SCIENCE EDUCATION AND THE FAMILIAR WORLD OF THE CHILD
Olugbemiro Jegede and Joan Solomon, Olugbemiro Jegeder is Professor and Head of Research in Open Larning, Hongkong Open University, Joan Solomon is Lecturer in Reasearch, Department of Educational studies, University of Oxford
It was said by Malcolm Skilbeck (1984) that there are three purposes to education and, although this comment was made about education in general, the three fit extraordinarily well with the theme of Science Education for the reconstruction of society.
The first of these purposes ensures that the accomplishments of science, the theories, explanations, processes and accumulations of evidence are passed on to the most able of the next generation, who will become the research scientists of tomorrow. It is what Isaac Newton referred to as 'standing on the shoulders of giants'. Such an education is not really problematic in cultural sense, since it exists within its own rarefied knowledge culture.
The second purpose is clear enough in intention, but has often proved to be a sad disappointment to students in both developed and developing countries over the last decade. In most cases at present an education in science does not lead to a secure job for life. There is now everywhere the great demand for scientists and technicians that was forecast a generation ago. Of course there is often an unsatisfied need for doctors and other medical workers, but often it is the funds to pay for them that is lacking rather than the personnel. In many countries scientific institution and organisations may still have an unfilled need for support and technical staff who require some basic knowledge of science. Any lack of scientific education of this vocational kind not only slows down the work of science, but also distorts its image. What modern industry needs is a general education which includes science, and leaves the potential employee with literacy, numeracy, enthusiasm for and familiarity with science, and the capacity to learn more science during a lifetime of learning and retraining. This is a challenge to education which will not be met by rote learning with no understanding of concepts and processes, or relevance to local culture.
The third purpose for education, 'societal reconstruction', presents a big challenge. Every generation has a hand in rebuilding its own society. It may be set in a traditional mould, one where little change is tolerated, or it could be locked into a sad, lost time when change has outrun leadership and great courage is needed to mark out and follow a new path. For different communities the situation will be different, but three things we may be sure: Firstly, that the pace of change will quicken; Second, that change will impinge on all citizens, young and old, rich and poor; Thirdly; that a great part of the change will involve new technologies and their impact on living conditions and on the environment. For these reasons a new flexible science education will be required to enable the coming generations to deal with social decisions relating to issues concerned with technology and science. Citizens are faced, more than ever before, with decisions about issues of public policy, which relate to science and technology: Nuclear energy and the disposal of waste, invasive medical technologies, gender identification of embryos, care for the environment and public health, the irradiation of food, organ donation. With the scientific concepts, which underlie such arguments, it is virtually impossible for citizens of a democratic regime to take any part in its decisions. Denying them this right to participate in government, and to determine the future developments of their country and that of the Commonwealth, negates the current plan of action on the Jomtien Declaration of education for all.
From these reflections we conclude that the problems this project faces are substantial. We need to help all our young people to be ready to engage with complex scientific and technological issues, some of which may not yet even be on the scientific agenda, and to make decisions about their use which pay due heed to their local culture. This implies that, as was mentioned earlier, it is not so much a new curriculum as an interest in science, and the ability to relate this to the community's ways of living, with an understanding and respect for inherited values. We call this approach 'education for scientific culture' because, as for any other culture, the citizen's knowledge and attitudes need to be strongly linked with the other significant features in their lives (Geertz 1977).
Those who have examined the level of science knowledge which our Commonwealth students possess upon leaving school, have often found it thin or sadly distorted by the effects of local culture. (see Jegede 1991 for the African perspective, Solomon `1993 for British students, and Pomeroy 1994 or Krugly-Smolska 1996 for overviews). We suggest that this outcome is a direct result of the lack of any relation between the science taught, and the values and beliefs encountered in the community.
There is now sound empirical evidence for this conclusion. In Britain the research initiative to study the Public Understanding of Science showed a serious schism between everyday knowledge and science knowledge, even though there is not the language or cultural barrier that might exist in some other Commonwealth countries. Further, research into how school students discuss science-based social issues, which they have heard about on television, in the classroom (Solomon 1992a), or how the youngest children talk with their parents about science investigations which they have been asked to carry out at home (Solomon 1992b) suggest that linking science to factors which involve the home or the community can be effective in making it familiar and usable knowledge. This linkage lies at the heart of 'education for popular scientific culture'. As John Ziman, who co-ordinated the Public Understanding of Science initiative wrote,
Taking these findings as our starting point we see the only way of improving science education so that it becomes valuable to Commonwealth citizens, is to allow community culture and knowledge to contribute to its content and delivery.
Each stage of the development of this initiative will involve the three elements of science education: cultural transmission, vocational training, and the acquisition of scientific knowledge and transferable skills for everyday purposes. It will also involve local communities in ways, which it has never done before. Communication technology has been said to have reduced the world to a 'global village'; we hope that it can also be used to connect village with village, and school with school. Its use in distance education is effective across borders as well as within countries. We have identified three stages to the project:
The objectives of these three stages are inter-linked. The meetings of Commonwealth science educators are required to make good working contacts before more remote forms of communication take over. Those attending local meetings should be drawn from local communities and from the ranks of good practicing teachers. The meetings are for the purpose of comparison of teaching methods, and for the stimulation of new approaches to making science link with local culture. In different ways the three stages address the three major aims for this project, and are designed to produce a rich collaborative Commonwealth dimension for future science education.
Monitoring and Enabling Initiatives such as this that begin at the centre and move out to the periphery all too easily peter out. There are two ways to combat this common process of decay. The first is to ensure that a pair of delegates come from each location. Even when new ideas are found to be acceptable in principle, they almost always need to be reworked to make them appropriate for specific location and cultures. Two delegates can do this by discussion based on common cultural understanding much better than one person alone, and the two can then support each other in putting new methods into action. The second method of enabling progress is through continuous and fluent telematic communication.
Evaluation The project requires an elaborate but economical plan for comprehensive evaluation using various groups of people within the Commonwealth. This should involve both qualitative and quantitative, electronic and face-to-face assessments, both within and outside of classrooms. This part will only be completed once the main points of the proposal are in action, and the more vulnerable parts of the work can be recognised.
Note: This article has been taken from the Commonwealth Secretariat publication on "Science education and the familiar world of the child."
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