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Science and the school curriculum

Posted 14/06/2011 by KatieJ

Climate change, according to the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King, is a bigger threat than international terrorism. It is in fact ‘the most severe problem we are facing today,’ King said, speaking out against US inaction on greenhouse gases in 2004, although he might equally well have said the same today as emissions reductions targets around the world continue to be missed and climate experts warn that, left unchecked, this will inevitably lead to flooding, drought, hunger and disease affecting millions of people worldwide.

So the suggestion that climate science need not be a compulsory part of school curriculum, raised this week in an interview in The Guardian (13/06/11) with the government’s chief adviser on overhauling the syllabus, has understandably been met with alarm in some quarters. ‘This would not be in the best interests of pupils,’ commented Bob Ward, policy and communications director of the Grantham research institute on climate change and the environment, also cited in The Guardian story. ‘It would be like a creationist teacher not teaching about evolution.’

Tim Oates’ argument, part of a review of the curriculum for five to 16-year-olds to be published later this year, is that science teachers need to get back to the core topics and leave it for schools to decide whether and how to teach climate change and other topics concerning how scientific processes affect our lives. The aim of the review, The Guardian reports, is to slim down the curriculum from the current 500 pages partly by removing the emphasis placed by the last government on teaching scientific issues alongside scientific knowledge.

The worry with this kind of thinking, perhaps, is that science will be critical to solving many of the so-called grand challenges – food security, water scarcity and biodiversity loss, not to mention climate change – that the world faces in coming decades. Understanding the issues as well as the underlying science will be vital in helping politicians and the public at large to make difficult decisions about whether to accept controversial new technologies such as GM, nanotechnology, stem cell science, synthetic biology and so on – as well as to realise the consequences if they reject them.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    14/03/2012 01:23

    Mark But there’s something of a prpieetcon lurking around here that ’science’ is one thing and ‘politics’ another, which I think is false..I'm sorry, I am quite fuzzy today courtesy of some very nice wine, but aren't you arguing that this is so? Science is the acquisition of reliable knowledge by doubt, hypothesis and experiment. Politics usually involves the assertion of interests using rhetoric and facts are often inconvenient. The barrage of PR against AGW is a an extraordinary case of rhetoric mounted to muddy water..But asking science to articulate truth, if truth is understood as incontrovertible knowledge, is asking it to do something it cannot do. .It can establish facts. I think the lack of appreciation of scientific method and its implications for knowledge is under-appreciated and not well understood generally. There's different kinds of truth. For example: What a peiece of work is Man how noble in reason how infinite in faculty etc. Hamlet is full of truth but revelas no facts. On the other hand that we inhabit a planet that spins about a star is an established fact..And there's theories. A theories is a viable hypothesis, one comensurate with the facts as known but not yet established as fact itself. This is where AGW is. Of course the rub is that if we wait until it is established as fact it might be too late to avoid disaster. It might already too late.

  • Anonymous said:
    16/06/2011 12:17

    In my opinion Tom Oates is right. Schools need all the time they can get to teach the core principles of science thoroughly so that their students have a better (more balanced) understanding of the vital issues of the day – climate change, food security, energy supply etc. Teachers will no doubt encourage students to apply the relevant science they have been learning in the classroom in homework, test and examination questions to encourage their understanding of these topics.During my teaching career I found that students became bored with these ‘vital issues’ with comments like ‘not global warming again’!