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February 25, 2010

Media Coverage of Science Education

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have just published a report on the state and possible future of Science and Maths Secondary-School Education. From a group headed by Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust, it is one of a series interrogating issues in science and society (see also one on engagement from Roland Jackson of the British Science Association, and another on the media from Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre).

I've been in and out of meetings most of the day, so haven't had time to read any more than the executive summary. Well, the executive summary and the news coverage, which was pretty interesting in itself. So, I thought it was worth putting off reading the full report for a bit longer, and doing a quick blogpost pulling out the issues that the press seems to have decided to pull out of the report.

If you want to read the report itself, for yourself, you can download it here, complete with cover-pictures of hair-raising play with a Van der Graaf generator. Ah, where would science education imagry be without Robert Van der Graaf.

DBIS education report cover

First up, BBC online news, with Science and maths exams 'need shake-up' . They start by reiterating the report's point that science and maths education have clearly been priority issues in recent years, but that nonetheless, people are still worried about it. They emphasise the report's call for specialist teachers and more maths to be taught within science teaching. They also pick up on concern that the science and maths community want a greater say in school science. This is significant, considering a recent trend in science education to curricula that aims to serve the needs of "the public" before professional science. Note it was the director of the Wellcome Trust (which funds scientific research and some education and engagement), not a full-time educationalist, asked to lead this report. But I'm editorialising.

Next, The Times: Science lessons need more explosions and pyrotechnics, report says. This starts: "Science lessons should be more hands-on and exploratory, according to a new report that criticises a dangerous obsession with results that has stripped science teaching of explosions and pyrotechnics". According to my rather rough Ctrl-Alt F research methodology, the word "pyrotechnics" doesn't actually feature in the report. They then go onto reflect on the way "teaching to the test" has pushed out more "exploratory learning". As they quote Walport, the "danger that assessment becomes the tail that wags the dog". They cover the smaller issue of the report's call for science and maths specialists to be paid more, before running through quotes from various stakeholders in the area.

I would now like to pause for a little rant. This is directed at the world in general, not the Times in particular, although they inspired it. Exploratory does not equal explosions. Similarly, just because an activity is hands-on, or demonstrated live in the classroom (as opposed to described in a textbook), it doesn't mean it is an "experiment". It certainly doesn't make it investigative or "exploratory". Simply being hands-on doesn't necessarily mean the student is allowed to explore. Quite the contrary, some of the most explosive demonstrations are not only done by a member of staff for students to watch, but have exceedingly tightly defined and predicted/ predictable outcomes. The point of an explosive demo is generally that we know what's going to happen (i.e. it'll explode - a brilliant big bang of a dramatic ending). They are used to demonstrate why and how science already knows something. They can be exciting, inspiring and explain some aspect of science with immense clarity. By they allow little space for creative exploration. There is difference between expository and exploratory, explanation and experiment. I know they all start with the same three letters people, but get a grip.

Ahem. Rant over, onto The Telegraph: School science undermined by 'easy' exams. Their lead paragraph, interestingly I thought, stresses a language problem; that multiple choice questions leave students unable to express their understanding of scientific concepts. They also highlight, early-on, the ways in which examination boards sell their own textbooks to schools (and therefore fuel an exam-driven bite-sizing of curriculum). Like the BBC, the Telegraph are keen to note that science education has been a priority. They also pull out the report's insistence that science courses have remained popular among young people. The focus of the piece though is (what I read the focus of the report to be...): problems endemic in the curriculum, qualifications and the structure of exams.

