It's on the syllabus
You hear it all the time as a teacher: "why do we need to learn this?" The stock response from most educators, myself included, is usually the predictable: "it's on the syllabus" or, just as toxic, "because it might be in the exam." Kids in classrooms often question the relevance of learning something and they are reminded that the point of school is to pass exams in order to get a job...in which you won't actually use the skills you've learned.
For example, many jobs in the UK require you to have a C-grade in English and Math. In order to get those grades you need to do things like manipulate algebra and recite Shakespeare. Name one job which requires you to do both. Apart from being the lead actor in A Math-Summer Night's Dream, a play I just made up, I can't imagine these skills being used in a lot of jobs.
It's a stupid way of approaching education and many pupils understandably question why they need to know who discovered Radium if they are planning on working in a legal firm or at a daycare centre. To a certain extent the people who design curricula are to blame, but it's difficult to know how to get around the problem. Which skills and knowledge should a school prioritise to give everyone a chance of seeking employment?
Most people don't need advanced math in their job for instance, but architects obviously do. Architects spend years learning math, so we need to start training them during their teens. The problem however is that you don't know which kids are going to become architects, so you solve it by teaching every kid the basics of math. By the time they all turn 18, the tiny proportion who are actually going to use it in their job are sufficiently prepared.
As a result you end up teaching 99% of students a bunch of skills they never use, but what's the alternative? Stop educating children and wait for them to turn 18 so they only study subjects they care about? If so, we would have the majority of people in their twenties living with parents, not earning, reducing the workforce and collapsing our economy...I assume, I mean I never studied economics. Which is kind of my point.
Maybe we should scrap academic subjects like English, Math and Science altogether. 99% of kids won't become mathematicians, scientists or englishisits, so why train them in these subjects? The most common jobs in the UK are working in retail, making food, office clerking or nursing. Wouldn't it make sense to teach kids how to do these jobs?
It's also worth pointing out that as society evolves, so does the job market. Some of the kids I'm teaching today will eventually apply for jobs which haven't been invented yet, so it's foolish to claim I'm preparing them for the future when I don't know what that future looks like. That's basically what we do with education at the moment though. We tell kids the point is to help them get a job and then we don't teach them how to actually do that. Instead we teach them which alkali metal is the most reactive.
We teach kids academic skills with the unspoken understanding that this is preparing them for academic-style jobs. Teach history so a tiny proportion of students can become historians, teach math so a tiny proportion can become engineers and teach Science so a tiny proportion can become Scientists. Under this model, most of the student popuplation's time is being wasted. This is madness.
Struggling and Juggling
I once saw a newspaper cartoon which dealt with this very issue in which a student raises their hand and asks the question "Am I ever going to need this?" to which the teacher responds "You won't, but one of the smart kids might." Burn.
It's indicative of the mindset many seem to have. The hard subjects are for the smart kids who get mentally-challenging jobs, while the other kids get less engaging jobs and have thus wasted 18 years in compulsory schooling. But this whole thing is backwards because getting a job isn't the purpose of education at all. I'll get to why in a moment, but first let's deal with this idea that harder subjects are for "smarter" kids. It's nonsense.
When I was 16 I attended a conference which featured a lecture on the mathematics of juggling. Incidentally, that tells you everything you need to know about me as a teenager. I was transfixed by the lecture and went home that evening to learn the skill. One of my friends grasped it in two days while another was able to do it in two weeks. It took me three months. I clearly wasn't a natural. I have lousy hand-eye coordination and was always last picked for the football team; physical skills aren't my forte at all. But by the time I learned to juggle, my skill was indistinguishable from my friends who had learned it quicker.
Why did I spend three months relentlessly practicing something I clearly wasn’t good at? Actually, I think that's the reason - I enjoy learning something I find difficult. Over the years I’ve variously taught myself to play the banjo, calculate sine functions in my head and do the moonwalk. I am not a natural juggler, musician, mathematician or dancer, but when I get the desire to master a skill I tend to kick my own ass until I can do it. If people call me talented they are mistaken. I’m just stubborn. And my road to Science was somewhat similar.
In a few days I have a friggin' book coming out about Chemistry. It might therefore surprise people to learn that when I first met the subject I found it incomprehensible. As a younger man, the periodic table was one of the hardest things I had ever come across but something about it intrigued me so I worked until I became competent at using it.
I accept that some people have a flare for certain things, just like my friends who learned to juggle in a heartbeat, but I don’t believe people are excluded from becoming good at something they aren't a natural at. They just have to want it enough.
