Hard times for education without context of climate

Features editor

The government’s advisor in charge of the schools curriculum has advocated the removal of climate change from the syllabus, saying that the emphasis of science teaching should be on the basics of science and not on their implications. ‘Oxidation and gravity don’t date,’ Tim Oates, who is preparing a report on the curriculum to be published in later this year, told The Guardian newspaper in an interview this week.

I believe Oates is wrong, both in his conclusion and in his quote. If gravity doesn’t date, then why are there numerous research projects trying to find out what it is? Tell the space scientists working on the concept for the LISA project, which will use three satellites flying in a precisely-measured constellation, to try to detect gravity waves; not to mention the engineers at EADS Astrium working on the pathfinder satellite to test the mechanism.

For that matter, oxidation dates as well; I studied chemistry at university, and I can remember at least three different theories about the loss and gain of electrons, all of which have implications for the design of chemical plants and processes which use these reactions.

Oates seems to be proposing that education should be based on facts, facts and nothing but facts. Just the science. There’s a name for this sort of education — it’s called Gradgrindian, and it’s called that because Charles Dickens invented a character called Thomas Gradgrind in his novel Hard Times,  a headmaster who was obsessed with education dedicated to the pursuit of profit, to satirise this approach. And why did he satirise it, way back in 1854, when The Engineer was still two years away from being founded? Because it’s dismal and it doesn’t work.

Report after report, not to mention anecdotal evidence, suggests that children are turned off science when it’s presented as a stream of abstract theory divorced from any context or application to the real world. What’s it for? Why should they study it? Good question. The effect of television programmes putting science and engineering in a wider context, presenting the history of the subjects with their personalities and debates, and showing why the subjects have mattered and continue to matter, have had a real effect on interest in STEM subjects.

It seems a particularly stupid suggestion when the government is telling us — rightly — that we need to be more aware of energy conservation and putting policies into place to change the way we use energy in the UK. There are charging posts for electric cars being installed in cities; there are wind farms under construction around the UK; there are nuclear reactors on the drawing board. Surely it’s a good idea for people to know why this is happening? Surely school is a good place to start this process? Aren’t you supposed to learn about what’s happening around you?

Anyway, how are you supposed to take climate out of the syllabus? The greenhouse effect is vital for life on Earth, as the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps enough of the sun’s heat to maintain the necessary temperature. That’s part of basic climate science, which is part of chemistry, physics and geography. Equally, when you’re learning about the Solar System, you’re told that Venus is a hostile oven because its greenhouse effect ran away, and Mars is a frigid desert because it doesn’t have an atmosphere anymore. Everyone knows that space is a great way to get kids interested in science lessons.

Moreover, we’re told over and over that there needs to be more engineering and technology in the syllabus, to give schoolchildren more ideas about what the subjects might offer. So we’re not supposed to tell them about the role of engineering in reducing dependance on fossil fuels? We’re not supposed to tell them what effects engineering might have on their world, whether they’ve been bad or good?

Of course, it’s premature to judge Oates’ report on the basis of a pre-publication interview. On this government’s record, it’ll probably change its mind at least twice before it forms any policy. But from what’s been said so far, here’s some advice for Oates. Go away, read Hard Times, and then think again.