One thing history has taught us about the future is that it will always surprise us. William Gibson’s classic science fiction novel Neuromancer predicted the existence of cyberspace – but not the mobile phone, and even less the do-everything smartphone.
Children in Queensland schools now will be faced with a variety of exciting opportunities and daunting challenges. Some of these challenges are already on the horizon: climate change, energy, disease pandemics, population pressures, supply of clean water. The positives – apart from even smarter and smaller phones – are harder to predict. The promise of new technologies to improve health and extend life have almost doubled human lifespans in the past century, though – at least in developed countries. As William Gibson also said ‘The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed’.
There will be surprises, too: perhaps a breakthrough in fusion energy that solves our energy problems almost overnight, perhaps a vaccine that means deaths from flu epidemics are a thing of the past… I could keep guessing, but the fact that there’ll be something I could never guess is kind of the point!
To prepare students for the future they’ll be living in, what we’re doing now is simply not good enough, despite our sincere best efforts. A smaller proportion of students are studying senior science courses at school, and going on to university, but that’s not even the main issue.
The 10 per cent or so of students who go on to be scientists and engineers will be fine: it’s the 90 per cent of all school students who don’t, but will still have to deal with scientific issues and challenges, who worry me. The goal needs to be for all students – that is, all of the future members of society – to have an understanding of science that equips them to make informed choices, and an attitude toward science of well-founded confidence.
Unfortunately, the pressures to select students for scarce university places have permeated what happens in school science education, so that it becomes a mechanism for ‘filtering out’ the 90 per cent of people who will not go on to science-based careers. Just by the nature of the filtering process, schools end up telling 90 per cent of Queenslanders ‘sorry, science is not for you’. This is precisely the wrong message!
A revised school science approach that focuses on building scientific understanding and a positive attitude to science on the part of all students is urgently needed. It is possible to do this and prepare the students who will study science at university – it is not necessary to choose one or the other.
An approach to ‘science education for all’ and ‘science education for citizenship’ will focus on learning the concepts of science (what we know about the world around us), the rules of science (how to use what we know to predict and explore) and the reasons why we use science as a tool to enhance our understanding – and enjoyment – of the natural world. It will downplay the importance of memorising facts and formulae, and focus on building understanding.
Science education that draws on students’ innate sense of wonder and curiosity, and gives them the message ‘yes, you can!’ rather than ‘not for you’, has the potential to strengthen Australia and prepare it for the future. It will also lead to a society in which knowledge and confidence in our knowledge are more highly valued by *everyone* – and prepare our students for whatever unpredicted smartphone comes next.