Why do we remove Wonder from Science Education?

If it’s possible to dedicate blogposts to individuals then I choose to dedicate this to my aunt; Sr Cathy. Like many religious folk I know, her passion for Science may well surpass her passion for her religion. Or maybe she’s just passionate about everything. Either way, I’m looking forward to meeting up with her over the Easter break as part of a big extended family celebration.

Wonder is a theme we return to again in again in this blog. More specifically the theme is one of frustration that we have deliberately removed all reference in our science textbooks and syllabi to concepts that evoke a sense of wonder. And it doesn’t help that it seems to bother so few other people. Which is why every time I come across somebody else expressing the same frustration I move to wrap the up in cotton wool and store in away in s0 that I can return to it anytime I need reassurance that it’s not just me. And where better to store it than here?

Students today are often immersed in an environment where what they learn is subjects that have truth and beauty embedded in them but the way they’re taught is compartmentalised and it’s drawn down to the point where the truth and beauty are not always evident.
It’s almost like that old recipe for chicken soup where you boil the chicken until the flavour is just . . . gone.

The speaker, David Bolinsky, is famous for having created an incredible animation on the private life of cells. I have watched that video many, many times (it’s a beauty in it’s own right) but it was only when I watched its Bolinsky talk about it on TED that I zoned in on his quote above.

I devour popular science, finding its history and its wonder a constant delight. . . . It is a mystery how so many science teachers can be so bad at their jobs that most children of my acquaintance cannot wait to get shot of the subject. I am tempted to conclude that maths and science teachers want only clones of themselves, like monks in a Roman Catholic seminary.

That was from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian

We are deprived by our stupid schooling system of most of the wonders of the world, of the skills and knowledge required to navigate it, above all of the ability to understand each other. Our narrow, antiquated education is forcing us apart like the characters in a Francis Bacon painting, each locked in our boxes, unable to communicate.

That was courtesy of well known columnist George Monbiot

The way I was taught science made it feel like nothing more than a series of disconnected facts – the eureka moments of long dead scientists. My knowledge of Einstein’s work by the time I went to university was E=mc2; something like the Einstein-Silárd letter was completely absent from my education. I learned more about the history of nuclear physics from the play Copenhagen than I ever did from a school discussion.

Andrew Holding

We educators take this incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called Science and distil it again and again until all the wonder has been removed! We are left with nothing but a heap of dry shavings. We then pour this drivel into our syllabus and textbooks and make our students learn it off by heart so that it can all get vomited back up come exam time.
And then we wonder why so many young people don’t like science.

That one’s mine.

It’s really such a shame that the wonder of Science only seems to be spoken about by artists, poets and writers. Why do scientists (and science teachers, and in particular those who are responsible for drafting the science syllabi) hide from it so much?

Anyway, the reason for this particular post is that it’s time to add the opinion of the author of what is for me the greatest book ever written in the Popular Science genre; Bill Bryson, author of A Short History of Nearly Everything.
I’ll paste in the short quote first, but to understand the context it deserves to be read in its entirety so I’ll follow with that (and anyway, reading Bryson could hardly be termed a chore).

It was as if he [a science textbook author] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

Here is the full context:

My own starting point, for what it is worth, was a school science book that I had when I was in fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook – battered, unloved, grimly hefty – but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cutaway diagram showing the Earth’s interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing about a quarter of its bulk.

It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when I had not seen such an illustration before, but evidently I had not for I clearly remember being transfixed. I suspect, in  honesty, my initial interest was based on a private image of streams of unsuspecting eastbound motorists in the American plains states plunging over the edge of a sudden four-thousand-mile-high cliff running between Central America and the North Pole, but gradually my attention did turn in a more scholarly manner to the scientific import of the drawing and the realization that the Earth consisted of discrete layers, ending in the centre with a glowing sphere of iron and nickel, which was as hot as the surface of the Sun, according to the caption, and I remember thinking with real wonder: ‘How do they know that?’
I didn’t doubt the correctness of the information for an instant – I still tend to trust the pronouncements of scientists in the way I trust those of surgeons, plumbers, and other possessors of arcane and ¬ privileged information – but I couldn’t for the life of me conceive how any human mind could work out what spaces thousands of miles below us, that no eye had ever seen and no X-ray could penetrate, could look like and be made of. To me that was just a ¬ miracle. That has been my position with science ever since.

Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before ¬ dinner – an action that I expect prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was all right – and, starting with the first page, I read.

And here’s the thing. It wasn’t exciting at all. It wasn’t actually altogether comprehensible. Above all, it didn’t answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal enquiring mind: How did we end up with a Sun in the ¬ middle of our planet and how do they know how hot it is? And if it is burning away down there, why isn’t the ground under our feet hot to the touch? And why isn’t the rest of the interior melting – or is it? And when the core at last burns itself out, will some of the Earth slump into the void, leaving a giant sinkhole on the surface? And how do you know this? How did you figure it out?
But the author was strangely silent on such details – indeed, silent on everything but anticlines, synclines, axial faults and the like. It was as if he wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying – universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

I now know that there is a happy abundance of science writers who pen the most lucid and thrilling prose – Timothy Ferris, Richard Fortey and Tim Flannery are three that jump out from a single station of the alphabet (and that’s not even to mention the late but godlike Richard Feynman) – but, sadly, none of them wrote any textbook I ever used. All mine were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the  children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a  section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it. This, too, became my position for a long time.



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