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September 23, 2004

Why should children have to learn science?

Posted by Christie Davies

Science we are told is something that every child should and must study. Most children hate it, fail to master it and never use it or think about it again after they have left school. It is forced upon unwilling and inept pupils because it is supposed to be good for them. Science is the twenty-first century's version of Latin.

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.

Faced with science even pupils who sparkle during History or English retreat into dull carelessness. A youngster may have something, if only an inane opinion, to contribute in these subjects but science is text book truth. Who can contradict the laws of motion or challenge the coloured beads that make up a molecule of glycol? Worse still there is the tedium of lab work with its twiddling of pipettes, peering down polarizing microscopes or at warped mirrors and dissecting of frogs. Worst of all are field trips in search of the lesser spotted flitter mouse, the fragments of a Silurian trilobite or some vile sludge from a long dead moraine. Both lab work and field trips are an expensive and useless fetish whose main purpose is to force out of existence small private academies that can not afford the capital outlays and high premium insurance policies they require.

Elementary science can be taught more cheaply and effectively using videos shown to small classes, but that is heresy to the big science, big comprehensive minds that control the curriculum. For most pupils field trips are the equivalent of day trips to Bologne pour le shoplifting et le questioning par les flics, a pointless and unappreciated frill that pushes up unit costs and produces no extra revenue.

There are those with a gift for science or a capacity for enduring boredom who will go on to become what the Russians call specialists but they will not profit from it. We are always being told that there is a shortage of scientists yet their price remains low. Perseverance leads to poverty. Some scientists become rich from their discoveries but most of them find that they are less well rewarded than the patent lawyers who corral their inventions or the marketing executives who entice the customers into using them. Perhaps that is as it should be. In the Soviet Union where great emphasis was placed on science education scientists were respected and relatively well paid and the economy collapsed from an inability to innovate. For most scientists there is no money in science nor in big team science is there any fame. Who wants to be third named author out of seventeen in a specialist journal that few people read let alone understand? What social standing does the phrase 'northern chemist' convey? A tedious life and an ill-paid one, Pennyfeather.

It is hardly surprising that most qualified scientists soon get out of science. Those with good science A-Levels rush into medicine though it is difficult to imagine a worse educational preparation for becoming a G.P. who has to listen to patients. Very few of them take degrees in science. Science graduates leave to use their generic training in mathematics, statistics or computing in banking, insurance, risk assessment, or dealing in futures ; anything to find a task more profitable and less boring than science. Even in the civil service, scientists are a lower caste, paid less, gongless, disesteemed by the decision making mandarins. No wonder Dr Kelly , the sudra, was made the scapegoat .

Nonetheless we need scientists, not just to keep the entire technical system ticking over but to match and incorporate the innovations of our competitors. Where are we to get them from, now that we feel unable to inflict science on our own unwilling children? Immigration is the answer. We have always imported foreigners to perform the tasks our own children have rejected - German mercenaries in the eighteenth century, Irish navvies building in turn Britain's canals, railways and motorways, Pakistanis willing to do shift work in the cotton industry and the illegal immigrants who now provide cheap labour in catering and cleaning. By long tradition anything disagreeable in Britain is always done by foreigners, so why not science? For talented scientists in poor countries or ones where there is little personal freedom the tedious work done in a laboratory in free and wealthy England is an escape to paradise. All they need are scholarships, contracts and visas. I look forward to having 100,000 new Hindu and Chinese neighbours.

Dr Christie Davies is a graduate of Cambridge University who has taught in universities in Britain and Australia and been a younger scientists' visiting scholar in India and a visiting lecturer in America. During a misspent youth he obtained several science and mathematics A-levels and an S-level at grade A when it meant A and a state scholarship in science.


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I disagree with this evaluation. All the points raised are related to the specific way in which science is being taught at the moment. I would argue, however, that the solution is not to get rid of the teaching of science, but to reform it in order to impart an appreciation of the scientific method, of logic, of experimental technique, etcetera.

I work in IT, and while I do not deal with the "hard science" level of the field (electrons, resistances, etcetera), the scientific method is invaluable in my job in allowing me to reach correct conclusions or define experiments to prove hypotheses. Even people in entirely non-technical fields could benefit from the skepticism that a good scientific background can give, and from the understandint that theories are just that, not facts.

Given some more logical analysis of problems, the world would be a better place, from the microscopic to the macroscopic level.

