Faith and Wisdom in Science – the blog did take a summer break. But other things happened. In particular I had the opportunity to write (at 24 hours notice) an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper in the UK (published August 14th) on the importance of children experiencing open-ended experimental science while at school. There is growing evidence that this is enormously beneficial to core science learning, but, as readers of Faith and Wisdom in Science will know, it also touches on a deeply theological nerve. Becoming reconciled with nature means working with it and observing. This is something that everyone can experience and enjoy.
The Guardian article as printed is here (it also made the weekly printed Guardian International, to which we have subscribed for years – I was delighted!). But I thought that the full original drafted version, before editor’s cuts, might be interesting to post. So that follows. The most important thing is that Job made the final cut!
Science is not just the preserve of stereotypical brainy boffins you see on TV. Speaking to the Times yesterday, head of the British Science Association Katherine Mathieson, said this public image was not helpful and that she’d prefer to “see a few years of genuine open-ended research by pupils, rather than fiddling around with beakers”. She also worries that science is not a topic of common conversation. Rightly so – if we can get our minds around Premier League strategy then complexity is not the issue.’
Mathieson is right to raise concerns. The ability of people to understand the world they live in increasingly depends on their understanding of scientific ideas. Science allows us to learn reliably about nature – if an experimental result does not support a specific idea, then the idea has to be rejected or modified and then tested again. For most people such understanding by imagination and experimentation comes through education. Great teachers are the driving force behind the UK’s position as a global scientific powerhouse.
However, overly-tight accountability measures, rapidly changing curricula and burdensome pupil progress monitoring are just some of the enormous pressures on schools that impede creating an environment in which tomorrow’s scientists can learn and grow. Teachers often have to carry out experiments in their own time and beyond the curriculum by joining schemes like our Partnership Grants.
In 2013, a report published by SCORE found that a worrying number of primary students were not experiencing a complete science education due to a lack of resources for practical work, with the average school having only 46% of the equipment needed. The UK is failing to create a scientifically informed society that can confidently hold science properly to account by engaging, enjoying and, yes, criticising it.
Children learn about music by trying their hand at composing a song or joining a jazz trio or string quartet. Others take GCSE Art, where we expect them to try out sketching and use watercolours, mixed-media or creative photography to learn about the subject. Even the most doting relative does not expect these creations to end up in a museum or concert hall, but what they teach our children about the artistic process is essential.
Science should be treated the same way. Humans have always been curious about the natural world and the stuff that makes it up. In the Book of Job, an ancient poem asks why the stars of the Pleiades are bound together, while those of Orion are scattered. Centuries before we formalised the scientific method, we had thoughtful and playful experiments with light, glass and water as well as astonishingly careful observations of the stars. People dreamed up imaginative theories of what might be going on up in rainbows and down inside liquids and solids. It wasn’t always right, but even now science can be a messy business on the path to truth. Why should things be different in 2017?
The Royal Society emphasises ‘experimental’ over ‘practical’ science, where curiosity should go beyond following a simple recipe and people should simply try something – a thoughtful way of looking for answers. We need to reverse recent trends and increase the amount of time and money invested in experimental and problem-solving work in science and mathematics education through access to adequately resourced laboratories and well-trained teachers. To support this activity in primary schools, Brian Cox, the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science, presents a series of video resources to increase teachers’ confidence with experimental science and relate the experiments to the real world. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLg7f-TkW11iU11yatk_TcbA2tGH_WLe8d
Before you reach out for your Rousseaus to bash me over the head with, I want to reassure you that experimental science in education complements rather than replaces the learning of core scientific understanding. Sir John Holman found that investigative science improved attainment in core science exams, with greater effect for pupils in less privileged areas. There are other signs of new growth – the new Institute for Research in Schools is right now realising Mathieson’s vision of ‘genuine open-ended research by pupils’.
We currently have many examples of good practice at primary and secondary schools and colleges across the UK. Investing in experimental science in all our schools to help future generations make better sense of the world around them means that one day we will have confident opinions on scientific issues like we do on technical matters like Premier League team strategies.