and science education. Perhaps asking science students (at school or university level) to try a bit of 18th century science for themselves would let them rediscover details of science which, for various reasons, have been brushed under the carpet. Chang also implied that a reconnection with historical science could help free students from the specialisation of contemporary science (e.g. distance between experts and others, and between different experts).
Sitting listening to Chang talk with enthusiasm for playing with boiling water was absorbing (seriously, do go watch the videos, they are surprisingly compelling), but I did find myself wondering if educational theory hadn’t heard a lot of this before. It is commonplace to say that experimental work has been lost in school science as teachers focus teaching facts to be recalled in exams: the pressure of continual assessment in the National Curriculum has left little time for practical work. Although this is part of the story, the move away from experiments is also due to fashions in educational theory. Those who know a lot about the history of Wester school-science can skip the next three paragraphs.
Go back a few decades, and something called 'discovery learning' was all the rage. This was largely based on the idea that education should not be about indoctrinating children with the beliefs of the previous generation; either because it was believed it is wrong to mould any child to the ideals of adults or, more specifically, because such an approach to science education perpetuates a stagnant approach to the progress of knowledge (philosophers of science might like to cross reference this with Kuhn on textbooks). Instead, children should be allowed the freedom to discover science for themselves.
As many commentators have pointed out, this approach only works as far as the idea that scientific research comes straight from simple lab-bench interaction with nature (i.e. not much, philosophers can cross-ref with about any critique of induction they please). Indeed, several classroom ethnographers noted that in practice, discovery learning tended to be highly teacher-led, with any student results which challenged scientific orthodoxy being put down to experimental error. Many argued that despite the very libertarian ethics the discovery learning was cast in, it was an incredibly dishonest approach to science education, dressing cold, settled (and sometimes very out of date) science up as ‘hot’ newly discovered fresh ideas. It also drew on the rhetoric of hands-on education: because students were conned into thinking they had felt and seen the science for themselves, they were more likely to believe it. This is all very well as a PR/ pedagogical approach; but not exactly honest and not necessarily the most helpful way of teaching people about the processes of scientific discovery.
In the light of what could be called 'post discovery' science education (a key launching point of which can easily dated from 1998), the fashion is more for teaching children about science. Such an approach has made science education increasingly like humanities classes: essays, storytelling and class-debate, and leaves little space for messing around with Bunsen burners. Many argue this is a good thing, though it has its critics.
Considering this recent history of science education to move towards sociology and social history, I thought it was significant that Chang didn't seem to use the word 'social' at all in his lecture (especially as he is in a department which is also famous for its teaching and research of the social studies of science... apologies to Hasok if he did use an 's' word, I was looking out for it, but no one can claim to hear every word of a hour's lecture). It is possible to read Chang’s lecture as a call for the return of discovery learning: go back to engage directly with something as simple as water and let nature speak for itself outside of all the blinkered and corrupt fuddy-duddies of late modern scientific expertise.
However, I think it that would be a simplistic reading of Chang’s approach; he was suggesting something slightly different. Unlike discovery learning, a science curriculum which included ‘practicing 18th century science today’ would not hide a sense of grown ups' expertise (scientific, historical: either way, expertise of previous generations). If anything, the idea is to use experiments as the basis for reflection upon the very notion of such expertise. It is significant that Chang’s argument was rooted in an experiment which seems to prove scientific orthodoxy wrong; not one replicating the central tenants of the current paradigm. It should also be noted that Chang gets his undergraduate students to write a response to an 18th century journal; thus replicating a key process in the making of science which exists outside lab-bench interaction with nature. Moreover, because everyone knows its 18th century science, there is an explicit pretence at work. Students know they are in role, and in role as historical characters. As such, it is a long way away from discovery learning’s central ‘con’ that students are discovering the laws of thermodynamics for themselves.
Overall, I think there should be space for a range of ways of teaching science: the experimental, Hasok’s slightly ‘theatrical’ suggestion of replicating history, and what might be described as the more 'story' based approaches. I also think there is still a role for policy-orientated discussion of science. I’m a strong believer that curricula should not be reductive. Anyway, I'd be interested to know what other people think.
Please note, I'm ignoring the idea of learning history of science in the greater glory of the heroes of science. Equally, I'm not bothering with the idea that both children and ancient science are simple-minded, so if you go from Aristotle to Einstein you'll somehow reproduce the mental development of today's child in the classroom. In my opinion, both approaches are a load of whiggish a-historic old balls. There is also the extremely tricky question of child agency with respect to science, but that's probably a different blog post (or paper, or book, or best keep hidden under a rock).