Posted by: Dominic at September 24, 2004 12:23 PM
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You claim that science is not needed to understand the world, and then go on to 'prove' that claim by showing that people can live in the world without knowing science. These are completely different questions. Donkeys and cows and cabbages can also live in the world without understanding it - I have never heard a scientist claim that organisms need to understand the world to live in it.

I am more grateful that I can express, to the teachers and broadcasters who introduced me to science as a child - not to the modern Nat Curr stuff but the real rigorous tough stuff. It was not meant to be useful - it was meant to allow us pupils to see a little of what is one of the greatest cultural and intellectual achievements of the human race: an attempt at actual Understanding of the world.

People can live without music and art too - is this an argument for removing them from school as well? Science is an essential part of education not for any Gradgrind utilitarian reasons, but because it, like art and music and mathemtaics, is one of the most glorious expressions of the creative human sprit; it is also the only honest way to answer those deep questions of all children, about who they are and where they came from.

Posted by: Jamie Davies at September 24, 2004 02:06 PM
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Some of what you say is true, undoubtedly. I am a science graduate, a PhD in fact, using my skills in teaching - but in part in teaching science.

One of the other parts of my job is learner support to struggling students. Not science students per se, students in stereotypically unchallenging subjects like Hairdressing and Beauty. The amount of anatomy and physiology they must learn is challenging to them although it came as a delightful refresher to me. The amount of microbiology they must learn, and correctly, to pass their RIPH exams so they can work in a salon is startling. Explaining the difference between a temporary style (held by hydrogen bonding in beta-keratin) and permanent styling (disulphide bridges of course) may not require an in-depth knowledge of chemistry and biochemisty, but hairdressers are expected to know this, and understand it well enough to explain it too.

Yes in other respects they might get by with local knowledge and a superficial gloss, but in some places most people have to know more science than one would at first glance expect.

Science, or at least the scientific method also teaches a mode of thought, a way of looking at the world. It might be argued successfully that there are better ways to teach it, but the combination of that way of looking at the world AND that gloss of knowledge for all that can go on to become deeper for some - that is probably an unbeatable combination.

The arguement that most of us don't use our knowledge can be applied to all school subjects after all. When was the last time you criticised a piece of poetry? Read music? Spoke French? Studied history? Maybe you resent the time spent doing those things, but they all have their place in the education of the nation.

Posted by: Lewis Pike at September 24, 2004 02:20 PM
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Well done Christie, you gave us all the biggest laugh of the day. I can only assume you're simply playing devil's advocate here, but I could take issue with almost everything you say right from "Most children hate it" onwards...and perhaps even the first sentence! Have you surveyed children of their opinions of science? I doubt it...anyway, I'll leave it to others with time to spare to provide a more detailed response.

Thanks again for posting!

David "who admittedly hasn't twiddled a pipette for fifteen years" Bradley
science news online; View as XML; add to My Yahoo!

Posted by: David Bradley at September 24, 2004 02:52 PM
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It seems to me that Christie Davis makes some good points but following through his logic would mean giving up some things our society hold
precious.

What about the children who sparkle during science but retreat into dull carelessness when faced with History or English? Many students leave school confused about which countries fought the second world war and the plot of MacBeth 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."

Why do our children need to spend so much time at school anyway? Perhaps only the very brightest pupils should stay on beyond 14. The slackers would be expected to work to help support their younger brothers and sisters. This would reduce the education budget considerably and perhaps encourage children work harder for the priviledge of their education.

It seems to comes down to a pretty fundamental question. What does our society think childhood, adolescence and education is for?

Posted by: Lesley Newson at September 24, 2004 03:49 PM
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This article strikes me as being in the same vein as Jonathan Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’, though somewhat less radical in its suggestions. Nevertheless, it lays bare our dire situation, and I will comment on certain specific points.

I have seen ‘National Curriculum Science’ at work at primary level. The most prominent effect of the Nat. Cur. has been the extensive paperwork forced on teachers. It may be that a Conservative government introduced it to bring to heel those teachers who were peddling “Sixties” claptrap in the classroom, but the effect has been to antagonize even the moderate and sensible members of an influential profession. A long-term vote loser if ever there was one, unless they recant.

The second effect has been the ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching. This fits in with the spirit of the age, which considers differences between people to be anathema. For this reason, the distinction between polytechnics and universities was wiped out, on paper at least, and both forms of education have suffered.

