Friday, 18 February 2011

Why is science teaching so variable?

Yesterday I visited North London Collegiate School to give a talk. It's my third visit to the school and it's always a pleasure - apart from being a lovely venue, the students (and staff) are always enthusiastic, interested and supportive.  In a conversation about teaching over lunch, I started wondering why it is that here there were so many students with a real passion for science, yet at many schools this isn't the case. After all, most 10 year-olds are excited by science. Where do we go wrong?

Of course NLCS isn't a typical school - it's a very good private school. Of itself, the 'private' part isn't too significant. I've been to state schools where there is a similar enthusiasm, and to private schools with little interest. Now, some of the drop off in interest in science (or the ability to sustain it) as students get older is a result of peer pressure - and though there have been doubts expressed about socialization issues with single sex schools I think it's fair to say that there is less of the peer pressure that says 'Don't seem interested in academic subjects!' in single sex schools like NLCS. But the two factors I'm most interested in are quality of teaching and content of the course, both of which can engage or turn students off.

As far as teaching goes, we need teachers who know their subject - I am worried by how many schools might have a biologist teaching physics, for instance - love their subject, and have a passion to communicate it. This is a difficult combination, I admit. Many scientists aren't great communicators. We're asking a lot in a science teacher, because we want them to understand and be excited about the science and put it across well. But I don't think this is impossible, provided we see teaching science as a fundamentally important role (and, yes, reward it appropriately). I know there is a shortage of science teachers as it is - but all that says is we need to put even more effort and money into the next generation. No money to spare in these hard times? So running some games in 2012 is more important than science education and the future technological fitness of the country? Politicians can find the money if they have the will. It's just that few of them understand science at the moment. (We should have compulsory science classes for MPs - but that's a different post.)

Then there's the content of the teaching. The big difference between academic science and popular science is that popular science is more built around stories and people. Yes, you get the science, but you get some context - and though I think it has improved since my day, science courses could probably still do with more context along the way. The other powerful tool popular science communicators have is using the sexy bits of science. In physics, for instance, we drag in relativity and quantum theory and all that good stuff at the drop of a hat. There's very little basic physics that doesn't have a component that really is exciting and mindboggling provided you are up on the 20th century developments - but most science as taught in schools is 19th century science. By bringing in the exciting stuff early - and it's not a problem: I talk about relativity and quantum theory to junior school children - you not only give them science that's closer to the real thing, but give it much more of a wow factor.

I'm not saying it's easy. But it is important. We need more students as engaged as those at NLCS. And that means some fundamental change.

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