Next, the Daily Mail, who's How Labour's 'reforms' of A-levels have dumbed down exams pulls no punches. Apparently the report is "devastating [...] a damning indictment of the exam system". Content-wise, their emphasis is again on the way the structure of exams and associated bite-sized curriculum effects (/prevents) understanding, referring to worries about the "use of the English language". They make liberal use of the phrase: "dumbing down". They also quote schools minister Iain Wright. As with some of the other pieces, this places Wright in a rather defensive position, as if he is only brought in for journalistic balance, to defend himself. I thought this was an interesting positioning: these BIS reports come from groups led by independent(ish) experts, but they are basically government publications, reflecting government desires for change (though they are also from BIS, not the DCSF...). The Mail's piece ends with a reasonably tame quote from Malcolm Trobe, of the Association of School and College Leaders, underlining the distaste for modular assessment within teaching communities.

Finally, The Independent: Make maths and science exams tougher, says report. A relatively short piece, heavily reliant on quotes from the report itself. As their headline implies, their emphasis is a lack of challenge in the current curriculum (they aren't clunky enough to use the "dumbing down" phrase, but they breath the sentiment nonetheless). They note complaints that the current system dose not give students enough of a chance to display or develop their depth of knowledge of the subject, that a "tick-box approach" to teaching and assessment lacks depth, and finish with a call for examiner to "devise searching questions for pupils".

The Guardian haven't at time of blogging, bothered. Which I thought was odd seeing as they have such strong science and education pages. I'm oscillating being saying this is probably because the issue is just a way to bash Labour (so the Guardian are avoiding it) or that they prefer more nuanced expert analysis on these topics (so are waiting to have a more thoughtful comment is free piece later in the week). Either prediction is largely (rather ridiculous) guesswork on my part though. They've likely just got other things to worry about. It's easy to get your knickers in a terribly self-important twist about science education, especially worries that it's just not as hard as it was in my day. Whether this generates anything more than rhetoric is another matter.

Before I sign off, I'd also like to note that none of these pieces quotes a child. There are all sorts of very understandable reasons for this, to do with press reporting as much as cultural norms (not to mention legal issues) surrounding education and/ or the voice of children. Still, I hope that as/ if the report's reccomendations are developed, young people are used are more than just cover- boys and girls.

February 20, 2010

Science Bites

There was an interesting blogpost at the Guardian this week by Simon Underdown, an anthropology lecturer at Oxford Brookes: Teach the bigger story of science.

Underdown asks why so many young people become bored by science, and suggests an answer might be found in the way we have built our curriculum:

The "Google generation" is taught in bite-sized chunks throughout their school lives [...] the same old examples makes for boring lessons and unmotivated students (not to mention teachers). Perhaps if bite-sized subject syllabi were to be replaced with broader subject descriptions that rely on linking well-developed core principles, we could develop a much wider range of illustrations and examples to really motivate students.

Similar points were made about US school-science in a Scientific American this week (see page 2). It's not exactly a new critique of the UK system either. In 1998, the highly influential Beyond 2000 (pdf) report argued:

The heart of the cultural contribution of science is a set of major ideas about the material world and how it behaves [… but] in focusing on the detail (for example, by setting out the content as a list of separate ‘items’ of knowledge as does the English and Welsh National Curriculum), we have lost sight of the major ideas that science has to tell.

Instead Beyond 2000 advocates a curriculum built upon a set of ‘explanatory stories’. The word 'story' here used to denote structure, development and coherence. It isn't a suggestion that science is fictional. This might sound as if they just want to simplify the curriculum even more (I'm not going to use the phrase 'dumbing down', it brings me out in spots). But to say these explanatory stories are reductive and deliberately eschewing detail would, I think, be a misreading. Rather, they advocate a coherent structure to a curriculum, one that demonstrates links and connections and around which teachers can slot in a rich set of examples. Influential as Beyond 2000 was, however, the speed of curriculum change being what it is in this country (i.e. slow), twelve years on, its criticisms still stand.

For me, the emphasis on bite-sized science isn't just a problem because it is boring, it also distills knowledge into something you report back on, for credit. This is fine when you are faced with an exam the next morning (e.g. BBC Bitesize), but it cannot be the basis of a science education system. Bitty science alone isn't especially fulfilling or useful - for future scientists, future 'publics', or the young audiences of school-science as they interact with science right now (because childhood isn't just prep for adulthood).

