Monday, June 11, 2007

I was wrong about the new science syllabus

Actually, I’m wrong quite a lot but I’m usually clueless as to what the problem was. In this case, I can see how I went astray.

In October last year, I blogged with some approval on a new science syllabus. It seemed to me that it addressed many of the issues that concern me about how science is viewed by the public. Students would be taught to think about science in a critical way, covering related ethical issues rather than being spoon fed raw facts. Big mistake. I should have known that it was foolishness to agree with Simon Jenkins.

The new syllabus turns out to be rubbish in practice. With history teaching, the problems are the same. Students cannot be expected to think critically about a subject until they have a sufficient grounding in the facts to make sense of them. Otherwise, they are doing nothing more than training to be pub bores. My mistake was to think that what interests me, now, when I have had the privilege to pass through the very finest establishments that English education has to offer, can be applied to students who are still at the start of their journeys. Without a solid grounding in facts, you cannot have a conversation about values.

Academics have long been guilty of getting this wrong. When theory was all the rage, university undergraduates rapidly got the impression that they could put the theoretical cart before the factual horse. Their tutors never realised that when they dissed the greats of English literature as dead white men, their students would actually believe this meant they didn’t have to read them. It may be fair to take a PhD student’s factual knowledge for granted, but you can’t do this with undergraduates, let alone school children.

When my children reach 16, I no longer want them to be able to emphasise with a plantation slave, I want them to know the kings and queens of England in order and the salient facts about each reign. I don’t want them to explain why global warming is a bad thing (if that is still the trendy issue in fifteen years time). I want them to understand the chemical reactions behind the carbon cycle, the periodic table and the properties of most of the common elements. Only then will then be in the position to debate the finer of points of whether we can trust science and who it was who wrote the history.

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