Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-375)

RALPH LEVINSON, CLARE MATTERSON, DR JERRY RAVETZ AND DR JON TURNEY

MONDAY 15 APRIL 2002

Chairman

  360. Creationism perhaps?
  (Mr Levinson) Indeed. I think that is perhaps all the more reason to be teaching about evolutionary theory, for children to understand how that has emerged and what are the debates and why evolution is a scientific theory that is so important in being able to combat aspects of creationism. Those are certainly two elements which I think would be very important in something about scientific literacy at key stage 4. Of course that would also include aspects of understanding scientific language and scientific terminology which is so much a part of both the curriculum but also the media.
  (Ms Matterson) I would agree with all of that and I think there is something there as well on aspects about using modern issues, contemporary issues, such as the mobile phone and the way in which, say, radiation from a mobile phone actually is affecting young people today. I think that can very much switch them on to science and immediately raise the issue that I was talking about earlier about risk, about probability, but is also pertinent to one's own life and what one is doing every day as a young person in the classroom, so in terms of trying to think about those issues. This is less about content and perhaps more about the way in which things are taught. One of the things we have said in some of our reports and we try to do through some of our activities is using cross-curricular ways by getting the humanities teachers and the science teachers, particularly at, say, key stages 3 and 4, to work together and explore different ways of bringing some of the science literacy to life in ways that young people can engage with and can get switched on to, such as some of the theatre programmes that we have been working with that have been tremendously successful.
  (Dr Ravetz) I think this would represent quite a strong break with tradition because, as Mr Levinson's research has shown, science teachers are generally reluctant to get involved in debates. The whole tradition of science is really that science is beyond debate and clearly this could be dangerous ground in all sorts of ways and doubtless many mistakes would be made. However, I think there is a pedagogical point to be made here because if you are just teaching cultural aspects of science it is very easy to pare the science down to the minimum and do all the talking about science and leave the science out, and the subject then becomes fluffy and loses respect from the scientists. On the other hand, if you are dealing with these issues there will be hard science at the core of them. It may be debated but in order to debate intelligently a participant must be competent to some degree in the technicality itself and so, although there could be a serious price to be paid in teaching through issues, there is a great benefit to be achieved in that the technical mastery of some sorts of science together with skills of analysing science would be fostered.

Dr Iddon

  361. So if the current teachers of science do not feel competent to teach this who should teach it?
  (Mr Levinson) It is an interesting question and I will first of all say that I think there is a real sense in which both English teachers and possibly RE teachers should be involved in it. I say this because certainly English teachers, when I did my research, showed a real keenness and intuition in the way in which they could interpret what the media were saying about science. Similarly, humanities teachers and RE teachers in particular were much better at identifying what the ethical issues were and how they could be discussed. I think there is therefore a way in which one should be looking at some sort of integrated approach. I am aware that there could be problems here because one could almost lose complete depth here, but there are ways in which different teachers could build on the expertise of each other. I certainly think that science teachers should be central to that. On the other hand I do think there is a need for in-service training and professional development of science teachers to help them to tackle these issues more thoroughly and more expertly.
  (Dr Turney) I come back to that through talking about contemporary controversies which, as has been said, I think we do need to bring into the curriculum. To echo what others have already said, we want less product, more process, more attention to the nature of science and the different aspects of the nature of science which come out from looking at contemporary issues as opposed to historical ones. The kinds of uncertainties which people are dealing with in public debate show both the possibilities and the limits of science in ways which are different from established knowledge but they are extraordinarily difficult things to teach. We probably need a lot of support materials, well developed case studies, a focus on the contemporary but not the things that happened this week because teachers would be overwhelmed if they continually tried to bring in the controversy in today's papers, but rather to take an educated view about the kinds of issues which are going to come up in the medium term.

Dr Murrison

  362. The only thing that occurs to me is that the issues do change from year to year, let alone decade to decade. I think what you are saying is that you would like to be introducing students to recurring themes so that you are getting them thinking about the science and to give them the skills for later life. I am a little bit concerned about exactly what we will be introducing students to in schools, and I am afraid that, whilst in broad terms I agree with you, I am not sure that we have any detailed idea about how the curriculum might look. I was wondering if you might shed some light on that.
  (Dr Turney) I am not a curriculum developer but I think there would be two extremes. There would be people who would say that the way to engage interest is to have the immediate issue that is in the papers today. That is certainly what works with adults, if you invite them to participate in a discussion that seems to, if you like, solve the scientific literacy problem. It is not so much that people need to learn a certain amount of science to be prepared to participate in some decision process but that if you invite them in that provides the motivation to pay the entry cost for finding out about the technicalities. As I suggested, you cannot do the immediate contemporary issue all the time but I do not think it is the case that we just do not know what is going to happen next week, next year or in the 20 years after people leave school. I think we can make sound educated guesses about the kinds of issues which people will face over the next ten, 20 or 30 years and what it would mean to think scientifically about them. Clearly there would be difficulties to do with global change, to do with energy supply, to do with the applications of biotechnology in all kinds of realms. There will be clear recurrent features to these debates for the rest of our lives and the rest of school-leavers' lives, I would suggest.