I'm young enough to have had most of my education structured by the National Curriculum. I adored my secondary school science teacher, who was a bit of an eccentric. She told us Ohm's law was beautiful, biology only pretends to be science, our media is as ideological as the stuff she'd grown up with in Moscow, and how best to play the system. Under her suggestion, we ordered syllabi for a couple of quid direct from the exam board (roughly what is now sold as revision guides). We learnt its bitesized science, regurgitated and promptly forgot it. We left with the best science grades that school had ever seen, but uninspired.

A bite-sizing of knowledge is something I've noticed in the course of my research on the Horrible Science books (major UK-based non-fiction brand for 8-12s). As with a lot of non-fiction books for kids, they celebrate short sharp 'facts', often delivered as quick fire trivia quizzes or simply bullet point lists. This in itself doesn't upset me. A good little factoid can be enormous amounts of fun. Moreover, I should note that Horrible Science does surround its list of facts with a bit of background, activities and discussion. However, what it does do with its facts, and the instructions for 'experiments' for that matter, is present them as material for showing off. The emphasis on learning science for personal success, one-upmanship even. A few examples from some of the books' introductions:

Now’s your chance to learn a few key words. And afterwards you can sound off and amaze your friends and silence your teacher (Sounds Dreadful, p8-9)
actually they’re [the laws of thermodynamics] horribly easy to understand. (Don’t tell anyone how easy, and with luck your friends will think you are a scientific genius!) (Killer Energy, p14)
Your new-found knowledge of light science is sure to put your teacher in the shade. And afterwards, who knows? You might even become a leading light in science – then you’ll really enjoy the limelight! (Frightening Light, p7).

In many respects Horrible Science offers knowledge as a source of power for the child. I can see why this might be very appealing (indeed, Sue Blackmore suggests we promote the idea that scientific learning distinguishes you). I don't mind it too much in a set of popular science books or the odd bit of revision, but as a whole education strategy, it's not enough. Bite-sized science is something you take in so as to re-deliver for a reward. You don't explore, you don't critique, you don't unpick, you don't develop. You catch, repeat, dispose. It's competitive and individualistic. It's bat and ball science.

The style of Horrible Science sits within a history of non-fiction publishing which stretches a lot further the National Curriculum. There are also broader issues of knowledge in 21st century (digital) media hinted at by Underdown’s reference to the ‘Google generation’. But I can’t help wondering if Horrible Science’s success is in some part down to the school-science culture of post-Thatcher Britain. The first Horrible Science was published in 1996, eight years after the Education Reform Act which brought in the National Curriculum, key stage tests and league tables.

February 12, 2010

Does popular science have sub-genres

My central question her is if popular science books are sold in categories (natural history, astronomy, history), are they consumed the same way?

Below is a screen-grab of the science page on the website for a large UK bookselling chain. It's cropped to show off the categories the books are presented in (click on pic for link to flickr to see larger version). Obviously, bookselling websites categorise/ cross-categorise in different ways from door-and-window-bookshops, but seeing as I didn't have my camera with me, I think it'll do as an illustration of the way we sort science publishing.

screengrab - Waterstone's Science Books

Gower Street Waterstone's has one of the largest Popular Science sections in London: a little room located after bays and bays of textbooks (it's a campus bookshop), just before you hit the coffee shop. I know it pretty well, but today noticed something I hadn't registered before: Astronomy, Natural History and Birdwatching all have their own special set of shelves, just next to those emblazoned 'Popular Science'.

I thought this was significant. If you want a popular science book, you go to the shelves marked 'Popular Science'. But the booksellers seem to think that if you specifically want popular astronomy, you'll go direct to their sub-section. It's a bit like the distinction between 'general fiction' and 'crime' or 'science fiction and fantasy', and just as problematic. I wondered if this related in some way to my years of thinking 'space is boring'. As with sci fi, or about any hobby/ special interest, it's special spaces can feel a bit off-putting to outsiders (Ooo, "the spaces of Space", there's a title for a cultural studies paper in there somewhere).

