One aspect of education in Australia, which has always puzzled me, has been the concentration on passing English as one of the selected Year 12 exam subjects.
Coming from England, where two branches of English – language and literature – were taught separately throughout the first five years of secondary school (and the chances of getting a white collar job was virtually nil if you did not pass English Language, normally at about age 16, in the GCE ‘O’ level exams), I have never understood why English Literature requires so much prominence when there are so many other areas of knowledge to explore.
Nor have I understood the willingness of educators to allow students to be scientifically ignorant!
Maths was always my best subject, and Eddie Woo has demonstrated vividly how it is essential that those teaching it should engender interest in students. Sadly, too many Primary school teachers are required to teach maths and succeed in encouraging children to dislike it!
Science suffers in the same way – yet governments fail to ensure that the STEM subjects are given sufficient prominence.
The following autobiographical detail is included in an attempt to put context into my argument that too many lack an adequate understanding of maths and science so fail to accept scientific arguments – such as those concerning the current Climate Emergency!
Because of the Space Race, in 1957, I went straight into teaching secondary school maths, up to university entrance standard, after graduating with a Maths degree from Imperial College. Apart from 5 years out of work while having 3 children, I continued teaching, full-time, part-time and relief until 1978, by which time I had been in Australia for 7 years.
Despite the experience I had had in teaching, without a Graduate Diploma in Education, I was regarded as unqualified, so not eligible to seek a fill-time position. (Many, with overseas qualifications which are not accepted by Australia, share this experience, which results in Australia losing some valuable, highly-skilled employees!).
So, I studied, externally, through the then Mitchell College in Bathurst for a secondary Grad Dip Ed, which included a required unit called Language and Learning. This was specially designed for those specialising in STEM subjects, presumably because they were, often wrongly, assumed to lack interest in the arts side of learning.
I attended a lecture for this unit during a bi-annual residential school, and the lecturer spent a considerable time discussing the relative appropriateness of formal and informal language in order to ensure understanding by the students. All quite acceptable.
She then produced an exercise book, apparently used at a school in the UK by a 13-year old student studying Chemistry, and proceeded to rip apart, verbally, the teaching method used.
The lecture theatre was in uproar as we pointed out her ignorance of how science is taught and why!
We explained that the chemistry teacher would have discussed the planned experiment and its purpose, informally with the class. The experiment would have been conducted and the results noted and the whole procedure discussed. All this would also have been done informally.
What the exercise book contained was the last vital step in learning how to be a scientist – which requires a formal record of the purpose of the experiment, the method adopted, the apparatus used, the results noticed and the conclusions drawn.
By documenting all these steps, another scientist can perform the same experiment and compare the results with yours and confirm or challenge your conclusions. This is the process of peer review.
In addition, because scientific research is an international process, your record has to be formal to facilitate translation into another language.
No one can ‘prove’ that the sun will rise tomorrow, but experience tells us that there is a very high probability that it will.
The purpose of scientific research is to establish the likelihood that particular events or circumstances will lead to specific outcomes. Peer review by specialists in the same research area will add credibility to the claims.
Back in the 1980s, Shell and Exxon engaged in research on the effect that using fossil fuels to provide power would have on climate warming, having been alerted to this possible outcome by earlier research.
Power and money are important drivers of policy and making this research public was not in the interests of the fossil fuel companies or their shareholders.
But political donations are also important drivers in encouraging governments to make favourable policy decisions. Favourable, that is, to the donors. In some cases, disastrous for the electorate!
Few of our politicians (and this would be true in many countries) have an in-depth understanding of science, and in Australia, under Tony Abbott, we even abolished our Science Department!
Our children are telling us that our failure to take serious and urgent action to slow, halt and possibly reverse climate change is destroying their future.
They are right – and that makes us criminally responsible for destroying future human life – quite apart from the entire environment, where biodiversity is rapidly decreasing!
TIME IS NOT ON OUR SIDE!
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