Science: What is its knowledge?

This post follows on from the previous two, starting here.

This is where I placed science on my axes.

Axes (2) - Science

Substantive Knowledge

It’s Newton’s Three Laws.  It’s knowing the composition of animal and plant cells.  It’s knowing the structure of an atom.  And then, it’s the relationships between all those ideas.  If voltage increases, what happens to current?  Is it that simple, or do you need to consider a dozen other variables before that question can be answered?

It’s all the stuff I thought wasn’t that important, once upon a time, before I became a teacher, before I learnt what learning is, and understanding, and how they take shape in the human mind.

Disciplinary Knowledge

This is everything scientists know and do in order to create new scientific knowledge.  It’s knowing about control variables and dependent variables  It’s plotting scatter graphs and calculating equations of lines.  It’s setting up experiments understanding the role of error.  It’s knowing and reigning in Bacon’s four idols – what modern psychology might call cognitive biases.  It’s knowing the inductive method of reasoning.  It’s the philosophy of science.

Why there on the axes?

My gut feeling is that science would be further to the right.  Certainly, I hear science teachers fret over all the content kids are expected to know for exams.  I watch them use various mnemonic and testing techniques to try to help kids memorise that content.  Unlike history or English, it does seem to have a huge body of knowledge to be communicated, much like maths.

But then, I hear heads of department across the country say things like “One thing to remember about KS3: they’re not going to remember knowledge, but they will remember skills.  They will always have patchy knowledge.”  Doesn’t sound like a priority…  I hear science teachers tell me that their world is dominated by an obsession with running experiments – that somehow it’s only in experimentation (discovery?) that science can find its passion, as though the almost legendary narrative of the past four hundred years is somehow not exciting enough…  And I watch many hours being sunk into children play-acting as scientist, and to what benefit?

Where should it be?

I’m not sure, but when considering education at this scale, I never ask ‘What would be interesting to kids?’ I ask ‘What would it be beneficial for every citizen to know?’  We’re not babysitters, drafted in to entertain while the grown-ups go out and run the world, we’re future-makers.

Is it useful to run lots of experiments, badly, and when the conclusions are forgone?  Well, look at it the other way around, would it be detrimental if no experiments were run?  Probably!  Through performing experiments a person might develop some insight into the scientific process that is important – but let’s think of it in these terms, not just ‘what’s fun for now.’

What about things that are really fun, like burning magnesium ribbon and holding it under water, or dropping potassium into water, lighting people’s hands on fire and so forth.  Well, there’s got to be wisdom in finding things that do excite and inspire in the moment, right?  Surely there’s a space for experiences that challenge our pre-conceptions about the world and its possibilities!  But perhaps it’s a question of how we use them.  In Why Don’t Students Like School, Willingham offers an example of a demonstration where a bottle is heated, an egg is placed on top, and it’s then sucked into the bottle.  He notes that teachers often use this as a ‘hook’ – an exciting gimmick to grab pupils’ attention.  But after the initial excitement their attention wanes as the explanation of the phenomenon begins.  Alternatively, he suggests, we should offer the explanation first, and then the demonstration, so that pupils can consider what they are seeing in terms of what they have just learned.  One might go further, and pose questions in advance of the demonstration: “Should the bottle be heated before or after the egg is placed on top?”  Important to note here that this is an example of a demonstration, not an experiment/investigation.

But then there is so much requisite scientific knowledge!  The last four centuries have been incredible, and seen an incredible explosion in our understanding of nature.  It is only through assimilating this knowledge that a person can stand on the shoulders of giants and see the world with a clarity our ancestors could only dream of.

As usual, the question is one of balance, but that balance will be struck in part by our philosophy of education.  Are we entertainers, shunting kids through flashy fun experiences while their parents go out and drive the economy, or are we future-makers, in the privileged position of shaping future society’s ability to make sense of the world around them.  If we can accept our responsibility in the latter role then we might better balance scientific education.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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6 Responses to Science: What is its knowledge?

  1. I agree that the x for Science should not be where it has been placed above. It should, in my opinion, be placed in a similar position to that for mathematics in the second of this blog series post. The information required to construct the frameworks of understanding for Sciencec is vast, not to mention the necessity to have a good level of literacy and mathematics. Conducting practicals vs explicit instruction:

    • Kris Boulton says:

      I agree with you that that’s where it *should* be, but do you think that’s where it *is*?

      I’ve recently morphed into a GCSE and A Level physics teacher, and in the last couple of weeks I’d say that my personal experience would place it much further towards the bottom right… but then given my inexperience as a science teacher, every effort has been made to ensure I don’t also have to take on responsibility for running the necessary practicals… so perhaps my view is heavily skewed by that.

  2. julietgreen says:

    Top right. That’s an issue for the majority of the population.

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