The Sceptical Chymist | Transatlantic Tales: School days

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Posted on behalf of Nessa


Moving to a new lab always carries those compulsory first few weeks of introductions, where you get a little glimpse into the lives of the new people around you, and get to share a bit of your own too. In many ways, it’s the most interesting bit of the non-chemistry part of the process. Starting from the start, talk sometimes gets round to your (pre-university) school days.

Of course, mine weren’t very long ago — although it feels like another lifetime. My main memories of school are how much I hated the place. However, since starting uni, I have regularly come across news articles about how a core of scientists are sure that the UK education system is failing the teenagers getting ready to become researchers of the future. On the other side of the pond, the issues are very different, with some teachers ready to teach creationism in science lessons.

British A-levels (taken by those who choose to study at 16-18) are the worst of it — because by then, teenagers with any interest in science outside of the classroom are reading up and realizing what’s wrong in the classroom. Teenagers who aren’t doing the extras are stuck with the ‘science’ prescribed to them — is memorizing unexplained series of facts how we go about research? Of course it’s not — but that’s what these students will think. Is following a list of prescriptive instructions how we do work in the lab? No — but that’s what A-level pupils are going to believe about a science career.

From what I’ve gleaned, the US high school system varies vastly between regions and social groups. There’s a high proportion of homeschooling and, as ever, the religious-right rules the roost. High levels of ‘sciphobia’ and misunderstanding of science by the general population are the fundamental issues here. Huge divides mean that many schools fail to give their pupils the inspiration to fulfil their potentials, and only a select few establishments regularly provide the boost to get the most able into university and ultimately, a fulfilling science career.

It seems as though some of our issues are shared… haven’t we been having the ‘good schools vs failing schools’ debate in the UK for as long as I can remember? It seems to me that no real change will be made until governments stop flipping back and forth between curricula and recycling old ideas (4-module to 6-module, back to 4-module A levels), and begin looking at the content to see what knowledge would benefit students most. And I’m betting it’s not memorizing the structure of a blast furnace.

Nessa (you can find me on G+ here)

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