Tag Archives: Education reform

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. ★★★★

Book: Ideology and Curriculum

Cambridge, according to Rajesh Koothrappali, is, “wonderful, not only because it’s a good school but [also] because it totally looks like Hogwarts”. How apt.


Theoretical Marxist nonsense. Irrelevant to schools.
264 pages, 

Admittedly, I learned little from this bland, so-called ‘Marxist’ book on education reform. If I could summarise its message in one sentence, though, I’d write:

“School organisers impose curricula on the lower classes to spread their elitist idea of ‘culture’ for self-preservation and thus self-benefit.”

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I overlooked something important, but that’s the #1 message I’m taking home from this book.

The ‘nonsense’ here applies more to ‘theoretical’ than to ‘Marxist’. I’m a teacher, not a philosopher, so a purely theoretical approach to education reform with no recommendations for what I should do in my school feels completely irrelevant to me. Rallying the masses into a revolutionary frenzy—a key tenet of Marxism—is something this tedious book completely fails to do. Read something else. 

Book: Over-schooled but Under-educated

Unlike the misleadingly distressed title font, this book isn’t rebellious at all.

Strangely, this book is a moderately flattering history of schools.
310 pages, ★★★

Over-schooled but Under-educated isn’t so much a critique, or even a blueprint, as a history of schooling. It reads like a selection of meandering essays about when schools were built, by whom, and for what purpose—basically, by churches in the 19th century to handle the delinquent poor; and later by the new, self-made middle-class as an attempt to push their children out of skilled labour and into the aristocracy. Over-schooled but Under-educated thus neglects its “schools need reform” thesis for six chapters! In the introduction, the author even writes, “you can skim-read chapters 5 and 6 to read chapter 7 properly, which is the crux of my argument”.

This book’s points are largely obvious. Schools need reform; teachers should let students learn by themselves; standardised tests set precedents more than they measure a student’s existing ability; and the family environment (that’s Pierre Bourdieu’s “Social Capital”) accounts for a greater proportion of a child’s education than does the experience of that child’s teacher. As a teacher, I feel like I knew all this already.

I was expecting something revolutionary from this book. The distressed title font emanates undertones of strength, grunge and rebellion, but none of this was to be found. Instead, it’s written like a collection social sciences essays, and I was thus disappointed.

That said, Over-schooled but Under-educated was worth reading. The most constructive part was the chapter on Finland’s model of education, from which all Western countries, supposedly, can learn.

My own teacher training will take precedent over any other books that I read on education. At this stage, I can agree with the role of a teacher being a “guide on the side”, not a “sage on the stage”, but when my Diploma of Education starts in February, even this view will be up for debate. ★★★

Book: Class Warfare: Inside the fight to fix America’s schools

Class Warfare: several heroic Americans busted a trade union to make education better and cheaper for all.

Written from the front lines of politics, not from in front of a blackboard.
478 pages, ★★★ 

Reading this book feels like skimming the travel journal of a candidate on a presidential campaign. Class Warfare is dry, piecemeal, littered with bureaucratic bullshit and lacks clear direction. This is a book about politics, not about education. In total, students are granted less than one page of attention. Teaching techniques are mentioned even less often and can be condensed down to, “put your kids in a U-shape—bad ones go in the middle”.

This is a book about politics, not about education

This book was irrelevant for me. I expected to learn how to reform broken schools, how to train teachers, or at least how to teach a class. Instead, reading Class Warfare just tells us there are two problems with America’s education system: (1) incompetent teachers (some of them sleep during class); and (2) unions. Since the former are locked in overpaid employment by the latter, the unions can be blamed for America’s declining public schools (and basically everything else—this is clearly a Republican book). Busting those unions (and laying off incompetent teachers) is described repeatedly as the best remedy.

A few heroic characters join the fight against unions: Bill Gates, Jon Schnur, and Jessica Reid. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded school reform in New York, in which, the right to bypass unions was central to the program’s success. Bypassing the teachers’ union gave schools the right to pay less, fire people, reward good performance, and, most importantly, allowed education managers to do their jobs without fear of excessive, crippling derailment from co-ordinated (angry) teachers and parents. Teachers unions had schools in a straightjacket.

Yes, unions have been partly responsible for the decline of America’s public schools because they turned teaching from a respected (but low-paid) profession into a comfortable safety net for the otherwise unemployable (for every great teacher, there are several idiots who just get by on the same salary). But after reading this book, I still think that busting those unions is not the best way to reform public schools. Ideally, the unions could lead the reform. Unions could set up classes where “good” teachers teach “bad” teachers; or provide teacher training rather than saying “more money for teachers” repeatedly. Unions caused problems in America’s public schools, but, as groups of interested professionals, they also have the potential to fix them.

Anyone interested in political bickering should read this. Republicans, especially, will get a buzz from this book even if they don’t learn much from it. Democrats should read this as a fictional drama, which is at worst, just slightly offensive. The political divide gives Class Warfare very mixed reviews on Amazon.

What did I learn? I’m done with education, and I’m done with politics. And I’m extremely happy to be independent and self-employed in an industry with zero regulation. That’s all the relevant knowledge I need from this book. ★★★