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What should the “nature of science” look like in the school curriculum?

March 3rd, 2010

(I have more questions than answers.) 

I’ve just read an article sent to me by a UK colleague who shares my interest in making changes in the way we teach genetics at secondary school. The paper is about “Biological Citizenship”. It was written by Nikolas Rose and Carlos Novas. They are sociologists whose interest in the “nature of science” links it to work done on how the public interacts with science, not to the school curriculum. But I think the things they write about raise huge questions for those of us who work in the school sector. You can access the whole article here.

In this paper they set out to describe and discuss what biological citizenship in the 21st century looks like and how it changes who we are – how we think about ourselves, how others might look at our potential “biovalue” and what we do when faced with a biological issue that impacts on our life (or others might expect us to do). Here are two excerpts from the many examples and ramifications Rose and Novas explore (I added the italics):

… while patients’ organisations and support groups have been around for many years, today we see one notable innovation: the formation of direct alliances with scientists. Patients organisations are increasingly not content with merely raising funds for biomedical research but are seeking an active role in shaping the direction of science in the hope that they can speed the process by which cures and treatments are developed. (p.24)

 …a key feature of the Internet is that it does not only give access to material disseminated by professionals, it also links an individual to self-narratives written by patients or carers. These accounts usually offer a different narrative of life with an illness, setting out practical ways of managing a body that is ill, the effect and harms of particular therapeutic regimes, ways of negotiating access to the health care system and so forth. That is to say, these narratives provide techniques for leading a life in the face of illness. They have a further distinctive feature which relates to truth itself. Strategies for making up biological citizens ‘from above’ tend to represent the science itself as unproblematic: they problematize the ways in which citizens misunderstand it. But these vectors ‘from below’ pluralize biological and biomedical truth, introduce doubt and controversy, and relocate science in the fields of experience, politics and capitalism. (p.14)

Reading this discussion raised huge questions for me about what we teach in school and why – questions about content itself, but most especially questions about what we mean by the “nature of science” and what difference we expect it to make to the ways we teach content. One question I have is “whose nature of science?” I’ve read a lot of research literature that explores NOS as an idea. I’ve come to the conclusion that much of it is a deficit literature. It talks about what teachers don’t know and won’t do. But this is mostly in relation to what we might call an “epistemological” view of NOS that focuses largely on questions of how experts come to make definitive knowledge claims – what Rose and Novas would call ‘from above’ versions of NOS. I think the ‘from below’ actions they describe have huge implications for how we think about what we mean by NOS for the school curriculum. My own position on this is not yet well resolved but I do see it as helpful that the NOS strand of the curriculum is linked closely to the key competencies by the way the sub-strands have been named and developed. I’m especially thinking about “participating and contributing” here. The participatory two-way nature of interactions citizens have with science really jump out of the above descriptions. (By two-way I mean that ordinary people who interact with a biomedical issue can influence the science that happens, not just be influenced by it.) Bullet point four of the science learning area statement implies a focus on current and future participation too (but not necessarily the more radical “two-way” dimension):

By studying science students will … use scientific knowledge and skills to make informed decisions about the communication, application, and implications of science as these relate to their own lives and cultures and to the sustainability of the environment. (Ministry of Education, 2007, p.28)

If we really mean to help students reach these sorts of outcomes (actually do we?) what might we need to do differently? How could you, while still at school, learn to “be” a person who is ready, willing and able (to borrow Margaret Carr’s framing of key competencies) to do the sort of things Rose and Novas describe? What science do you need to know? What sort of NOS might help and how? Who helps students bring the pieces together (social sciences not just science)? Assuming we can imagine some answers, how can we even make it possible for these sorts of changes to take place? What might happen if we don’t change? (Rose and Novas are not writing science fiction – these things they describe are happening already.) It would be good to share ideas because these won’t be easy questions to answer.

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