I.I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we teach science at school – and whether we have the right balance between serving those children who will become scientists and engineers of the future (and how can we say that?) And those who doesn’t think he has a natural ability for science, or is just more interested in other subjects.
The question goes beyond what scientific topics we should teach and at what depth. I am more concerned with the obsession of making children memorize scientific “facts” and what we should be so focused on. Perhaps spending more time studying how we “do” science – what is called the scientific method – is more valuable than just “knowing” things.
After all, science is not a collection of facts about the world. It’s just called “knowledge”. Rather, science is a process – a way of thinking and understanding the world, which will then lead to new knowledge. This is a very important difference. We have often heard that we should not teach children what think but as to think. It’s a great feeling, but what will it mean in practice? Why spend so much time in a science school program, loading children’s brains with facts about the world that they can still just search? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to teach them as to find reliable scientific knowledge – which inevitably means nowadays on the Internet and not in books – and how to evaluate and critically analyze and absorb this knowledge if necessary?
I have no doubt that those who are developing a school science curriculum, and probably a few teachers would also abandon the idea. After all, I am not a professional educator. They may argue that we still have to teach the scientific details – chemical formulas, human body bones, Newton’s law of attraction, electricity and magnetism and so on – especially those who will end up studying their subject in more detail. deepen in university and move to science as a profession.
And what about the rest of society? Of course, everyone needs a fundamental scientific understanding. Just as everyone needs to have some understanding of, say, history or literature, we all need to know some science: facts about the world that will help us make informed decisions in our daily lives, from what precautions to take during a pandemic, and about the importance of the vaccine, to vaping risks, the benefits of flossing or why recycling our waste is good for the planet. A scientifically literate society is a society that can see the world more clearly and can make better decisions about the important issues facing us all. Today, however, there seems to be a lack of understanding of how we are profit this scientific understanding of the world. And yes, you might think: so what?
Adopting a scientific method can help all of us become more tolerant and less polarized in our views – disagreeing, not being unpleasant – especially online. No one can, hand on heart, deny that the Internet is a marvelous invention, completely changing our lives over the past three decades. Even social networks, the simplest scapegoats for all the ills of society, have played an important role in disseminating and democratizing information. However, too many people use it not as a useful tool but as a tool for uninformed, often toxic opinions and for spreading misinformation. But the internet and social media have only increased the social problems that have always been with us. In addition, our attention is inevitably diminished, and we do not waste time questioning our biases or asking whether the information we receive is reliable and credible.
Scientific thinking can help here. I do not mean the ability to manipulate equations or interpret complex statistics, but rather to adopt some ways of practicing good science, such as critically evaluating what we believe in and studying the reliability of evidence; questions our own biases before attacking opinions we don’t like; and be prepared to admit your mistakes and change your mind in light of new evidence.
This is why we need to teach more in schools: better critical thinking skills, better information literacy (data comprehension), how to deal with complexity and how to assess uncertainty – to keep an open view of information we have only partial knowledge about. All of these skills are part of a scientific approach. This wonderful way to see, think and learn is one of the great riches of humanity and the birthright of everyone. And, most delightfully, it only grows in quality and value the more it spreads.
Expect some radical revision or reassessment of why children are taught in school – given how destructive and time-consuming even minor manipulations of the program can be for many teachers – not to mention asking the general public to adopt a more rational way of thinking. probably asking too much; but we definitely need to do something. Mankind has come up with a scientific method to understand the confusing physical universe. But even in our much more complex and confusing world of human affairs, taking some lessons from how we progress in science can provide opportunity and liberation. To think scientifically is much more than just knowing things. It gives us the opportunity to see the world beyond our limited senses, beyond our prejudices and biases, beyond our fears, insecurities, ignorance and weaknesses.
Jim Al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster. His new book, The joy of science, now coming out