Monday 3 August 2015

Rethinking Science, Rethinking Education: On dreaming and working

It's an interesting question as to what government ministers whose shrill voices call for focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in education actually believe science, technology, engineering and mathematics means. They might remember boring Friday afternoons in smelly chemistry labs in school with somebody droning on about equations. The educational hair-shirt was uncomfortable, but it would at least get the kids a "good job". Would it really? There were always the kids who really 'got it', who lived and breathed the science diet they were fed. And yes, some of them would be successful. But some would have psychological break-downs later in life... Whether that was science's fault (or the teacher's) who knows. But realising that the real world isn't at all how it is presented in school textbooks; that those "straight-As" don't always translate into happiness or professional success; that University degrees are usually pretty useless... can be a bitter lesson. It may be not that different from the kid who does drama harbouring dreams of the celebrity status to come (actually the scientists also harbour this dream too). The only difference is that the drama kid had a bit more fun on their course. Dreaming, whether its about equations, or about music and dancing, can be a dangerous waste (the implicit messages of schooling tell us). It's dreams that cause kids to waste time in school, instead playing pointless games, hanging around with mates, and so on - and not doing any work! I remember being told I was wasting time messing around writing computer programs and playing the piano... Don't dream, do your homework!

When my 15-year old daughter asked me the other day, "What is a probability actually?" I reflected on what a fantastic question it is ("which came first, the probability or the surprise?"), and on the importance of retaining this question (and many other awkward ones), in the face of a so-called scientific education that will do its best to steam-roller over it. (Actually, I was alert to this one because Tony Lawson, professor of economics at Cambridge, asked me this a few weeks ago). It's worth remembering that science itself used to be a subversive activity, its practitioners running the risk of upsetting religious leaders. School gives the message that science is conformity to economic diktats (get a good job - become an engineer). But science in history always emerges from critique. Mathematics and formalism is usually only important only after the central insight - often to help win the argument (that's interesting in itself). Einstein had to learn the maths to express what he already understood as relativity theory.

Part of the problem with science lies in our understanding of experiment. Regularities in the material world are indeed important to establish scientific laws, as David Hume rightly identified. But the imaginative, reflexive and intersubjective processes that establish the experiment in the first place, and the discussion between scientists in the light of results is equally and inseparably part of the picture. Science struggles to grapple with the role of reflexivity in its processes: the scientific questions its poses are just so difficult - so our contemporary science ignores them; our contemporary artists don't. So scientists like Tim Hunt will then deny that 'falling in love' has anything to do with science (it has everything to do with science, just as it does art!). How we account for this is the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century, particularly as the phenomena we uncover (big data, ecology, neuroscience, quantum computing, etc) increasingly expose us to the errors of mereology (confusing parts for wholes). Indeed, there may be no wholes at all, either in scientific ideas, or in nature. Ecologist Robert Ulanowicz makes this interesting observation:

"It is central to the scientific method that our body of knowledge always remains incomplete and evolving. With a slight touch of irony, I wish to suggest that, although most scientists do recognize the incompleteness of their own field, the greater majority remain unaware that nature itself is incomplete. Were it otherwise, science would not remain almost exclusively positivistic (material/mechanical) in scope. As it is, contemporary science is didactic and focuses narrowly on the palpable, on observable regularities. It pays scant regard to the arbitrary and virtually none at all to that which is absent." (Ulanowicz, R (2014) Reckoning the nonexistent: Putting the science right, Ecological Modelling, vol 293
So where is school science? If we said 'science is out of date', the minister will respond by saying "bring it up to date then! Let's inflict didactic neuroscience, computer programming and big data on the kids!" Unfortunately this is what tends to happen. But the central problem with science and incompleteness is a pedagogical one. Understanding reflexivity in science is to admit the processes of teaching, learning, discovery, experiment, play, critique and analysis as inseparable. Our biggest enemy is that bastion of educational reductionism: the curriculum.

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