Between the detail and the deep blue sea: Optimising formal and informal science education
By Su Wild-River
This post was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2013/09/between-the-detail-and-the-deep-blue-sea-optimising-formal-and-informal-science-education-2/
Five percent of our lives are spent in classrooms. Most of our science is learned in the real world. What are the implications for best practice science education?
Australia’s formal science education system is the subject of much current debate. Gonski famously reported recent declines in Australia’s educational outcomes, and after much capitulation, the incoming Coalition Government has committed to continuing the Gonski reforms. The new government also seeks world’s best practice teaching, and particularimprovements to the science taught in primary schools. But they also controversially lack a science ministry, and won’t be extending NAPLAN to science.
My daughter recently started high school and I wonder how much of the detail under the science education microscope will make it through to her beakers and Bunsen burners. I suspect not much. So I’m glad to know that informal science education (ISE) will have at least as much influence as her class time.
ISE is the learning you get from everyday settings and family activities as well as museums, zoos, aquariums, parks and structured activities outside of schools. There is a growing and vibrant body of evidence showing that ISE cultivates interest and understanding in science, and other disciplines that are losing ground in universities.
Perhaps the real question is not how to improve classroom teaching, but how to optimise its relationship with ISE.
It seems to me that ISE is ideal for stimulating the desire to learn, for generating questions and creating excitement. So when my daughter asks “why is the sea blue” she likes to hear that “its mostly water, which is blue in large quantities”. Then she’ll ask “why?” So I need to be ready with “water filters out the red light from the sky”. Being curious, she’ll ask why the sky is blue, and I’ll tell her that molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than red light. All of this will lead to questions about the nature of light and molecules and so on.
This is where the benefits of a formal scientific education are clear. My ability to answer children’s questions, and indeed, my experience of the real world are vastly enhanced by the science I learned at school. The periodic table, photosynthesis, genetics and geomorphology all rank with the most exciting concepts I’ve ever learned, and I see them in action in the world all the time. Classroom teaching helped me to grasp the basic building blocks that became interesting through ISE. The combination of informal and formal learning ideally synchronises natural curiosity with substantive knowledge.
The costs of scientific illiteracy are also obvious. Scientists know that our method investigates phenomena empirically and acquires new knowledge by extending, correcting and integrating previous conclusions. So for instance, an IPCC report that anthropogenic climate change is increasingly certain, even while atmospheric warming is slower than was previously thought is the embodiment of good science as well as a reinforcement of the call for emission mitigation. But lacking a basic understanding of the scientific method, denialists mistakenly see such reports as proof that global warming is a lot of hot air, and fuel for their business-as-usual fire.
How do your curiosity and knowledge work together?