Mr Hoban

  363. I wonder if it is really possible to try to get a curriculum that covers two things at the same time, one being the scientific literacy issues that we have been talking about, but also preparing the ground work for future scientists, those that could go on to do AS and A level science and then at university. Can we actually run two courses at the same time and meet their needs and their normal literacy needs?
  (Mr Levinson) Can I preface that by saying that there are commonalities there. The commonality is a respect for evidence and the use of reason and the relation to relevance. The point that Jon was making is that things do change but there are ways of reading issues which one can possibly transfer from one situation to another. That is how you interpret evidence and how you find out what the core of an argument is. There is a possibility, and I perhaps go out on a limb here, that it may be worth saying that there are two parts of science. There is the science bit in the science curriculum which could be the core curriculum, which is about science, and then there is learning, if you like, the science content which might be more appropriate for future scientists. None the less one could certainly include some elements of substantive science in talking about aspects of, say, controversy or the history of science and so forth. There could be two parts to the curriculum. Perhaps one could be an extended part where specialists would go in and take part in devoting more time to that part of the curriculum.

Mr McWalter

  364. Do you see the history of science as having a very important role here? In my experience for a lot of people who are studying science the last thing that they want to do is to study the history of it. Those are the errors of yesterday. Let us just get on with learning what the truth is as enunciated by what scientists think now.
  (Dr Ravetz) I can speak to that because for quite some time I taught the history of science at Leeds and somehow or other we managed to make an interesting subject. There was always a lot of suspicion from the working scientists that this was irrelevant. On the other hand there is a story to be told and you can also show in science, as in anything else, how the present evolved from the past. However, I would agree with you in this. The history of science is not a panacea for bringing culture to the scientists. We began to see this pretty quickly. It is a worthwhile subject in its own right and indeed I would say that if it were a choice between trying to bring in history and then, if you wished, to throw in some sociology of science, which is quite vigorous now, as curriculum subjects as an alternative to this approach, which I call an issue oriented approach, I think bringing in these subjects would be easier but I do not think it would work now. If I might come to your point, remember that the stream of focused young men and women who really want to get in there and do the science and do not care about society, all that stuff, that stream is getting thinner all the time. I am not an expert in this but if present rates of decrease continue we may be approaching a point where the whole thing starts to implode. You know the crisis in mathematics teaching. I think that is just running ahead of the other subjects. We do not have the luxury of saying that we will carry on the old way and not worry too much about this other stuff. We have very bright young people who are getting bored at the dogmatic and irrelevant quality of the core science curriculum. This is why people like myself really think hard on doing something, however, hazardous, and I would never deny it is hazardous.

  365. But it is not irrelevant or dogmatic, is it, to know the periodic tables? I have a sort of vision here of people being very dogmatic about chemicals in the environment without knowing anything at all about the periodic table. Does that not worry you as well?
  (Dr Ravetz) My point would be that you would have a motivation for learning the periodic table and learning about chemical structure and combination. If there were an issue there (needing great pedagogical skill, obviously) that engaged you and you saw that you had to know something about these substances in order to debate intelligently, of course you would still need a core curriculum. There is no question of that. You cannot do the whole thing on a project basis because that would fall apart.

Mr Hoban

  366. Are you saying then that with regard to the core science curriculum as it is currently taught we should look at the way in which we teach it and teach it through issues rather than starting with the core curriculum and adding issues on after that?
  (Dr Ravetz) Clearly there would have to be some skilled pedagogy done. Yes, there will be a core curriculum which might be very stripped down and then you choose the issues, skilfully, partly by their topical interest and partly by the way that they lead into different core aspects of the relevant science.

  367. How would that requirement for 16-year olds who do science GCSE as part of the compulsory national curriculum translate into AS studies and A levels if someone is going to do a course like that at GCSE and then do a more scientific AS or A level where perhaps they are teaching more pure science and less about issues? How would that transition work? There is already an issue at the moment about how the current science curriculum would achieve that transition.
  (Dr Ravetz) I cannot answer that. It could very well be that the A level curriculum would be moving in the same direction but I really cannot answer that at all.