The third effect is one that has largely escaped notice. Even before the Nat. Cur. was introduced, I observed how secondary geography teaching was going. The pupils were being fed a cut-down version of university geography, and their set work included questions about how EEC subsidies would affect land use. This view of young minds as being simpler versions of older minds is what Owen Barfield called ‘logomorphism’, and is a false view. (Better to have taught them old-fashioned geography, so they would know the difference between Iraq and Iran, and even be able to answer that critical question on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”.) Similarly, I have seen Nat. Cur. primary science being taught (where most of the pupils were from a ‘deprived area’) as if they were trying to turn them into ‘little scientists’. It looked good, but children’s minds simply don’t work that way.

As to the suggestion that we should import scientists, that is what we are doing already. My worry is that ‘Sir Humphrey’ will read this and think “what a good idea”, and axe science education altogether. Then we will have to import not only scientists, but also those people with science and mathematics degrees who go into the City, the Civil Service, and other non-scientific professions where their numeracy and skills are needed. Then what to do with all those useless and surplus Brits? Do I hear a ‘Modest Proposal’ coming from over there in the corner?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 24, 2004 08:24 PM
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I would hope you include social sciences.

Posted by: skipjack at September 25, 2004 04:45 AM
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The problem with your commentary is that you selectively define the word "science" so myopically that your "thesis" actually becomes an axiom. "Science is that which people find boring." Conclusion: "People find science boring."

I'm a volunteer docent at the Bronx Zoo (last time I checked, zoology was a science), and I can assure you that children (and adults too) love that branch of science (and real science, too, not just "look at the funny monkey" -- they really do learn and are truly curious and inquisitive about biology, taxonomy, evolution, etc.).

I can't speak for U.K. television, but in the U.S. we have gone from one science outlet (PBS) to a wide variety (Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, National Geographic Channel, and many others). And who doesn't remember "Cosmos" or "A Brief History of Time"?

Most people like science, in fact most people love science. The problem is generally with science instruction, not science itself. In that sense some of what you ssay is accurate, but the answer lies in repackaging the curriculum, not disposing of it wholesale.

Posted by: KipEsquire at September 25, 2004 03:49 PM
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How can you say that science is poor preparation for being a G.P. I am a medical student right now, and I can assure you that we have to learn cartloads of science. Anyone who couldn't learn science would fail out or if they somehow passed, they woud be truly incompetent, no matter how good a bedside mannery they had.

Posted by: Michael Loewinger at September 25, 2004 09:13 PM
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Right, we don't need a knowledge of science to function in the modern world. Just like we don't need knowledge about the internal workings of a car to drive it. Nor do we need to understand the workings of democracy or capitalism to partake in them. However, if one wants to make a rational judgment about the workings of the world, it helps to understand science.

Posted by: David Airth at September 26, 2004 08:51 PM
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One can only concur that science will be done by others if we do not do it ourselves, and now that not even the colonies, foreigners created by Britain to do the dirty work the British didn't want to do, are producing the drudges necessary to maintain the wheels of modern society, Britain will indeed have to import them from less culturally-congenial nations. But one day, they may not want to come, instead going to Singapore, Japan, or even (gasp) staying at home in China, India, Pakistan or Vietnam. Who will the British choose then, I wonder? [Don't look at us Australians - we go to the US now.]

Posted by: John Wilkins at September 26, 2004 11:58 PM
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Clearly what Christie Davies needs is a few nanoseconds exposure to a laser capable of emitting a beam of pure anti-matter as punishment for his heretical humour. That would teach him a lesson for taking the Mickey out of the teaching of science at secondary schools.

Not that there’d be much of him left after the brief encounter with anti-matter, though …

Great posting, anyhow. I’ve just forked out £30 for his recent book entitled ‘The strange death of moral Britain’ on the strength of it.

Posted by: Cathal Copeland at September 27, 2004 08:12 PM
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Congratulations. You're the first person who is not a crazed religious fanatic I've ever seen that wants to undermine the teaching of science in schools.

You make just as much sense as the people who merely want to replace biology with "Creation 'Science'".

I hope your peers see this and the reaction by them makes it impossible for you to continue to teach science anywhere to anybody. If you don't think that the teaching of science is of value, you should find something more useful by your standards to spend your time on.

Perhaps one of the US Religious Right organizations might be able to find you a job.

Posted by: A. Lizard at October 4, 2004 01:24 AM
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I don't really have much to say about Mr. Christie's article except to say that it's brilliant. I worry, however, about most of the people who have left rebuttals. It's astonishing how many people will read an obviously satiric article and take it literally.
Or, to put it another way, HE'S JUST KIDDING, FOLKS!!

