Thirty years from now, we could wake up to discover that we are not in fact living any better than we are now. We could then be facing a shortage of professionals capable of resolving our problems. The forecasts are pessimistic.
Researchers from Kings College London have studied the professional aspirations of British school students and the role they envision science playing in their future careers. To the researchers’ surprise, a vast share of the nearly 20,000 school students between 10 and 14 years old who were surveyed felt that natural and physical science subjects were very interesting. A clear majority responded that truly interesting things are taught at such lessons. The same amount also said that their parents consider it important to learn such subjects. Nearly four-fifths of those surveyed agreed that scientists do very useful work. And yet despite all that, less than 15% expressed a desire to become a scientist in the future!
During the 2015 Science Picnic event in Warsaw, the Copernicus Science Centre carried out a similar survey among school-aged students.1 Some of the questions pertained to how they perceived their own capabilities. Nearly half (47%) of those surveyed responded that they considered themselves “technically-minded,” whereas 27% described themselves as “artistically inclined” and 22% as “humanities-minded.” Among the “humanities-minded” group, just one in every twenty felt that they could become a good scientist one day, whereas the rate was one in five among the “technically-minded” group. These results show that a few years into the future we as a society could end up having serious trouble further developing and maintaining the technologies that seem to be such an obvious element of our lives. Who will we have to develop them?
Professor Louise Archer from Kings College London maintains that the school students’ level of “science capital” has a crucial impact on their aspirations. Science capital is an overall measure of the symbolic resources that affect how school students think about themselves and about science. Archer shows that it consists of four types of resources which children may be “equipped with” when entering adulthood. Firstly, their science literacy, in other words, everything they know about science in general. Secondly, their conviction about their own science competences, in other words, how the students perceive themselves, under the influence of grades and teachers’ opinions. Thirdly, their daily and non-daily practices related to science; here the researchers are referring to visits paid to museums and science centres, participation in science clubs, following science-related news online. Fourthly and lastly, their level of science capital is affected by whom they know, in other words by their personal relations with people who are professionally engaged in science. Children who have a scientist or someone who works in research among their close family are almost twice as likely to have high aspirations in terms of their own future scientific career. It is hard to change the label “I am artistically inclined” (which generally means more or less “I’m not so good at maths” and “I find history tough”) into the thought “I know how to connect the dots between facts pretty well, so I could become a decent scientist one day.” In the abovementioned survey taken during the Science Picnic in Warsaw, those school students who described themselves as “humanities-minded” responded four times less often than the “technically-minded” that they felt they could become a good scientist someday. How can we resolve this conundrum?
How to enrich science capital?
How can the attitudes of school students be influenced? Great hopes in this regard are pinned on informal education – on visits to museums, science centres and zoos, meetings with scientists, science picnics and festivals. Everywhere children can get to know science better, first-hand, and thereby create their own impression of science and scientists based on their own personal experience. In Polish culture, learning primarily means time spent at school. School means lessons taught by a competent teacher, while the students are meant to master the material conveyed to them. They are graded on how well they do on tests. Sounds familiar, right?
Our school system is dominated by order and harmony, which if everything works properly gives great reassurance to teachers, students and their parents. This peace of mind is truly important to us. Research done by Tomasz Piątek from the Copernicus Science Centre2 has shown that teachers place great importance on discipline during lessons. They consider maintaining discipline to be their duty and a sign of their own competence. Concern for students’ safety is therefore the most frequently mentioned factor on the list of fears that discourage them from lesson-plans involving experimentation. Turning the initiative over to children during experimentation involves the risk of unpredictability. This applies both to the physical order in the classroom (with students walking around, discussing, doing different things) and to the results of the classwork. Experiments also sometimes… simply do not work out. During natural science classes, therefore, teachers prefer textbook-teaching to carrying out real experiments. They also, research indicates, eagerly make use of demonstrations or films. What happens in the classroom then remains under their full control. They can be sure of having enough time to finish discussing a given topic and to dictate the necessary definitions. They clearly prefer this to the “chaos” that arises when experimenting and engaging in discussion with students. And although this may all seem like a description of just “any normal classroom”, all this attachment to calmness, predictability and discipline has more to do with our needs as a society than with the nature of schooling itself. The problem is that calm order in the classroom also means that it is hard to teach students how to independently search for and test their own solutions, in other words how to experiment and make their own mistakes.
So if school lessons have to be well-ordered…
The Copernicus Science Centre is a two-storey, open space. Although has been divided up into different galleries, such as the Roots of Civilization, On the Move, Humans and the Environment, and Re:generation, the borders between them are essentially invisible. The exhibits are clustered into groups, but without any order that is visible at first glance. They are not lined up in any way. There are no museum guides, no arrows on the floor for visitors to follow along a fixed route. We do have a staff of “explainers” whose job it is to answer any questions and to help visitors use the exhibits. There are also lots of other people all around – visitors are surrounded by many others, observing, suggesting, acting for themselves. Such freedom to visit as one sees fit, such liberty to experiment, such a green-light to experience emotions are at first glance aspects that run counter to what we normally think of as education: an underlying tenet at Copernicus is that this view is unfortunate and unfounded.