Dr Murrison

  368. I am a little bit worried about some vocational courses at university—I am thinking in particular about things like dentistry and medicine—which I do think require science as it is currently taught in schools. What would be your view on that, because I suspect that the deans of those schools would say, "We need this and we would not want to `dilute' it by this slightly more ethereal approach to science".
  (Dr Ravetz) Could I leave this to the developers?
  (Mr Levinson) Thanks. I do not think it is necessarily saying that one would dilute the science if one began to teach science from a point at which you are teaching it through a context which children and young people could understand. There seems to be nothing inherently about that which would make science more ethereal, as you say, or, if you like, less concrete. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that you teach science through an interesting and imaginative approach and you can teach as much content there as you can from teaching from a straight content based approach. We would obviously have to look at this because it is very difficult in the way that knowledge is actually used. All I can say is that there is empirical evidence from the Salters A level chemistry course, which is taught through a totally context oriented approach, which has shown that the students who do it that way know no less chemistry than do the students who are taught from a facts first basis. I think it is perfectly possible to teach science imaginatively and for the students to be both more interested in it and actually know as much if not more about it by the end of the course.
  (Ms Matterson) Can I add to that and say two things? From the admittedly limited experience that we have in this area in terms of some of the theatre in education work that we have done, the feedback we get from teachers and increasingly from young people is that when we come at this from the issues side the teachers are saying that those young people, who had no interest in science before, suddenly are going back to the science classroom and asking science teachers lots of questions about the science that they were never asking before because they just did not think it was interesting but suddenly they saw that it was interesting. This is a slightly different point, perhaps slightly off this topic, but on the medical school side we fund a lot of research in the history of medicine and when we did an evaluation of that we gave questionnaires to those medical students who had done an inter-collated degree, ie, had done history of medicine as part of their medical training, and it was an astounding response in the way in which they said that that had had an impact on their ability to be a doctor and bring things to them in their understanding about what being a doctor was about that they had never had in any other parts of their education. There was something very interesting there which could be investigated further.

Dr Iddon

  369. Can I ask how widely Salters is taught? My experience leads me to think (and I might be wrong) that Salters is not a widely accepted course, although a very successful course, as you say, for those who teach it. Have you any evidence to give us on that, how widely it is used?
  (Mr Levinson) I think it is pretty widely used but I am not actually teaching it myself because I am no longer a teacher. However, I certainly did teach it when I was and I can tell you that between the courses I taught which were non-Salters before that and the Salters course, there was no question that the Salters course was much more enthusiastically accepted and, most interestingly, by girls. I cannot emphasize enough the difference it made to girls' interest and motivation in learning science during that course as opposed to a course which was, if you like, much more of the straight science kind. I cannot give you figures for the Salters science course off hand. I do know it is pretty extensive but what proportion of the students are studying it I really could not tell you.
  (Dr Turney) I was going to come back to this question of history and I will try and relate it to the concern about leaving things out. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that all of the science of the 20th century is now the subject of the history of science. The control of nuclear weapons and of weapons of mass destruction is history of science. Silent Spring, the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, the development of the Gaia theory is history of science, so if you think about it in the right way you can teach virtually any scientific topic you care to mention historically.

Mr McWalter

  370. I would like to ask a question on ethical education. I am quoting from Dr Ravetz' submission where he makes science sound as if it is a kind of damaging or authoritarian process really. He says: "By example and exclusion, students absorb the lesson that every real scientific problem has one and only one simple, correct answer." Clearly, if that were the case then things like social relevance and ethical issues would be diametrically opposed methodologically to that. Of course the Wellcome Trust has also said, "almost half of all science teachers interviewed felt that their teaching of science should be value free". How are we going to get people interested in the ethics of science if the methodological presuppositions of science are so much in conflict with the development of a conscience about matters scientific?
  (Dr Ravetz) I feel first of all that that is a bold statement but I would stand by it for the generality. In order to keep this brief I did not go into great excursions but I have always used the teaching of history as a contrast to the teaching of science. History is a disciplined subject, has scholarship and proofs and all the rest of it, and yet the teaching of history, certainly beyond GCSE level, is quite a self-aware instruction, teaching people how to reason, how to manage disagreement, how to evaluate evidence, whereas every now and then I am lecturing to teachers and I will say, "Where do you ever see a science examination which has a question saying, `Critically evaluate'?" You do not; hardly ever. The point then is, we are in a hole. There is a big culture change necessary, especially now, as we see with all of these issues, that we do have value loadings, we do have uncertainties, and scientists are only painfully learning the skills of handling these. On the other hand I feel there is certainly a groundswell now of saying that we have to change the culture somehow. Obviously it will be messy, as these things always are. There may be someone here who would challenge that statement of mine, the dogmatism of science teaching. It is a big problem.
  (Mr Levinson) It is. Rather it is not the methodology of science but the methodology of science teaching which I think is the problem here. I think it comes back to the question of history, that when students stop doing science at the age of 16 they very rarely have any sense that science has changed from competing ideas. I am not saying that it necessarily is up for grabs but there have been controversies over why theories have been accepted and I would argue that many students come out of studying science absolutely unaware that people have been involved in developing these ideas. In other words they have a sense that these things have just emerged as the history of science, not in a hard academic sense, but just in the sense that at one point people did not think that oxygen was involved in burning or did not realise that the earth was at the periphery of the solar system. I think very few students have an idea of people being involved in that and I would say that loses the excitement for them because it becomes less human. I think in some ways there is an argument to say that science teaching has probably got a lot to learn from history teaching in that sense—looking at the evidence and looking at how people interpret the evidence, without in any way affecting the rigour of science, because I still think there is a very important element there, that there is some science which is so well tested that we should not start saying it is all up for grabs all the time. None the less it seems to me that that idea should actually be somewhere in science teaching and too little of it really is.

