A waffler's charter

The Myth of Scientific Literacy
April 26, 1996

Educational policy in primary and secondary schools in the United States aims at basic scientific literacy for everyone. The same can be said for the United Kingdom, and for all developed countries. Morris Shamos believes such aims represent an impossible dream, a "myth".

He is in a position to know. Now 79, he spent much of his working life as an elementary school teacher. He started a major curriculum project for elementary schools, the Conceptually Oriented Programme in Elementary Science (Copes). Along with others (ESS, SAPA, SCIS), this is one of the so-called "alphabet soup" programmes of the 1970s in the US, dedicated to the proposition that it is the "big ideas", the broad, fundamental concepts which matter in science. Shamos has been president of the US National Science Teachers Association.

The book traces the history of science teaching and the underlying educational policies in the US, mainly since the second world war and particularly in the post-sputnik years. Shamos surveys recurring evidence that US students do not rank highly in international league tables measuring attainment in science and mathematics among schoolchildren, and the promises of successive US presidents to move the nation into the number one slot.

Thus George Bush in 1989 proclaimed, as part of "America 2000", that "by the year 2000, US students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement". Bill Clinton has just affirmed a similar goal, under the "Educational Technology Initiative".

Against this background, Shamos presents a forceful argument that universal scientific literacy, in the sense of familiarity with basic scientific facts and principles, is for most citizens neither achievable nor necessary. Rather, he urges, we should concentrate on students developing an appreciation and awareness of how science affects every aspect of their daily lives, of how technology influences their personal health and safety, and of how professional scientific opinion can be used (and abused) in debates on public policy issues.

On the road to this conclusion, Shamos deals effectively with worries about crises in science education leading to shortages of practising scientists and engineers in the workforce.

In the US, as in the UK, the problem is not that universities fail to produce adequate numbers of such specialists, but rather that industry is deficient (in comparison with the emerging Asian tigers) in making full use of this skilled workforce. Shamos urges that we should think more purposively about the 95 per cent or so of schoolchildren who will not be scientists or engineers, and focus on giving them an understanding of how science will shape their lives.

I fully agree with Shamos's drives for general "awareness and appreciation" of science. But I am damned if I see how you divorce them from understanding the basic ideas and principles of science itself.

One main reason why Shamos wants to get away from emphasis on the broad concepts of science (Copes and its cousins) is his pessimistic recognition that teachers' training usually "didn't include much science", and that attempts at retraining have not been successful. Such gloom may be well based in the US, and perhaps more generally. At the risk of excessive technological optimism, however, I hope that the increasing entry into schools of computer terminals and clever individually oriented educational software may effectively lead to a qualitative upgrade in science teaching. It had better. Because if you try to convey appreciation and awareness of science, without basing it on the essential elements of science itself, I think you end up waffling.

Sir Robert May is chief scientific adviser to the Government, on leave from his Royal Society research professorship in the zoology department, University of Oxford .

The Myth of Scientific Literacy

Author - Morris H. Shamos
ISBN - 0 8135 2196 3
Publisher - Rutgers University Press
Price - $.95
Pages - 261

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