The failure of science education

When you consider that every politician on earth studied science at school what greater testimony is there for the failure of science education? This thought came to me this morning as I look through the Facebook entries of friends and colleagues such as Peter Taylor who drew attention to the fact that Australia would not be represented at a Congress on climate change. This in the context of the newly elected government overturning the policies of the previous labor government that embraced climate change as evidence of a dire necessity to change lifestyles in Australia and worldwide. But of course it is not just climate change that draws attention to the science education of politicians. To what extent are the practices and policies of governments worldwide consistent with what we have learned from science? Maybe I'm too hard on politicians. To what extent other practices and policies of scientists, worldwide, consistent with what we can learn from science? As a matter of fact, what can we learn from science? Perhaps this should be the mantra for science education!

Carolyne Ali Khan wrote to me this morning and drew my attention to the allegory used by Carl Sagan – the pale blue dot. She provided a link to the following vignette that is so salient to what we value about life, which of course brings us back to science education.

Science educators, it might be argued, have failed to look at science education throughout the world and beyond institutions such as schools and universities. Think for a moment about the huge success, in a global sense, of the teaching and learning about individualism, materialism, capitalism, neoliberalism, either or forms of logic, and the deficit views on difference (i.e., if you differ from me you are wrong). The pedagogies that support the teaching and learning of constructs such as these have been successful beyond any claims we might make about the teaching and learning of science in schools and universities. So, what can we learn from pedagogies underlying these successes? Perhaps the focus for science education needs to be broader on learning in the world at large through institutions such as medicine, the media, and of course the family. It is time for a larger view that brings into question the emphasis on science topics that are selected by scientists. Why is it that we privilege the views of scientists when it comes to making decisions about what should be valued in taught as science education? I would not argue that the voices of scientists should be silent – on the contrary, they should be part of a polysemic approach to expanding the priorities for science education.

Recently I have been astonished by the monosemic stance that science educators have taken regarding the nature of science. It is almost as if there is a reluctance to allow different perspectives on the nature of science. In the scholarly debate, rather than embracing an expansive dialogue on the nature of science, there is a tendency to shut down the dialogue through declarations that any differences in the perspectives on what counts as science are simply wrong! Not only wrong, there is a pejorative view that difference is in fact unscholarly and to be deprecated. Unfortunately this stance may be pervasive and even mainstream within science education. Be that as it may, it is extremely damaging and holds back necessary advances that might just reach out to the challenges of science education for literate citizenry.

When we look at the grand challenges that include wellness and sustainability we should include scientific literacy for humanity. In making this claim there is a dark cloud on the horizon. We do not want more of the same. It is time for change. The mainstream needs to acknowledge the monumental failure of science education across the decades and especially now. There is no need to go beyond the failure of government in democratic societies. As I mentioned earlier every politician who has been elected to govern has studied science in schools and probably universities. And yet, when it comes to the decisions made by governments, and those we have elected, what evidence is there of the science education they have enjoyed? The courage and ethical commitments, the values and associated axiological standpoints for the most part do not reflect a science education that even comes close to addressing literate citizenry at a global level. Is this a goal that is simply too ambitious to contemplate?

My grand challenge for science educators, including myself, is to place an umbrella above all of the "new standards," calls for accountability, and high-stakes assessments. The umbrella I have in mind would contain constructs such as sustainability, wellness, and compassion. Obviously there are other constructs that belong in this list. In particular I'm thinking about you Jacques Derrida's monograph on cosmopolitanism in which he argues that cities of refuge need to be constructed to allow refugees to live and stay rather than just to visit. The key idea is that difference should be regarded with respect, not as a resource to label somebody as wrong, not as an invitation to colonize their views, but as a way of thinking that is a resource for everybody's education – a characteristic of a community that has hybrid vigor, values difference, and is expansive in the sense that all participants learn from one another.

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Kenneth Tobin 2015