Malcolm Carr, from Waikato University’s Centre For Science, Mathematics & Technology Education Research, talks to Annette Taylor about the nature of science education and the new science curriculum following his address at this years’ conference.
The whole thrust of the science curriculum is to help students to use their developing scientific knowledge, skills and attitudes to make better sense of their world. This frequently involves challenging their prior, often instinctive, ideas.
This is a vital, but sometimes misunderstood, feature of the new science curriculum. The reason why the new curriculum proposes real world contexts to explore, the development of the notion of fair testing, and significant exploration of the nature of science and technology is that these all contribute to getting these ideas out and working, and to their review and development.
In very simple terms, we could describe some science education approaches as: sit down, you’ve got nothing in your heads, we’ll tell you all the right ideas, learn them, and everything will be fine. What actually appears to happen in that process is that a lot of these prior ideas survive unchallenged and get in the way of understanding.
So the challenge to the view that learning science is acquiring a whole lot of these facts and exactly reproducing them comes from an international understanding about the way students’ ideas can be very resistant to change. A common misunderstanding of an alternative approach which seeks learners’ understandings and works from them is that their ideas are somehow therefore accorded equal worth to those of scientists. On the contrary, while it is important to realise the prior ideas of learners — to value them and try to understand them — this is to provide the basis for challenging them because there are some better ideas which the learners are encouraged to understand and accept.
In my contribution to the conference, I suggested that science educators need to help students understand that there are some rules that scientists use in developing their explanations and that these are worth thinking carefully about. The rules that I suggested we place high value on are that the explanation should be tested against experience — which brings in the whole tangled philosophical description of reality. Does it exist out there, is it objective, is it subjective and so on.
As far as science education is concerned, that philosophical discourse which people get into violently opposed camps over is almost irrelevant.
If you say to kids: “You’ve got this idea. Can we set up a fair test of it, and what do you make of what happens?”, you just have to ascribe a reality to the physical world and use it as the arbiter. This is why the the new science curriculum talks a lot about using fair tests to explore ideas.
This procedure of changing prior ideas is complicated. I’ve spent a number of years with classroom-based research and I wouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of getting kids to change some pretty fixed ideas that they have, because often the scientists’ explanation is a bit difficult for them to understand or it does not connect well with their world of experience. For example, it’s difficult to persuade young learners that something will continue at a constant speed without a force acting on it, because this does not fit their everyday world. The concepts of heat, of gravity and of energy which learners bring to the classroom are often rich and amazing.
Science education is then a matter of quite subtle and complex interaction with learners’ ideas, helping them to develop explanations that serve well against their experience and to connect up these explanations into coherent knowledge.
In this context we should recognise that in a lot of areas of science, we in some ways idealise the world, downplaying real world complexities and inventing our explanations on that basis. The learners’ real world lacks this simplicity.
Other rules of the game put high value on the explanation being elegant, universal, and interconnected.
As far as being elegant, throughout the history of science people have been pleased when explanations are aesthetically satisfying. Ideas such as the Sun being the centre of the solar system and material substances being made of a limited number of atoms, replaced more complicated theories, in part because of their elegance and simplicity.
The universal aspect is very interesting. I recognise the power of many ideas in science which are accepted in many cultures. We do not need to reinvent mechanics for different environments. This is not to arrogate science a “closed shop” on explanations. There is a exciting discourse at the moment about the validity of other explanations of the world.
The Aboriginal culture in Australia had an understanding of the environment, and human interaction with it, which deserves serious consideration. The Aborigines were puzzled at the way the arriving white people used the environment, often seriously damaging areas which had been productive for centuries. So the universal aspect should incorporate other perspectives, if they make a valid contribution to our understanding of the world.
I’m uncomfortable with the sequence “Is there a Maori science? No, there isn’t, there’s only science.” If there are Maori understandings of the way the world operates, that tell us more about the world, as universal descriptions of the world, then science should find a way to incorporate them.
The last aspect is interconnectedness. A group of people who call themselves skeptics should be interested to pursue this, since challenges to scientific understanding often ignore the value and strength of the interconnectedness of science.
Consider the debate about creationism versus evolutionism. If a creationist may highlight a “missing link” or an unexplained detail, and then suggest that the Theory of Evolution falls down, there is a misunderstanding here of the interconnectedness of evolutionary explanations. A single challenge may highlight areas which remain to be explored further rather than be a crucial test. Unless a better, more elegant, universal and interconnected proposition is provided, science tends to “repair and fill in” ideas rather than discard them.
In this context it is valuable to remember that science hasn’t explained everything, there remain huge areas to be considered and make up good ideas about. This notion of science as an exciting set of ideas to explore and develop is embedded in the new science curricula.