What’s the point of science education?

Last week’s Times Eureka supplement was all about science education. Its editorial sermon began with a commonplace claim about the need to teach more kids science – “…the greatest educational challenge this country faces. Britain is running short of scientists and engineers…”

Now, I’m no expert in science education. I don’t know the debates and the facts that matter, but I know that, as with other areas of science policy, there are a lot of narratives that are repeated without examination and a lot of questions that go unasked. I write this not to be snarky, but because I am genuinely interested in a proper debate.

So, what is science education for? The Times’s claim seems to be that we need to teach more British children science so that they can become British scientists in innovative British institutions – companies, universities etc – and generate economic growth. The suggestion is that there are not enough scientists to meet demand. But from what I can tell, there is no huge unmet demand for scientists. The vast majority of science graduates leave science to work in other areas (see The Scientific Century report) where there is demand. Jobs within academic research are filled from a global pool of talent, as our universities are internationally pretty well-regarded. So we can make an argument about whether our science graduates are of top quality, but this is different from an argument about quantity. The movement of science grads out of science leads us to ask whether science education is instead a useful signalling device: a bank doesn’t really care whether someone can recite the periodic table, but a first in chemistry from Cambridge suggests that they must be pretty smart. Or maybe there are skills that are special to science that are useful in other areas – analytical thinking, patience or whatever? We might also imagine that there could be supply-side factors. Even if UK industry and universities don’t want many scientists at the moment, churning out entrepreneurial Larry Pages and Bill Gateses may make it more likely that UK start ups will take over the world.

I have no idea whether this set of factors is complete, nor what the relative importance of each is. And there do seem to be clear policy problems, like a chronic shortage of physics teachers. But the point is that these questions all lead to very different education policies. Just saying ‘we’re scientists and we think more people should be taught science’ doesn’t get us anywhere. Teaching children to be scientists is not the same thing as teaching them about science, or teaching them to think scientifically. And quantity is not the same thing as quality. If, as I suspect, the reason employers like people with science qualifications is that it proves they aren’t stupid, then that is an indictment of other bits of education, which surely need to up their game. But I stand to be corrected.


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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13 Responses to What’s the point of science education?

  1. Jack Stilgoe says:

    UPDATE – article corrected, “top quality…” thanks to sniffy pedantry from @jlush2… Cheers James

  2. hilarywoof says:

    Perhaps you could also add as another rationale the idea that the reason we haven’t got science literate population who don’t have a hissy fit about GM and other spooky technologies is because we all haven’t been educated properly. If more people did more science at school they would be more likely to see the value of science and technology endeavours and be less of a pain!

    Actually I don’t have a problem with the concept at all of making us all more science literate for lots of reasons, though I don’t think I needed to take physics to be able to reflect on some of the complex issues associated with new technologies. Perhaps philosophy would be better?

  3. alice says:

    In my more cynical moments, I wonder if aspects of the sci community have fallen down some sort of CP Snow induced tunnel of “mo-ar science, we just need mo-ar science” without really pausing to think. Also, cynically: a role in the curriculm bestows a certain social status. See also Earth Sciences complain about their lack of obvious coverage, Physics desire to maintain a seporate identity within lobbying for triple science, as well as Astronomy’s celebration at getting a GCSE and the setting up of an Anthropology A-level.

    More pragmatically, the Beyond 2000 report, especially point 4.2 on ‘who is science education for? is worth reading. Following on from that report, the 21st Century Science GCSE’s aim to serve those who will grow up to be ‘consumers’, not producers, of science is interesting, but not without its problems. The debate around that GCSE prompted quite a bit of hand-wringing on aims of sci ed, and whether everyone should be bothered with it (see also work by Jim Donnealy at Leeds).

    Also some recent discussion here – http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/?p=4488 – very much a general chat about things, but included a good mix of stakeholders.

  4. Beverley Gibbs says:

    I thought one of the main rationales for compulsory science education was to deliver armies of scientifically literate citizens rather than have full employment in the scientific professions? (Although a science background is expected to equip you with quantitative skills which are of particular value in many parts of the commercial world)

    Of course the slight fly in this ointment is that being ‘scientifically literate’ actually has very little to do with whether you’re going to have a hissy fit about GM. I believe the prevailing research suggests that a great knowledge of science in general corresponds with favourable attitudes to science in general, but that applied to specific topics great knowledge leads to a more skeptical view of the promised benefits….

