Towards a Science Education for the Public Understanding of Science

Jonathan Osborne, King's College, London
August 1998

Formal science education from age 5-16 is the most extensive systematic exposure to the products of scientific knowledge that our future citizens receive. Yet science education is distinguished by the virtual absence of any treatment of contemporary science or scientific controversy, leaving young people ill-prepared to understand and interpret the science that permeates the media, and lacking any understanding of science as social practice. For whilst contemporary science is equivocal, contested and open to plural interpretations, school science, in contrast, presents a singular account of knowledge that is unequivocal, uncontested and unquestioned with an overwhelming focus on knowledge per se. Notable by its omission is any treatment of the social origins, traditions, practices, institutions, technologies, uses, and consequences of the natural sciences that would develop an understanding of science as a cultural practice, and which is necessary to make informed judgements about science.

Building on previous work, that has led to the production of a report funded by the Nuffield Foundation-Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, this fellowship will enable firstly the further development of arguments and rationales for a more appropriate science education. Secondly, arguments for change need to recognise the contexts, expertise and skills of the extant knowledge intermediaries-the science teaching force. Therefore the views of science teachers about the role and function of science education in contemporary society will be explored by undertaking five focus groups with science teachers to determine their responses to a curriculum that addressed the need to improve the public understanding of science. The outcomes of this work will be a report which it is hoped will help to shape an agenda for future research, training and curriculum development to support and promote change in contemporary science education.

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