September 24, 2004
"Implicit local skills and understandings are enough"

Christie Davies has some intriguingly provocative views about science teaching. Basically, he's against it.

A knowledge of science we are assured is essential for a proper understanding of the modern world. It is not. Very few English people whether adults or teenagers have any serious knowledge of the sciences but this does not hinder them in any way when it comes to earning, buying and selling, taking care of their children, playing elaborate games on their computers, tinkering with their car engines, giving up smoking or choosing between one fool and another at election time. It would not assist them in any way to understand the properties of silicon or carbon monoxide or lead tetra-ethyl or serotonin or the nature of thermodynamics or electro-magnetic fields, even though these underlie their activities. Implicit local skills and understandings are enough. The English are competent in their ignorance. Those who have studied national curriculum science are if anything more ignorant but also more competent than their elders. They have a purely nominal knowledge of science like that conveyed by a glossy encyclopaedia or human interest science documentary film from which all difficult thinking have been carefully excluded. It is lowest common denominator science learned by rote, Gradgrind's dream. It is a worthless piece of paper on a par with a Weimar thousand mark note. For those who can not even manage 'nat cur sci' there is tendentious environmental science and for the great uncertificated majority complete incomprehension – National curriculum one, enlightenment nil, sullen resentment considerable.

Personally, I think children should be allowed to learn what they want, how they want. Anything gets tedious if other people are telling you what to study and how to study it.

If teenagers were rewarded for being useful, and if science really is as useful as is so widely assumed, then plenty of children would learn science, and learn it well, of their own free will. And many more would learn it for the sheer fun of it. And Christie Davies is right that much science teaching all too often drains the fun out of it, and that more recent science teaching also empties the exercise of any great value.

But what if Britain needs lots of scientists, and we don't have them? The answer, says Davies, is immigration. Foreigners have always done the boring and unwelcome British jobs. Hah!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:53 AM
Category: Science