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Science stories and the end of education

Bob Aikenhead
President, Science Teachers' Association of Victoria

Some of my best times teaching science have been those occasions when syllabus has been forgotten, the topic of the day put aside and discussion has flowed about some matter which a student has raised as a question. Some of the poorest - those well prepared lessons, carefully structured, which lead via diverse student activities to the completion of some curriculum statement's dot point about expected student outcomes. Many other science teachers have had the same experience, at least on the first matter.

This is not an argument for anarchy, or a lackadaisical approach to teaching, indeed quite the opposite. But considering the time put into lesson planning and development of learning sequences, it is rather sad to reflect on where they so often lead and on why the spontaneous unprepared discussion can hold so much interest. We must acknowledge a component of the student-teacher game in all this: the 'engage the teacher in some issue off the topic under study' tactic - get them talking, then we, the students, can take it easy. No notes to take, no questions to answer, no topic material to be mastered. Sit back and, if we can keep it up, there is 50 minutes rest. It happens. But it is not always the story.

Sometimes students do want to know more, to understand, and the engagement of the teacher in discussion has an intellectual rather than tactical basis. As scientists we look for evidence to distinguish these scenarios - a tiny bit of the scientific study of science teaching. Do the students flee from the room when the bell sounds with a laugh and 'thanks Sir, that was great', or do they have to be chased out to catch the next class still wanting to pursue the arguments? Does Mr. Smith, teacher of English in the class they go to next, come to the staff room at recess complaining about the unruly mob who wanted to argue some science stuff all through his lesson? That's success.

So, teacher, be alert but not alarmed, we can pursue spontaneous discussion that is valuable, but can also be diverted when not aware of the game.

What is it that is so important about those occasions when students ask questions with an interest in the response and not in the time it takes; those occasions when they are engaged in the discussion that follows? What is it about those carefully structured lessons that do make explicable some carefully designed learning objectives, but which so fail to ignite imagination?

Like everything in education it is not a simple matter. To the first question: the most obvious response is that students will likely take some interest in responses to issues they have raised, for there was curiosity, or practical need, or settling a dispute, behind the inquiry. There is an immediate use for the answer they receive. As well we teachers may become more involved in talking of something we know is useful, and perhaps interests us, rather than a set piece delivery. But there is sometimes more than that. Students other than the questioner often listen to the response and take up points which interest them. Some questions are narrow, of interest to only the specific questioner, but many hold interest to most of the peer group.

This leads to a more substantive reason for the engagement that we notice in these discussions at their best - when extended and free wheeling it helps students 'put bits together', to fill in the gaps in their comprehension of the world. Many students value science for the coherent story it offers about the world we live in. There is both interest and frustration when what they have gleaned makes sense of some separate areas of experience, but the areas exist as disconnected patches. Like a jigsaw puzzle partly completed; where we have the excitement of bits of picture starting to emerge but cannot yet discern the total scene. The bits sustain us for a time, but, if gaps remain for too long, frustration sets in.

This is science as a story - a purpose for science education. Neil Postman, in The End of Education, makes the observation that fundamentally the purpose, the 'end', of education is to help students construct coherent narratives about their lives, and suggests that, without that underlying notion informing the activities taking place in schools, 'education' as 'schooling' will indeed be at an end. Postman outlines a number of narratives that have been used (in North America ) as the 'organising theme' of education. Narratives of democracy, of Jesus, 'the great melting-pot-story' and 'the Protestant-ethic-story' being among them. Of the five narratives which Postman suggests as replacements to fill the void left by the decay of those older stories, one, Spaceship Earth, is science based. Whether we take science as the narrative, or a strand in a larger picture, it's a satisfying way to go about the study of science.

And so what is it about those structured lessons which may fail to fire the imagination? Perhaps the same reason. Constructed to explicate some dot point in a curriculum design, the lesson may succeed admirably, but if the dot point was of no apparent significance in the larger picture of science as interpreter of the world, the excitement will be missing.

I wrote the word 'apparent' because curriculum designers mostly have a notion of important ideas that produce the intellectual framework for an area of science (I concede: 'mostly'; some items in these designs are just plain daft). One of our tasks is to make that significance actually apparent to students and, where that's not possible, to question the value of that material in the science program. Beyond that we should not lose sight of the larger picture - the appeal of the coherent story provided by science. What we do should have that objective in mind, to be achieved via chalk and talk, investigations, rote work and creative exercises, and, always, the willingness to listen to student questions and engage in discussion.

To construct students' science studies around fulfilling dot points in curriculum documents is like wandering through the countryside and finding details about lots of trees, while never imagining the surrounding forest. We need the details, but we need the big picture as well. That's what science has been and continues to be about at its creative base. If that is missing in school programs kids will turn off science and look elsewhere for explanatory schemes about the world - whether New Age nostrums, religious fundamentalism's, or consumerist ideas about existence. We will all be worse off.



This article was originally published in LabTalk Volume 47, Number 2, 2003.
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Key Learning Areas

Science

Subject Headings

Science teaching