A Crisis in Science Education?

January 13 / 102

Dr Maurizio Toscano, Lecturer in Science Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.
Dr Maurizio Toscano, Lecturer in Science Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

The claim science education is in a state of crisis is as enduring as it is unquestioned.

There is simply too much evidence, science education researchers would tell us, to think otherwise: evidence ranging from low rates of participation of secondary students in post-compulsory science subjects, through to students’ accounts of increasing levels of disengagement with science as their schooling progresses. Add declining results on standardised testing and low rankings on international comparisons and the crisis in Australian science education appears apocalyptic.

Putting aside the question of the soundness of these data, the link between evidence of this kind and the claim of a state-of-emergency in science education rests on the assumption students’ lack of engagement with school science constitutes a problem for individual students and Australian society. The well-rehearsed defences of this assumption usually hinge on the supposition that a lack of engagement with school science translates into a lack of participation in the culture of science later in life. For instance, disengagement with science is expected to produce citizens with insufficient ‘scientific literacy’ to assess and make rational decisions on important issues that, like, for example, climate change, have a scientific basis. At the societal level, disengagement with science prophesises a nation in short supply of the scientists required to sustain economic growth through innovation.

Compelling as these assumptions and arguments may be, they should not prevent us from returning to the question asked of so many science teachers by so many students, namely: why do we need to study science? Traditionally, this question is taken as merely demanding a justification of science (education), i.e. a list of reasons to study science. Scientists, science teachers, academics and others concerned about science have no difficulty producing a long list of reasons to study science. However, because these reasons often pre-suppose the pre-eminence of science as a way of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’, they cannot (despite their ‘reasonableness’) fully capture all the question expresses.

Sometimes a question does not demand an answer, but instead calls for an acknowledgment. The questioner asking: “do you love me?” is not asking after empirical evidence, a logical argument or an account of how they can be loved more effectively and to a world-class standard. Similarly, the question as to why we need science may instead be taken as expressing the dawning of an aspect of science requiring acknowledgment, not rationalisation. Perhaps we are being invited to acknowledge students live in a ‘technological’ age, where nothing – including science – really matters beyond its functional value in satisfying fleeting desires. If this were the case, then the science education industry’s agenda to make science more engaging – by making it more entertaining, hands-on or ‘real world’ – would appear misguided.

I prefer to interpret students’ disengagement with science as indicative of a generational move beyond delusional perspectives on science that either privilege or trivialise it. In that case, I suggest we speak not of the crisis in science education but rather the catharsis of science education.

Dr Maurizio Toscano is a Lecturer in Science Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

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