  371. Central or not?
  (Mr Levinson) I would say it is central to science teaching, although I would say that when you are teaching 11-year olds there are some things you do have to teach them. That does not necessarily conflict with the fact that they can understand that science emerged from somewhere and did not just come down from above.
  (Dr Turney) The other point that occurs to me on this harks back to Ralph's early observation about integration, that we at the moment give the pupils a very odd experience. Presumably if you are in school you experience the curriculum in some ways all of a piece and yet if you go into the science classroom and listen to the teacher you are doing very different things and hearing very different messages from the ones in history. I think it must be very strange for them to be taught in such radically different ways in different subjects in successive hours of the day.

  Chairman: Do you think the second law of thermodynamics would be the same under capitalism as it would be under socialism? Discuss. What do you think? It is an honest question. Only first class students may apply.

Dr Iddon

  372. Okay: we have done a brilliant job of teaching scientific literacy to our students. They have been very enthusiastic, as evidenced by the fact that not one in any lesson went to sleep, so the bottom line is, how do we assess them to see if they have really understood the subject?
  (Ms Matterson) I have to say first of all that I do not think we know the answer but we do know that we need some form of assessment to make it real. I think that once again from science for a connection we look to colleagues in the humanities in English that do have methods of assessing discursive ways of thinking and ways of teaching, be it through essays, be it through presentations, be it through debating skills, and that there are ways one can once again learn and not have to completely re-invent the wheel from other disciplines and other ways of doing things.
  (Dr Ravetz) When I was teaching I was in the Department of Philosophy. You might think philosophy is a very difficult subject to assess, but it turns out it is pretty easy.

Chairman

  373. It is just the individuals who teach it who are awkward.
  (Dr Ravetz) They are the problem.
  (Mr Levinson) It is difficult and I think we do have to encourage students to write discursively and to think discursively. There are different ways in which they can do it, not necessarily just through writing. None the less, I think it is important that the substantive science element is not lost. It has been all too easy, for example, in the general studies course, for students to write about issues without actually presenting any real knowledge of the basic science involved. We will have to look at that carefully and we will have to trial materials and see what kinds of things work best. An emphasis on evidence and an emphasis on argument could be one way forward into looking at ways in which we can assess this appropriately.

Mr McWalter

  374. By essays is your answer?
  (Mr Levinson) Yes.

  375. But people do science exactly to avoid doing essays, do they not? That is the attraction. You get a problem in physics and you know the equation is W = ZIT and they give you Z, I and T and ask you to calculate the answer. It is a lot easier than writing an essay, is it not?
  (Dr Ravetz) It may give you the wrong mind set.
  (Ms Matterson) It is not just essays. Essays are one mode but there are other modes as well.
  (Dr Ravetz) If you look at the debates nowadays, I have been very impressed at the way the issues of methodology are bandied about. You might say that at least once a fortnight on the Today programme you will have the interviewer saying, "Well, of course, absence of evidence of harm is not the same thing as evidence of absence of harm, is it?", and then the person says, "Oh, no, not really". This morning somebody said, "You cannot prove an impossibility, can you?" If you look at some of the debates, even in the tabloids, when they get going on MMR or something like that, they will say, "That test was cut off early", "That test had the wrong database". Obviously it is all rhetoric but I think there is now presupposed an idea that when you are doing tests it is not simply collecting up some facts and then shaping them and giving them some truth. I just feel that if you look at these debates in particular people will be arguing methodology, arguing the facts, and that gives the whole thing some bite, whereas if you are doing general science it is too easy—I have said this before—to drift away.

  Dr Iddon: I shall be very pleased if we eliminate media expressions such as "sulphuric acid gas".

  Chairman: Or a mix-up between a virus and a bacterium which is very common. Can I thank you all very much indeed. I know it is short but it has been very valuable. You will see in our report that you have contributed to some of the ideas that we have. Thank you very much for coming and you are very welcome to stay of course.


 


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 May 2002