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That’s the question blog-buddy Michael Edmonds asked some of us last night, & it got me thinking.

Sir Peter Gluckman raised the idea of a ‘science for citizens’ curriculum back in early 2011, in his report Looking ahead: science education for the 21st century. Included in that report was a brief list of some skills, knowledge, & abilities that all children need to have (characterised as ‘citizen-focused objectives’):

  • a practical knowledge at some level of how things work;
  • some knowledge of how the scientific process operates and have some level of scientific literacy
  • enough knowledge of scientific thinking as part of their development of general intellectual skills so that they are able to distinguish reliable information from less reliable information.

As I said at the time, the tricky thing is to work out how to deliver this, & the sort of learning experiences we might use in the classroom (& out of it!)

The ability to distinguish ‘reliable’ from ‘less reliable’ information is essential, given that we are now in a time when that information is only a few mouse clicks away. Students need to be learning how to do this right from the start of their time in our education system. And the tools to do it are pretty much part of the scientific process, so learning about one complements gaining knowledge in the other.

If we’re going to offer two ‘streams’ of science education, as proposed by Sir Peter, when should that start? Or should we simply take the ‘science for citizens’ from the start, hopefully keeping as many students as possible ‘turned on’ to science for as long as possible, & then split off an ‘academic’ stream – for potential scientists & engineers – later in the piece?

And what would this mean for students who might come late in the day to realising that science/engineering is where they want to be? Split into the streams too early, & we risk closing the door to those young people. We need to lock in the flexibility to allow students to change course mid-stream, as it were.

(We need to provide them with good advice, too. Wearing one of my other hats for the moment, just now I’m seeing quite a few young men & women who want to study engineering but who are weak in physics, or maths. Or who dropped maths in year 12. And in at least some cases, they seem to have gained the impression that ‘you can just pick that up at uni.’ I can generally work out a pathway for them, but it means they’ll take longer to complete their program; time that would have been saved by better choices earlier on.)

What about content? I mean, we can’t deliver process skills in a vacuum? Personally I’d go for more human biology in the curriculum. Children tend to be fascinated by how their bodies work, & such knowledge is important when making decisions that affect health, for example. And I’d like to think that a good grounding there would help people to recognise when they’re being offered sound advice as compared to some of the significant volume of health pseudoscience that’s out there these days.

And I’d also go for developing awareness of our place in the global ecosystem. Yes, there’s a lot to learn about our local environments & how to care for them, but our 21st-century science-literate citizens understanding of our large-scale impacts is also necessary if their world is to remotely resemble ours.

What would you like to see in this curriculum?