Friday, 9 November 2018

Keeping Science Teaching Alive

I recently read an article on science teaching in the DomPost and was compelled to comment via a letter to the editor. However, on submitting my long-winded response, I saw one of the key criteria of acceptance was the word limit of 200 words! I didn't have the time nor the wit to crunch down my thoughts so here it is as a blog post. I hope you enjoy.

Dear Editor
I enjoyed reading Dave Armstrong's piece in Tuesday's (30/10/18) DomPost entitled, 'Science shouldn't be a 'nice to have' in schools'. Part of me winced though as putting science experts into schools is not the ‘silver bullet’ answer. Science learning does not stand alone and should not be siloed as historically happened in many schools.

Yes, we do need innovative scientists to contribute to our economy and help solve the many significant problems the world faces. However in reality best practice suggests teachers need to take an inter-disciplinary approach or an integrated curriculum view where all these subjects are linked together in a meaningful way.

The power of combining and integrating subject matter was promoted by one of the world’s greatest thinkers, Albert Einstein.

He said,  “For as long as I can remember — and certainly long before I had the term for it — I’ve believed that creativity is combinatorial: Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something “new.” From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our “own”“original” ideas. The notion, of course, is not new — some of history’s greatest minds across art, science, poetry, and cinema have articulated it, directly or indirectly, in one form or another.” (1)

Capturing the love and passion for science and related subjects (STEAM) needs to start with our new entrants at school. STEAM promoting the core dispositions such as curiosity, collaboration and creativity traverses all that we are and do as humans. Children love getting their hands and minds into these fascinating subjects and they link so well with other curriculum areas as well. It is a way of thinking, a way of viewing the world and something that you do, not something that you learn from a computer or an expert. Of course, it is great when an expert 'gets' this pedagogy and can use his or her expertise to facilitate new learning. However, you don’t need to be an ‘expert’ to facilitate powerful science engagement at the primary school level. You do need to be passionate and willing to do the ‘yards’ with preparation and provocation.

Sir Ken Robinson has got it right when he said, “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mined the earth for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t service. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children. We make too much of a difference between science and art. It’s often assumed that to be a teacher you just need a good degree in whatever it is you are being paid to teach, but it’s simply not true, it was never true. A great teacher obviously knows their material, the real skill is engaging people in the material and “firing up their imaginations”. (2)

I asked a research scientist if he were to give anyone advice on how to inspire science in primary age children, what would he say? He said, “Most of all we need passionate teachers and promoting curiosity in children is the key. Kindle the scientific spirit by asking why and how. The details of figuring things out (the mathematics for example) are crucial, but if you don't have the context and the motivation any learning can seem very dry. 

I like what George Wald said, ‘When it (science) is going well, it is like a quiet conversation with Nature.’(3)

To me this is saying that in doing science, you get to ask questions about the way that things are, and get answers from nature! If you are patient, you can gain an understanding that is much deeper, richer and more complex than the way things seem superficially. Part of having the conversation, is knowing the language (the things that we learn at school and beyond), but the point of learning the language is to use to gain understanding, to be able to conduct your quiet conversation with nature.”

Einstein said ‘look deep into nature and you will understand everything’. This is great advice and I support Dave Armstrong’s fundamental motivation which is to get more science into schools but let’s not see science as a laboratory full of experts and test tubes. It is not about experts and buildings.

Warren Owen

Da Vinchi drawing: photo ref:

 Bird and plane painting --Oliver Cass