Perhaps being good at something, perhaps even intelligence itself, is more about personality than ability? Maybe people respond differently to the frustration of finding something difficult and some people stick with the problem while others don’t care. Maybe that’s why some people underperform in high school. Little children always seem keen and eager to learn everything, full of questions and enthusiasm. By the time they hit sixteen many have given up on education and, far worse, themselves. Maybe the reason for low grades is attitude rather than aptitude.
I like to think most people can learn most things and Science is therefore no different. For example, I remember finding the topic of molar calculations tricky when I studied it at A-level, but now I teach it to my own classes and I wonder why I ever found it hard. I'm not any smarter and the subject hasn't gotten any easier, it's just my approach which has changed. Back then I had a mindset of "I can't do this" but once I realised I had to, I suddenly found it simple. Perhaps all people need in order to learn something complicated is the motivation to do so.
Too dumb for Science?
Because this topic has been on my mind for a while I tried an experiment with a few students last week. One of my students is, like many teenage boys, of the opinion that he can't do Chemistry. He happens to be football-mad though, so I asked him to write down the names of as many footballers as he could. He wrote 60 names without pause. Another student was able to name the constituent notes of at least 80 guitar chords. Another was able to name 40 “Fortnite skins” and so on. While they completed their lists I did the same thing on the whiteboard, except I wrote out the names of chemical elements.
At the end of the task they were gobsmacked at what I had done, so I asked if my ability was any different to theirs. Rather surprisingly, and a little tragically, they said yes. “That’s well hard sir” or “You can do that cos you’re smart” etc. I tried to point out that it was exactly the same skill but they wouldn't accept it.
Their ability to recall vast amounts of information was seen as easy, whereas mine was impressive. But I found their knowledge equally baffling. I know the names of about three footballers (all of whom are probably dead) I don't know any guitar chords and I have no idea what a Fortnite skin even is. It doesn't sound pleasant that's for sure. Yet these kids were insistent that my knowledge was "smarter" than theirs.
I pushed things further. The World Cup is currently taking place and there’s apparently a lot of strategy which goes into it. For example, if you look at who we’d come up against in the next round, it was actually ideal for England to lose their recent match against Belgium because it means we have a smoother route to the final.
My students began explaining how putting players at the back of a field against a heavy-striking team is better than spreading players evenly, how goals can be equated to points-scores with players choosing when it's best to score and I'm not convinced this is any more difficult than Science. Understanding cause-effect relationships, weighing up pros and cons, calculating probabilistic outcomes and beneficial strategies are all signs of higher-order thinking, no different to those in Science.
I’m not claiming everybody can be the next Feynman or Darwin, in the same way not everybody can play football like…Pele??...is he a football person??? Of course some people have a natural aptitude for a subject, but I think the basics of Science are well within the grasp of anyone who can appreciate sport statistics.
It took a while for me to get my message across (I have no idea if it worked) but I soon had a farily big obstacle to overcome. One of the students pointed out, to agreement from everyone else in the room that “Science isn't going help me get a job and I won't use it in everyday life.” This, I think, is the root of the problem. So many kids probably could do well in Science, they just don’t feel a need to because Science isn’t part of everyday life and it won't help them get a job.
Get Out, Get a Job
After this student correctly pointed out that knowledge of Science was unlikely to help him get a job, I argued that neither did football. He doesn't play or commentate on professional football and in fact there are less people working in the football industry than those working in Science. He did concede this point, but argued that his knowledge of football was different because it was a hobby and hobbies aren't supposed to help you get jobs...whereas that is the purpose of school. That worried me.
If we tell people the point of school is to get a job then they are certainly smart enough to recognise how irrelevant many subjects are. Kids switching off in Science lessons are not necessarily doing it because they aren't clever, it might just be the opposite. They know Science isn't going to help them get a job so what's the point in learning it in school? Maybe, just maybe, if we make the emphasis of education learning for learning's sake, kids won't question the point of studying something because they'll already know what it is.
We would still need exams because qualifications help those students who want to take a subject further earn their place doing so, but that doesn't mean every lesson should be geared toward a small number of kids who may want to do it at University. The point of a lesson should be to learn something interesting...because hello, the human brain is built for learning stuff! We've spent 65 million years of evolution developping brains which are well-crafted to learning and which enjoy doing so. Isn't that a good enough reason to learn things? We are made for it???
Admittedly not every kid wants to learn Science but then again neither did I originally. I didn't discover I liked Science until I was 14 and when I finally did, I didn't study it to get a decent grade, that just happened as a side-effect. Learning Science was interesting and rewarding in itself.