Arguably, a lot of Astronomy, Natural History and Birdwatching books aren't really 'popular science', just non-professional science. 'Hobbiest science' if you will. Still, many bookshops theme within their pop sci shelves - not just by author, but 'evolution', 'history of science', 'cosmology', etc - and I think the general attempt to categorise is worth noting. It reminds me slightly of when I worked in an Oxfam shop briefly as a teenager and we were told to display stock by colour, because that's how they thought customers looked for second hand clothes.

screengrab - Waterstone's Kid's Non-fiction

There are similar categorisations implemented for children's science books; noticeably largely around what Basil Bernstein would call the 'collected codes' of school-science. Bookshops have to sort things into one place or another. We all do. Without getting too philosophical, it is a function of contemporary life. The increasingly anachronistic categories we use for science frustrate us in a vareity of contexts (see, for example the fascinating debate between the Nobel Committee and New Scientist).

This relates to something I've been wondering a bit about over the last week: the noticeable absence of astrobiology books for kids. Even a book entitled ‘Space, Stars and Slimy Aliens’ largely uses aliens as a sort of joke from which they can contrast their ‘serious science’ (see Brian Clegg's review). I'd put this down to astrobiology being a relatively new field, combined with children's publishing being so infamously conservative. However, maybe part of the problem is that astrobiology is somewhat interdisciplinary: just as inter/ multi-disciplinary researchers can find it hard to locate themselves in the academy, they can also stumble within the sub-genres of popular science? Are there other interdisciplinary science subjects that don't get covered in children's publishing? (Even though, popular science for adults is arguably a space for interdisciplinarity).

This is largely a side-point though.To reiterate the question at the top of this post: if popular science books are sold in categories (natural history, astronomy, history), are they consumed as such? Are there sub-genres to popular science books, and fans for each genre? I wish someone could do some decent audience research on what people like about popular science, when, and why. For now, I can only guess at answers, but I'm interested to know other people's guesses too.

February 10, 2010

Does anyone else think Space is REALLY boring?

On Saturday morning I read this blogpost and it's sent me into a bit of a rant. As I've put directly in a comment there, what annoyed wasn't so much the content of the post, rather the general discourse of space science it sampled. E.g:

The inspirational power of space and rocket ships [...] captivated and fired the scientific and technological imagination of a generation of young people. Some became the scientists and engineers of the Golden Age

When we talk about space in popular culture, we often use such lofty language. The sense that space, especially space exploration, can provide some 'inspirational power', ready to fuel a whole generation of scientists is also a familiar tune. There's been some controversy over manned spaceflight vs other space science recently, and this post isn't about that debate. What I want to pick out is the dependancy on superlatives.

It's not just rocket-science, astronomy similarly bangs on about the majesty of the night sky (and let's just draw a line under cosmology now). All this talk of how space is awe-inspiring/ exciting/ wonderful/ simply-just-the-most-amazing-thing-ev-er just makes me roll my eyes. I'm tempted to say its self-aggrandising, but I think I'll just settle on calling it boring. Mind-numbingly boring.


I respond to space hype similar way that I do to a lot of religion (and um, football, HD telly, some music, the odd film, several books, particular brands of chocolate...). I feel like I'm told I should be inspired, as if that's enough and no one needs to show me why. Lacking a solid and explicit basis for inspiration, I tend to think "that's must be something other people get", a matter of taste. I also get a tad wound up at the assumption that its all A Good Thing. You earn my respect; don't assume it. So, I shrug and turn my back. I have plenty of other things to play with.