Posted by: Michael Bledsoe at October 10, 2004 11:38 AM
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I disagree with the author's views on the status of scientists in the society. Those who are poor in the scientific community are poor becuse they lack human relations with the society. Utility of science depends on the way they learnt. If they poorlly learn no body will help them to utilise in the future. Indians are good in science because of the environment in the educational system. They are ready to work in any ports of the world.

Posted by: Ranganath at June 28, 2006 02:41 PM
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This item continues to inflame! Amazing really, given that it can only have been written with that intent in mind...as I mentioned in my earlier post. Still, it's getting people thinking about why the hold science dear.

Posted by: David Bradley Science Writer at August 19, 2006 11:32 AM
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I was really shocked when I read this article. I can't beleive that someone can really thinks that Science is not an essential part of education. I am an elementary Science teacher and from my experience I can tell you that Kids like Science the most, and about not needing it......well everything around you is SCIENCE......Take a looK.....
I liked Jamie Davies' answer about art and music.... So What to teach then????? I will not add anything more, for now; just be sure that whatever you do you will face SCIENCE at a point in your life.....

Posted by: Mauro Hobeika at September 14, 2006 11:52 AM
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Dear Mr Davies, Your concept of science is obviously built up from your life experiences. It does seem to reflect how sad those experiences have been for you. I have taught science now for over thirty years; to primary children and university grauduates and undergraduates. My observations of primary children learning science leads me to believe that excitement and enthusiasm are better descriptions than boredom. The other day I visited the dentist and I am really glad that a boring, underpaid scientist somewhere had the common sense to work on loacal anaesthetic injections. My understanding of the chemical involved, the nerves in the jaw and the blocked pain pathway were minimal but my thanks to science and the unknown researcher could not be understated. Science is all about observation. Just observe everyday life and science will continually give you a gentle reminding that it is there if you look for it. Peter Barron

Posted by: Peter Barron at February 1, 2007 10:27 AM
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The scientific method is used everyday, determining where you put something, deciding what decision you should make. Everyone everyday is using the scientific method and I think it's good that people understand how their using this method. This is not just a waste of time to learn about science

Posted by: Bill Murphy at September 23, 2007 06:58 PM
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I would love to see the Authors credentials. Other than being a professional fool, this person doesn't understand that science makes the world go 'round'! As a professional scientist and science educator for almost four decades, it is obvious that the author needs some science education.

Posted by: Steve at June 9, 2010 05:11 PM
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As the author I am amazed at how many people took this ironical piece seriously and even did so after a few wiser commenters had pointed out it was humorous.
I have written about such phenomena in many books including
The Mirth of Nations 2002 and Jokes and Targets 2011
My approach tries to be scientific and is influenced by Karl Popper and John Stuart Mill. I have nothing but contempt for those secular post-modern progressives who reject the primacy of science and say that we shoud not 'privelege' it.

Posted by: Christie Davies at September 3, 2011 03:29 PM
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I feel it is bad to look at issues from one side, the author of this document has just given the negative side of science. It could been better if they had an argumentative view that could also highlight the strengths of science.

Posted by: Umar Chapola at April 25, 2012 10:44 AM
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i have always disliked science since elementary school, and although it bores me to death, whenever the subject is brought up, i pretend to be mildly interested. in elementary school, the reason i hate science so much may be because of a horrible experience with the science teacher. we did not get along at all, and i was not the only student that disliked her, partly because she always made us write a hypothesis, and a correct data chart, with a two page long conclusion for each experiment. as i said to my best friend the next year, ¨i thought classes were supposed to get more challenging, not get easier.¨
Christie, i had almost no idea what you were saying throughout your post, but what i understood, i completely agreed with. in elementary, students should not be forced to take science as a class. maybe as an extracurricular activity?

Posted by: Day Zee at January 8, 2013 07:34 AM
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For the record, all you teachers, it just so happens that I visit my local school almost every day, not as a teacher, not as a volunteer, but as a student. I have been told by many teachers AND peers that I am extraordinarily intelligent and excel in all of my studies. However, in 4th period, Science, everybody is basically talking to each other, and those are the ones that frankly don't give a care. Then there's the ones who question the things we learn, then waste it by talking about nothing in general. Last, there's the students like me and my best friend, who try to concentrate and learn, but only so that we don't fail.
If you look above and get all'scientific' about it :), by the data you can analyze that all 3 groups of students don't seem to give a care about science.
What I'm curious is, if kids care so much about this precious science, if you were to make it so science was NOT a required study, how many students would join of their own will?

Posted by: Day Zee at January 8, 2013 07:53 AM
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