Open, interactive exhibits – in other words ones where students can experiment on their own or in small groups, create a unique chance to inspire their active exploration in the context of science. In the On the Move gallery, they can check whether rings and wooden balls can stay in place while rolling on a spinning steel disc. They set them rolling, closer or father from the centre. Bigger ones or smaller ones. Individually, several at a time, one after another. No one labels this as “physics”, no one talks about what kind of forces help or hamper efforts to keep the balls on the spinning disc; the children simply do everything they can come up with to prevent them from spinning off. Researchers know that every such attempt at testing out a new solution at an exhibit represents something more than just a bit of enjoyment. Rather, it is a manifestation of active exploration – an iterating, conscious quest for solutions, aiming at discovering or comprehending a certain phenomenon. The intensity of such exploration has an impact on the effectiveness of learning. To put things quite simply, the more attempts a child makes while playing with an exhibit, the more solutions he or she tries, the more his or her skills of observation, data analysis and critical thinking develop.
Interacting with such exhibits is somewhat like when a child plays with blocks. Just how the point is not to learn how to use blocks to build makeshift houses or cars, here the point is not really to learn the skill of setting balls rolling on a spinning disc. The real point is clearly something much bigger. Such tasks develop one’s spatial imagination, hone the ability to create prototypes, to model the world in our minds. They develop skills and competences that are hard to capture during typical school classes. An attentive observer will notice how a girl who got a ‘C’ in physics, that one who recently took her new telephone apart, actually manages very well with the exhibits, and how that soft-spoken boy who usually never speaks up was the first in the group to suggest what to do to keep a Slinky stationary as it walks along a moving treadmill.
Dr. Magdalena Śniegulska from the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, in Warsaw who also does research among visitors to the Copernicus Science Centre, draws attention to a certain cycle of exploration, with curiosity leading to discovery, pleasure, repetition and the acquisition of new skills. This in turn leads to better self-confidence, higher self-esteem, a sense of security and ultimately triggers… greater exploration! This cycle, as Dr. Śniegulska points out, captures how we explore at every stage of life, although the scope, domain, and frequency of exploration surely do change throughout our lives. The nature of exploration also changes: turning from passive exploration into active, then systematized exploration. In children, “exploration” includes such behaviour as testing an object by touch, exploration by manipulation, and ultimately by asking questions. This shows that exploration in children helps develop their memory, mental associations, schemata-building, and ultimately their mental lexicon! A classic study by Minuchin in 1971 showed a positive correlation between the degree of exploratory behaviour and subjects’ sense of their own distinctiveness, readiness to create concepts, and sense that the surrounding world is predictable and can be influenced. And we are talking about four-year-olds here!
Is it something bad not to know?
The Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, the author of the bestselling Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, took an interest in how people behave when faced with situations about which they are uncertain how they will end. Provided, of course, that they have any sense of this problem. It turns out that people’s psychological needs in this regard are highly diverse. The Swedes, Danes, British, and Americans all share low rates of avoiding uncertainty. They simply feel quite OK with uncertainty… in other words, they may not know what is coming, but that fact does not bother them so much.
The Greeks, Belgians, Portuguese, and Russians, in turn, share a strong sense of stress in unpredictable situations. Poland, it turns out, ranks among the top-ten countries whose residents want to avoid uncertain situations! What does this mean for schools? In Hofstede’s view, students from countries where there is a strong tendency to avoid uncertainty expect teachers to be experts knowing the answer to every question. It is unacceptable for a teacher not to provide a clear-cut answer or to simply say “I don’t know.” Students from such countries have a tendency to underappreciate their own achievements. They ascribe them to luck, saying things like “things somehow worked out for me.” When comparing groups of German and British students, the Dutch researcher noted that the former demanded detailed curriculum plans, precise instructions, and clear-cut answers to questions. The latter were more interested in a freely-planned curriculum and voluntary homework. They did not accept situations in which only a single, correct answer was allowed. They also expected additional points to be awarded for original answers. In cultures where people try to avoid uncertainty, parents represent a kind of audience, taking part in the educational process but never being asked for their opinions. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology from the University of Stanford who studies how attitude affects the ability to overcome difficulties, would perhaps add that people in such cultures are more often convinced that one’s achievements are determined by one’s intelligence and abilities, which are innate, and more rarely believe that success or failure depend on development and the amount of effort and work invested. Does that sound familiar?
Active exploration of the sort provoked by the exhibits at the Copernicus Science Centre opens up a different perspective on science and how it develops. The kind of physics that is illustrated by the exhibits ceases to be a collection of exercises and equations, but instead becomes a series of questions and riddles – Why do things happen this way? What will happen if I try it differently? – which can be resolved through careful attention, ingenuity, perseverance, and readiness to take risks and make mistakes. This different perspective offers an opportunity for students whose life experiences have so far taught them that science “is not for them” to change their minds. It is worth giving them the chance. Invite them to visit Copernicus. Let their capital grow!
Ilona Iłowiecka-Tańska, Ph.D. – cultural anthropologist, Manager at the Evaluation and Analysis Department at the Copernicus Science Centre. Her field of expertise are social modernisation concepts. She is the author of “Leaders and activists – the third sector in Poland („Liderzy i działacze: o idei trzeciego sektora w Polsce”).
The article was published in Dyrektor Szkoły nr 6 (270) in June 2016.
1. Kapitał naukowy młodzieży 10-19 lat. Raport z badania uczestników XIX Pikniku Naukowego [Science Capital among 10-19 Year Olds: Report on a Survey Among Participants of the 19th Science Picnic in Warsaw], Warsaw 2015. Study carried out by CBOS.
2. Piątek Tomasz, Doświadczenie (nie)oswojone. Stosowanie metody badawczej na lekcjach przyrody [Experimentation (Un)Tamed: The Research Methods Used During Natural-Science Classes], Warsaw 2015.