Education Letter: Mad science
Thursday 25 March 1999
I have been teaching biology for 30 years to 13- to 18-year-olds and watched the great educational opportunities of the 1980s become sullied by the Thatcherite demands of "science-as-utility".
We now have adolescents who are obliged to understand the principles of genetic engineering while their understanding of even basic Mendelian genetics is extremely limited, and, at a time when the countryside is being rapidly depleted of fauna and flora, we have next to nothing in the GCSE syllabus (or examination) on plant and animal identification - school natural history is a rather quaint thing of the past.
We have 16-year-olds who are obliged to grasp the nature of scientific methodology, yet anyone who knows anything about the matter knows that what makes good scientists is, above all, time to pursue their own imaginative thoughts about what's inside things and what makes them work. We don't look inside animals at school; nor do we usually have the time to encourage the imaginative experimentation which issues from the minds of the people we teach. Rather, we bulldoze in some half-baked theory of how the government thinks scientists think and operate. Most 16-year-olds aren't up to appreciating scientific methodology. They can't recognise the controls needed for good work, and neither could I at their age. And there's every indication that government ministers can't now. Come on, syllabus-setters: get a life!
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