  5. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Thanks all. I’m no closer to a conclusion on this. Which is odd, given the certainty with which people – ministers, senior scientists, journo cheerleaders – all seem to swallow the idea that we want more science education in schools. I think there are loads of good reasons why we want to train children in science. But I’m interested in which ones are most important. It seems as though ‘creating future scientists’ is pretty low down the list.

    • Tim J says:

      I think ALL education has a much wider purpose than “training people to do X so they will make lots of money for the economy.”. Understanding is of value in itself. If people become scientists (or philosophers, or musicians, or … ) then that is a good effect, but so is the simple fact that people’s lives are enriched by understanding. Politicians often seem to want us to be economic automatons, forgetting that economics is only a means to an end. The important thing is the effect on people’s lives. It’s sad that these days every activity has to be “justified” in economic terms. As though economics were the purpose for which humans exist. Yet the things which can’t be measured economically are the ones which make life worth living.

  6. Beverley Gibbs says:

    But Jack, EVERYBODY wants more of EVERYTHING in schools – its like the answer to all of society’s ills is to try and knock under-16s into the right shape because its all a bit difficult after that! I must get 3 tweets a day on my timeline where somebody is saying we *must* have this or that in schools…. I wonder if you/we hung out with more historians we’d constantly hear the same push for more resourses in the history dept?

  7. Salman Rushdie once bemoaned the “final victory of the numerate over the literate”, but let’s be honest, that’s the current state of affairs. The ability to understand our environment and describe it with numbers instead of adjectives is powerful. “Three millimeters” means the same thing to you as it does to me; “small” does not. Employers don’t just want smart people. They want smart people who can communicate precisely. That’s what a science education gives.

    • hilarywoof says:

      Hmmm, not quite sure sure that science gives you that, the communication precisely part of your suggestion doesn’t seem to come with the territory at all in my experience. That’s the problem, if science was combined with literature subjects we might have that, but the trouble with the subjects being so polarised at A level is the numbers people can’t communicate and the communicators can add up. A tad sweeping, but you get my gist!

      • I agree; a proper A level education should include maths, English, and at least one science. And probably some history. But numeracy and scientific literacy are underrated. They help us understand a broad range of issues in our lives, from genetic modification to interest rates. These aren’t bizarre topics that only scientists need to understand, these are everyday problems faced by all of us. Yes, maths and sciences are hard subjects. But physics is really just philosophy for the numerate. You can’t really understand philosophy unless you understand why matter and energy are the same thing.

  8. Tim J says:

    I think we need science education because it’s so disastrous to have a scientifically illiterate population—and especially disastrous to have a government composed largely of scientifically illiterate members. The lack of an understanding of how science works means, for example, that people are free to think that anthropogenic climate change is merely a matter of opinion, or that it’s still controversial when over 95% of scientists are convinced by the observational evidence (and most of the unconvinced ones aren’t climatologists!!), or that it’s reasonable to teach “intelligent design” or “creation science” in schools.

    Scientific illiteracy creates a dangerously gullible population and means that harmful, irrational policies are pursued in areas where scientific information is key. It means politicians vote for what their gut instincts tell them will work when all the reliable evidence points against their instinct.

    And I think we have another huge problem, which is the poor understanding which many people have of maths and in particular statistics. Numerical information is routinely reported on misleadingly in the media. Statistics quoted by politicians are often simply wrong, or else presented in a conveniently misleading way. And because people aren’t skilled in probing what the numbers might mean, they can be taken in. I’m never quite sure whether certain politicians are deliberately quoting outright lies or are simply incompetent to be talking about statistics, but I believe this has a real and detrimental effect on policies and people’s lives.

    Example: the MMR vaccine scare, which led to a dangerous decrease in vaccinations.

    Science education isn’t just about educating scientists—it’s about having a society which is competent to live in a scientific society, and politicians who are competent to make decisions about issues related to science. Which, these days, is pretty well all issues.

    We don’t ONLY need science education of course, since that which is measurable by science is only one dimension of the world, but it’s a dimension that’s essential for thinking and acting sanely in the modern world. (So in my opinion is an understanding of how to handle debate about ethics and values in a rational way, but that’s a whole different area…)

  9. I’ve changed my mind. Scientific literacy and numeracy are less important than critical thinking skills. That’s the real reason to study science. It teaches us to hypothesize and then test that hypothesis. We should all be looking at the world through critical eyes and making informed decisions about what’s important.

  10. John Hyde says:

    I agree with Tim J that science education is important.

    Lesson one will be that science never involves a majority vote – so statememnts like “95% of scientists believe in xxx” are worthless.

    Lesson 2 will be that science involves numbers. The pupils will do some calculations and see if a modern economy can be powered by windmills and solar panels.

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