Thursday, October 22, 2009

Restoring the taste for science and mathematics

"There is no energy crisis," Bucky Fuller often reminded us. "We only have a crisis of ignorance." Fuller was talking about something more than what is generally referred to as science illiteracy. For him, science as taught in our schools does not really convey the truth about how the Universe works. Most importantly Bucky understood that "Universe is not conforming to a three-dimensional perpendicular-parallel frame of reference."

Nonetheless getting kids excited about and competent in science and math is an important step toward establishing a citizenry capable of understanding the most pressing issues and promising opportunities facing society. (GW)

"Training Citizens Who Are Well-Informed About Scientific Choices"

By Brigitte Perucca
Le Monde
October 2009

Educator Florence Robine notes that countries all around the world are waking up to the importance of a high-quality scientific education for everyone in order to have a knowledgeable citizenry capable of making informed choices on issues of public policy.

An astonishing convergence: A great number of countries, from China to India by way of Europe, worried by the decrease in scientific vocations, have undertaken an overhaul of their teaching of the sciences. With a change in perspective, however. The primary reason invoked to justify these reforms is no longer economic competitiveness, but the necessity of recreating a sort of democratic contract between citizens and scientific development.

Initiating children from the earliest ages in order that - when they have become adults - they may make "well-informed choices" as General Inspector for Physics Florence Robine puts it. She coordinated an issue of the Revue internationale d'éducation (International Review of Education) devoted to "a revival in the teaching of the sciences."

Le Monde: Many countries deem it necessary to reform their science curriculum ...

Florence RobineThe litany of the decline in scientific vocations has, in fact, done much to feed the public discourse on education the last few years. Even though it's about a problem with respect to economic development capacities in the context of international competition, the debate has recently shifted. Now, countries are realizing the importance of a high-quality scientific education for everyone, not only for training future scientists. A reform has been underway in England since 2004; China launched a pilot program based on "learning by doing"; France continues to actively promote "getting our hands dirty"; India is in the process of giving up rigid apprenticeship norms in favor of experimental activities ...

Training well-informed citizens, capable of debating the critical choices before us with respect to energy sources, biotechnologies, health, access to food and water, and go beyond fears and beliefs: that's the challenge. And to meet it, it's necessary to expose young people as soon as possible to the scientific approach. Yes, I said approach, that is to say, the modes of scientific thought, the way scientific results we use to understand the world that surrounds us a little better are constructed and validated - not memorization of formulae and principles designed to solve homework problems or to determine academic selection.

These reforms are designed to end elitist systems. Should we see them as a form of scientist self-criticism?

I don't believe scientists are guilty in this question of elitism, or else they're guilty of allowing it to happen, of not having adequately broken with the superb isolation of science and extended a hand to the public on the grounds that the issue is one of domains that obviously require a decryption key. Yet, there are many scientists who, alongside educators, have been sounding the alarm. The official report is in: neglecting the training of the citizen, forgetting in the first place to develop a taste for the share of culture science transmits, teaching too quickly imposed an abstraction beyond reach with problems the meaning of which eludes students.

For China, reform in the teaching of the sciences even prepares "sustainable social development" ...

It's an idea rich with promise. That scientific education should convey those values linked to democracy and freedom, to the personal development of individuals, is a promise for a future and for better understanding among peoples. That China and India should proclaim these objectives is not the least cause for satisfaction.

Sweden has undertaken "to restore the taste for mathematics." A central question?

Sweden has, in fact, undertaken a wide-scale reform in the teaching of mathematics, with support from the highest political levels. One of the first axes has been to work on a clearer representation of the role of mathematics in daily and professional life. There again, it's a matter of changing traditional depictions. The Swedes want to show their children that math nestles everywhere. The production of abstract reasoning is an important aspect of mathematical activity, but it must come in its time.


Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.


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