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Child's play

June 22, 2005 By Henry Gee This article courtesy of Nature News.

More than half of Britain's teens find science lessons dull. Henry Gee thinks they should simply get out more.

Science is "boring, confusing or difficult", say 51% of teenagers in a recent survey, and such feelings get worse as students progress through school.

Cue much self-indulgent hand-wringing from concerned chatterati, many of whom are bound to miss the point. It isn't just that science teachers aren't throwing themselves into the curriculum with enough energy. It goes deeper than that. The way that science is currently taught is upside-down: children are expected to understand the abstract fundamentals of science before they have experienced its phenomena for themselves.

How shall we correct this? Let the children lead.

Rather than learn about some beardy old geezer called Darwin, children should be taken out into the woods to watch the birds and the bees.
Long before they start school, children exercise a natural curiosity honed by firsthand contact with the real world, even if it is just playing in the mud and coming home with bruised knees. This contact with real life is the root of scientific investigation.

However, many modern parents live in a media-fuelled climate of fear, and prefer to let their charges watch television rather than go outside. Even when they do venture out, it's in an armour-plated sports utility vehicle. These children have no experiences other than those manufactured by adults. Any latent creativity or imagination is sucked out of them. It is therefore no wonder that they find science boring: never having engaged with the real world in any meaningful way, they cannot bring their own experiences to bear on what is being taught.

Rather than offering some escape from this enforced virtual reality, school curricula only deepen the disengagement. Because of regimented over-protection, students are unable to experience many of the things I found most formative as a young scientist: field trips, dissecting real animals and generally making a lot of stinks, explosions and mess. Not nearly so much of this happens now, thanks to an obsession with 'health and safety'.

Learning for life

One thing seems absolutely clear from the survey, which was done by OCR, a UK school exam board based in Cambridge. Namely, if student engagement is any measure, the academic, formal lab sessions and rote-learning characteristic of school science are a failure.

Rather than dressing reluctant pupils in white coats and pandering to the fiction that they all have the potential to be professional scientists when they grow up, science should be taught in a way that engages with the kinds of lives that most people will lead when they leave school.

So, rather than learning about the principles of electricity and a lot of dead guys like Faraday and Davy, younger children and teenagers should be taught how to wire up plugs and understand practical electrical maintenance. Rather than learning about some beardy old geezer called Darwin and that old fart Mendel and his peas, children should be taken to the woods to watch the birds and the bees, and to gardens to grow things.

Then we could focus resources on seasoned teenagers who have shown real flair for the subject. After all, why are we trying to teach science as if it were a profession from day one? We don't teach lawyers or bankers like that. If we did, and expected 16-year-olds to handle jurisprudence, tort and junk-bond markets, I'd bet that 51% of them would be as bored with crime and money as they say they are with science.

Science is a concept learned from one's own explorations of the world, from the ground up. Because of its very nature, trying to teach science in a formal, top-down way will achieve limited success. As teachers and parents, we should cultivate a lighter touch. Let the children get out more. Let them find things out for themselves. Then they might actually want to learn more.

And when they do, we should be there to guide and instruct, not to lecture and dominate.


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