There's still a personality element of course. Some kids just aren't interested in how the Universe works. Fair enough. I don't really care about football. But I'm willing to bet if we shifted the emphasis of Science education away from "learn to pass exam" and back to "learn because the world is interesting" we'd have more kids engaging with the subject and their grades would take care of themselves.
School is supposed to prepare you for life and the point of life isn't just to get a job, pay your bills and die. Life is about finding your place in the Universe. It's about finding purpose and understanding, which education is absolutely crucial for. Studying history isn't about becoming a historian, it's about seeing how humans have overcome challenges. Studying English isn't about becoming a dictionary writer, it's about learning how people communicate and how emotions or ideas can be expressed. Studying math isn't about becoming a mathematician, it's about finding patterns in reality. Learning stuff isn't a means to an end, it's an end itself.
Facts from school aren't necessarily going to help you get a job I agree, but neither is eating your favourite food, watching your favourite movie, or falling in love, and we certainly enjoy those things. Your job is what you do to serve others; to contribute to society. Learning is something you do for yourself. For the sheer joy of it. That's the message we should be pushing in school.
Keepin' it Real
Rosalind Franklin once said "Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated", which I agree with. But many people do not see it like that. What do we make of my student's other objection that Science isn't relevant to everyday life?
Football certainly is relevant to many people's lives because it's a big part of our culture. People talk about it in the street, watch it on television, play it in the park and spend money to attend matches...this doesn't happen in Science. You don't overhear people on the bus talking about the latest iterations of quantum gravity and you rarely see geology professors signing people's shirts after a successful lecture. How can we respond to the criticism that knowing Science isn't part of our life?
I think what we have to remember is that there was once a time when using the internet wasn't considered relevant to everyday life, and here you are reading this blog on your wifi. There was a time when the ability to drive a car wasn't an important skill to have, nor was the ability to type on a keyboard, use a gas oven or even operate a door-key.
In fact, if we go back in human history there would have been a time when even using money was seen as an obscure practice. Just because something isn't currently relevant to everyday life doesn't mean we should be happy with that status quo. When people spend their time only learning basic life-skills, society stagnates. When people start pushing their knowledge of what basic-life skills involve, society progresses.
I accept that many people don't make Science relevant to their everyday lives but just imagine a world where they did. Imagine a world where having Scientific knowledge was considered as commonplace as knowing how to boil an egg. Think how much we could achieve as a people.
And to address the earlier point about today's kids having jobs which haven't been invented yet, surely that makes a Scientific education more important. Politicians come and go, musicians have their fifteen minutes of fame, but the laws of Science are fixed. Culture shifts with the sands of time but the laws of Science are the one thing we have in common with future generations.
People living ten thousand years from now, and people living ten thousand years in the past, occupy the same Universe underpinned by the same laws of Science. That, to me, makes it one of the most relevant things we could spend our time studying.
Science isn't relevant to many people's daily routine but that's not because it has no place, it's because people choose to ignore it. After all, we don't need to use the internet, mobile phones, cars or gas ovens but doing so improves our quality of life. You don't need to talk about football all the time for that matter, but it's part of our culture and people's lives are enriched by it.
Science is the same. It could become a part of people's lives and that would make the world a better place. So yeah, fair enough, Science isn't relevant to many people's day-to-day existence. But that doesn't mean it should stay that way. Frankly, I want to live in a world where Scientists are treated like rockstars!
Just the facts ma'am
In one of the last interviews he gave, Carl Sagan said "We live in a world dependent on Science and technology in which nobody understands Science and technology. Sooner or later this combustible mixture of power and ignorance is gonna blow up in our faces." It's a poignant rejoinder to the accusation that Science isn't important but, as sobering as this comment is, my favourite quotation from the interview is the one I have as my banner: "Science is more than a body of knowledge, it's a way of thinking".
So often Science gets taught in schools as a bunch of facts which must be memorised and regurgitated, which misses half of what Science is. Science isn't just the facts we have amassed about our Universe, it's the painstaking method by which he have amassed them. This is why Science is crucial to life as a human.
Training your mind to think scientifically is about using reason, evaluating arguments, understanding evidence, making judgements, changing your mind when contrary evidence presents itself and learning how to determine what is real from what isn't. If we had greater scientific literacy, we wouldn't have as many people duped by snake-oil salesmen be they political, commerical or spiritual. If everyone was trained in how to assess the truth of claims, people wouldn't need to be taught which facts were true...they'd be able to figure it out for themselves. So, when are you ever gonna need Science? Discovering how the world works and what your place in the Universe is. That's when.
I love science, let me tell you why.