Recently, I've become more aware that my stubborn refusal to drink the space-flavoured kool-aid means I've been missing out. So, I've been trying to engage with space news a bit more, and have to admit, am finding the various UK and USA funding issues fascinating. I've been listening to the Naked Astronomy podcast, and dragged myself to a public lecture on astrobiology last week. Aside from realising there's a lot more to space science than just the rockets, sparkly bits and big numbers I have previously written it off as, I might have, despite myself, noticed my jaw dropping slightly.

I'm not the only one who shrugs at space. Chatting with some friends a few days ago, one piped up with "You know, I think space is a bit dull" Then, after a pause: "Why do I feel like a dick for saying that?". I should note, this guy has a PhD in the politics of translating Zola. He isn't stupid. Aside from the intellectual-sounding thesis, he's a generally well-informed, opened-minded and thoughtful chap. He's not scared of talking about science, and even likes the odd bit of sky-gawping: he ran outside with me last week to stare at the Moon and Mars. I think it's telling that he feels a bit embarrassed about finding space a bit dull. There can be an implication in a lot of this hype that if you don't get it, you are somehow lacking a soul, or at least some understanding. It's a shame he lumps the whole of space together, but I can see how he might have got there, after years of being told "OMG! Spaceship!" or "See here children, the great inspirational majesty of Our Night Sky", and all he can do is nod politely. So, no: I don't think he is being a dick. It is just that other stuff has caught his attention.

If nothing else, I wish someone would cite more than anecdote when they bang on about about how we could solve all the problems of declining number of trained physicists if we sent more people into space. No one has, to the best of my knowledge, done any (reliable) work on this causal link between sending the odd astronaut into space and getting young people to sit through maths exams. It seems rather expensive, as education programmes go. You can throw all the biographies of scientists/ engineers at me that you like. I want to know about today, for 21st century kids.

Until such data is forthcoming (which I doubt it will be, though if anyone wants to give me a large research grant...) space-hypers should acknowledge that their rhetoric can dis-enchant as much as it may also act as a call to arms. You do yourself and your audiences no favours if you assume they already share your enthusiasm, or assume wonder is self-evident. The language of space science needs to extricate itself from its religious and military histories: cut all that bleeding reverence, loose the superlatives, inject a bit more piss-taking and get on with showing us some specifics of how great you are.

February 1, 2010

Call for Papers: Science and the Public 2010 UPDATED

Call for Papers: Science and the Public 2010

Imperial College & Science Museum, London.
3rd and 4th of July 2010.

Now in its fifth year, the Science and the Public conference aims to bring together the various strands of academia which consider science’s relationships with groups generally called ‘the public’. Delegates come from a wide range of disciplines: science and technology studies, history of science, geography, psychology, cultural studies, media studies, sociology, development studies, English literature, science policy studies and more.

Keynote Speakers: Professor Mike Michael, Goldsmiths, University of London, and Professor David Edgerton, Imperial College, London.

The range of topics covered may include (but are not limited to):

* Surveying public knowledge and attitudes.
* Science and the arts (including science fiction).
* Science, publics and personal identity.
* The role of industry and/ or the third sector in public engagement and scientific research.
* The challenges of ‘upstream’ engagement.
* Popular science and professionalization.
* Specific public-science issues: e.g. climate change, MMR, energy policy, GMOs.
* Studies of specific media: e.g. film, books, the internet, museums, radio.
* Science, religion and the ‘New Atheism’.
* Politically engaged scientists.
* Churnalism vs. investigative science journalism.
* Edu-tainment.
* Scientific advisers, spin and secrecy.
* Patients and publics in health services.
* Science and the sceptics.
* Amateur science.

Potential contributors should email a 300 word abstract to scienceandpublic@googlemail.com by 1st March 2010. Please include full contact details (name, affiliation, email) of all authors.

Panel proposals should include a panel abstract and individual abstracts for each of the papers on the panel as well as contact information (name, affiliation, email) of the presider (moderator) and all panel members.