One of the features of wordpress is a list of what web searches have led people to your blog (or at least hits anyway) and they themselves can be fascinating glimpses into what people are interested in or what information on (mostly Tyrannosaurus and Jurassic Park). A recent one was the title of this post and it is a very interesting question (precisely it was “what is the importance of teaching science to children?”). Apart from the fundamental answer (well, everyone should know a bit about biology, chemistry and physics, much as they should know a bit about history, geography, art and maths) it is a good question. What does science bring to the table?
It’s hard to put in specific terms, but science as a concept (as opposed to just learning facts and theories, or heating stuff in test tubes) has some nice ideas to offer that would be useful for many people to learn and would be useful throughout their lives. Concepts such as logical deductions and inference, parsimony, and not accepting arguments (or dismissals) based on authority but from evidence, and scepticism would all be handy. Teaching someone how to appraise and evaluate conflicting evidence and any bias in that evidence would be useful ‘life skills’ for pretty much everyone. Let’s face it, it ultimately comes down to trying to spot patterns, work out reasons for them, and to spot errors and mistake: how can learning these skills be bad or unimportant?
Of course many of these are taught in various ways and in subjects well beyond science, (history lessons for me at least included things like looking for bias in various accounts of events), but I do rather like the idea of formally teaching students what it means and why it’s important. I don’t think I was ever taught the ‘scientific method’ as a concept, we were just told there was a right and wrong way to do things, and while that included excellent guidelines about things like eliminating alternative possibilities to the cause of the results (effectively applying a control) the concept of a control in itself was not.
Something that laid out the ideas and reasons behind accurate formal writing, using good judgement, formulating rules, testing ideas, parsimony, and bias would be an excellent introduction to the scientific method, but also to thought itself. Teach kids how to think, how to evaluate and judge, how to process information and come to rules and conclusions about the world. Get that right and they will be armed with a powerful set of tools that will literally last them a lifetime, and frankly it’s hard to see how that cannot be good. I don’t think kids are incapable of learning these things as concepts and entities, and already many if not all of them *are* taught – but in a more systematic and integrated framework, I would expect them to stick better in the mind and let the kids see how the ideas work together. The benefits to science teaching (and many of the arts) are clear if the children had an established concept of how to present and test their ideas independently and to evaluate material put in from of them, as well as having something to take outside the classroom for the future.