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.