Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Science Education: Why Does a “User Manual” Approach Fail?

Mars Vanquishing Ignorance by Antoon Claeissens (circa 1536(1536)–1613), via Wikimedia Commons

I have always wondered why science is not well understood by the general public.  I’m talking about basic understanding of science and not the nerd level of it, which is not required for everyone. When I speak to my friends outside academia and natural sciences, they are interested in scientific facts provided  those facts are well explained and connected to everyday life: food, sex, beauty, general health, gardens, animals, etc. So, the interest is there, but the knowledge is not.

Is it because the media and the film industry often present a distorted view of science?  Distorted to a degree, it’s confusing to people, and they think they’re never going to understand it. I used to suppress a temptation to write an angry film review or a letter to the magazine exposing numerous examples of pseudo-scientific or plain false facts in the news or in the film. Now I just laugh, because I know my angry letter won’t change a thing.

There are many great educational TV programs on science and nature, I bet a lot of kids love them. Likewise, there’re a lot of great popular science books like Richard Dawkins’ works on general biology and evolution.  Still, the public doesn’t seem to improve much at understanding science.

Maybe it’s because there are charlatans out there spreading false facts or ideas and calling themselves scientists. But then there are books like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which expose these people and other pseudo-scientists in a manner clearly accessible to public.

Still, a sheer spread of magicians/healers/fore-tellers, of bogus drugs and other treatments, and homeopathy is among the most harmless on the list, tells me that scientific education fails. That the ignorance is vast despite the impressive scale of modern science communication to public.

A Russian writers’ ensemble called Kosma Prutkov once wrote: “Look in the root”.  So, in our case we have to find the reason of why even basic scientific knowledge doesn’t spread well beyond academic circles. The root we are looking for is education, and more precise – a school education.

A Sunday school class, ca 1871, by Boag, William, 1838?-1878, via Wikimedia Commons

Now there are probably many teachers who approve the current way of teaching science, but I personally find it unacceptable. Just look at the British GSCE level Science curriculum.

Let’s consider the current AQA Biology: it looks sensible from the first glance.

Keeping healthy: Diet and exercise, defending against infection

Nerves and hormones: The nervous system, control in the human body, control in plants

The use and abuse of drugs: Drugs

Interdependence and adaptation: Adaptations, environmental change

Food chains, energy, biomass and cycles: Energy in biomass, the carbon cycle

Genetic variation and its control: Why organisms are different, reproduction

Evolution: Theories of evolution

Of course, children should know about the biology of well-being, environment they live in, food chains, evolution and even drugs. All of these are very useful topics to study. But what’s missing?

You may point out that many subjects are omitted here, for instance, nervous system is present, but respiratory or cardiovascular is not.  Some may say I can’t see anywhere the biology of fungi or algae, or other unicellular organisms covered?

Your opponents may say well, you can’t stuff our children with everything, you can only teach them so much, so it’s better to teach them the most important and practical things. Who cares about fungi and algae?

I think both opinions are fair, but they miss the point.

When science is taught in a user’s manual mode, children have to remember separate and disconnected facts about life, which may be handy in their future lives. But most of these facts will be quickly forgotten. Because this kind of knowledge is fragmentary, it doesn’t involve understanding of the entire discipline. It’s not about the whole biology fact sheet; I’m talking about understanding the logic behind the scientific knowledge.

If you understand how science works, you don’t need to be fed multiple disconnected facts, you can work out many things by yourself. So, I propose that a proper scientific curriculum should be systematic and holistic to make pupils understand science as a highly interconnected set of disciplines as opposed to a bunch of useful/practical facts.

Such curriculum was first developed in the era of Enlightenment to teach a wholesome view of the world, to free people from prejudiced dogmas; it was not about just a practical knowledge for the everyday life.

Of course, a systematic curriculum should be modern and interactive, so kids could be engaged, because no one is able to sustain attention for long when subjected to a stream of facts in a lecture mode. Overall, I think it would benefit people, because they will be able to understand nutrition, medicine, and exercise not at the level “it’s good/not good for you”. They will be able to have an informed opinion about a product (food or drug)/idea/fact by themselves using their systemic knowledge of science. They will be able to read on about the product of interest on the web and understand the scientific description/analysis of it.

A systematic science education is the only way to improve the relationship between science and the public. I think it’d be great for the economy, healthcare and general well-being of the society.

To me, science is a universal language everyone can learn and apply to their lives. Scientific knowledge is not about fun or boredom or use, it’s a must for our society to progress.

Disclaimer: the content of this blog is not an objective truth but a personal opinion of mine. I intend to strike discussions and not to raise negative emotions. Let’s be friends.

P.S.  Occasionally I blog about science, and I intend to do more of this in the future.  Being a practicing scientist, I find it important to share my work with people outside academia.  Though this is a personal blog filled with my reflections, contemplations, biased opinions and humor, I hope it doesn’t sound like a lecture from a personal tribune. I consider spreading knowledge and helping people its major tasks. So, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask. I like a good discussion.



Your brilliant thoughts