Book: STS Education: International Perspectives on Reform

Okay, I acknowledge that most of these teaching books aren’t of any interest to most people. My next book review will be an interesting one—I promise.🙂

STS Education
Another hard-to-find book

“Please make science education relevant”.
259 pages, ★★★★

STS stands for “Science, Technology & Society”. It’s an international group founded in Oxford in 1990 with the aim of re-thinking how to teach science in today’s schools. All the authors in this book broadly agree that the science taught in schools needs to be more relevant to our daily lives. No more lofty, pointless theory. Many of you will know that I agree with that.🙂

Instead of just “this is how nuclear reactions happen”, STS aims to add, “here are the safety, environmental and economic implications of nuclear power plants”.

Instead of just “this is how plants photosynthesise”, STS might add, “here are the implications of using biomass as a source of ethanol for cars”.

STS isn’t alone. ChemCom, SEPUP, SATIS, SISCON and SCISP, and—shameless plug—The Triple Helix are all striving towards the same goal.

I’ve summarised the most interesting chapters of STS Education below. Notice that all the authors broadly agree!

In Chapter 1, Joan Solomon argues for moral science education because the next generation will use science to have a huge influence on society. She uses the industrial revolution, the green revolution, energy crises and myxomatosis to illustrate her point (in a revised edition, she might also allude to avian flu, SARS, improvised explosives and food safety scandals). Only “moral science” classes can ensure that the next generation’s use of science is positive.

In Chapter 2, Glen Aikenhead wants to keep science education relevant. According to Aikenhead, science has made three major leaps in history:

  • First, Natural Philosophy emerged based on observations of nature. Bernard Sylvester (12th century); Roger Bacon (13th century); Nicole Oresme (14th century); Leonardo da Vinci (15th century); Nicolaus Copernicus (16th century); Johannes Kepler & Galileo Galilei (17th century) all had a major influence.
  • In 17th century Europe, the counter-reformation led to the institutionalisation of science. Mersenne, Descartes, Bacon, Huygens, Boyle and Hooke all had a major influence.
  • In 19th century Europe, the Industrial Revolution led to the professionalisation of science.
  • In the 20th century, World War II led to the socialisation of science.

Aikenhead’s point (I think) it that science keeps changing, so our education of science should change, too.

In Chapter 3, John Ziman says there are 7 ways to teach science:
(Italicised comments are my own)

  1. Relevance approach—“here’s why we should learn about X”
  2. Vocational approach—“learning about X can help you work at Y”
  3. Transdisciplinerary approach—“X is relevant to your other classes”
  4. Historical approach—“here’s the story of how X was discovered”
  5. Philosophical approach—just don’t go there
  6. Sociological approach—the best approach—”X affects us all”
  7. Problematic approach—”what would happen if X…”

In Chapter 5*, Glen Aikenhead says STS aims to fill a “critical void” in the curriculum with “human compassion”. The actions proposed in this chapter looks like an extra layer to Bloom’s Taxonomy—a seventh, “Moral” tier. After students have understood, applied, evaluated and created things in class, can they make moral decisions based upon the information given? Aikenhead proposes that 10% to 40% of science education should be “moral science” (just once, 80% is suggested).

Aikenhead also says here that STS has four purposes (again, italicised comments are my own):

  • Cognitive—plain old brain training
  • Academic—useful knowledge for life
  • Personal—improve your own life by learning to make informed decisions
  • Social action—improve the lives of others by leading by example

*Chapter 5 was the chapter on our university reading list.

Chapter 11 talks about historiography and the public’s alternative conceptions of science. “No one has explored the views of the public about historicity of science and the relationship between theories that became superseded and those that replace them”. I love that sentence. I’d like to see “historiography of climatology” taught in schools—as well as, “alternative conceptions of science”. Both, though, are touchy subjects!

Chapter 12 is sloppy. The line “…all Africans believe in the existence of the creator—the supreme God” is ignorant, and, ironically, unscientific. (They’d never be allowed to write “all Asians” or “all Europeans”, so why is “all Africans” acceptable?)

Chapter 6 is only relevant to curriculum planners (i.e. governmental organisations). I skipped Chapter 13 on India. Chapter 14’s gender debate would have been interesting in 1990 but is now out-of-date. All other chapters were of little relevance to me.

STS is already an old idea, and some of its ideas have already been implemented in curricula worldwide. However, I think this doesn’t go far enough. I want to see MTS (for maths), HTS (for history), ATS (for art) taught in our classrooms. If we understand why we’re learning such seemingly irrelevant stuff as circle theory, then we might just pay a bit more attention in class. That can only be a good thing. ★★★★

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