Archive for December, 2012

Teach the Bigger Story of Science


Children have so much curiosity about the natural world, but the current school curriculum drains away their enthusiasm

Original published by the Guardian 17th February 2010

A gulf seems to exist between our natural curiosity about the world around us and the popularity of science at university level in Britain. Scientists have such heated arguments because we are so passionate about our fields. Yet many school students seem to dislike the subject. Why are so many young people apparently bored by science ?

Small children frequently develop near obsessions with aspects of science, be they dinosaurs, insects or aeroplanes. So where does this fascination go? No one would deny the need for standards and benchmarks in education, but the process that began with the national curriculum is eroding the preparedness of students to cope with university science education.

The “Google generation” is taught in bite-sized chunks throughout their school lives. When they go to university, this teaching method lets them down. This is not the fault of students or teachers, but the nationally imposed criteria that all schools must fulfil. The way that school science curricula are designed primarily to meet testing benchmarks saps them of flexibility and the time for practical experimentation – the bedrock of any enriching science teaching.

The majority of lecturers in higher education would agree that the unprecedented rise in A-level grades is not the result of an unexplained increase in teenage intelligence: rather the nature of the questions has changed, and expectations seem to have been lowered. That means that universities are increasingly spending time addressing the science basics that 10 years ago were taken as read. This not only wastes time but prevents students from developing the deep analytical skills that employers now bemoan the lack of.

It is important to note that the students themselves are blameless: they can only take the tests they are given. Bored students switch off and find themselves unable to appreciate the material presented to them or to understand the research of academics. This places pressure on universities – should they adapt (in other words, dumb down) or maintain standards and risk losing students to softer subjects?

But it would be a mistake to substitute style for substance when it comes to science teaching. The Conservatives’ policy that only those with the best degrees should be allowed on to PGCE courses, while appearing superficially intellectually satisfying, does not offer a solution. The best teachers are not necessarily those who have amassed the most knowledge or excel in examinations – enthusiasm, creativity and charisma are just as important and cannot be measured in degree classifications. It isn’t teachers that are the problem; it is what they are required to teach.

Take my own specialism, evolution, a fascinating subject that arouses strong opinions – including outright hostility – yet its teaching in schools can lack relevancy and engaging examples. That old stalwart the peppered moth, though a fascinating creature, does lack something in the excitement stakes. Far better to use examples that are both relevant and inspiring, such as MRSA’s evolutionary tricks to resist treatment or the role that meat eating played in human brain expansion and intelligence.

Rigid adherence to the same old examples makes for boring lessons and unmotivated students (not to mention teachers). Perhaps if bite-sized subject syllabi were to be replaced with broader subject descriptions that rely on linking well-developed core principles, we could develop a much wider range of illustrations and examples to really motivate students. The downside would be more work for exam boards, and of course teachers (but also the opportunity for greater creativity and flexibility): surely a price that would willingly be paid for the resurrection of science education in the UK?

Of course scientists can always improve the way we present our work to the public, but well-taught, well-designed science curricula that have the freedom to be difficult and exciting will go a long way to harnessing and developing the fascination that children have with science. That can only benefit the next generation of potential scientists and society at large.

The Social Anthropology of Human Origins


Social Anthropology and Human Origins By Alan Barnard Cambridge University Press, 182pp, £48.00 ISBN: 9780521765312 Published March 2011

Review originally published in the Times Higher, 14th April 2011

The study of human origins has, apparently, a big problem. A massive unspoken problem, lurking like a veritable herd of elephants in the room. Or to use a metaphor more appropriate to Alan Barnard’s ‘Social Anthropology and Human Origins’, a cowering social anthropologist under the bed. Except when the problem is analysed the only issue with human origins is that a social anthropologist thinks that it should have more social anthropology in it (find me a subject area that doesn’t apply to!). Barnard’s aim is to start a discussion about the role that social anthropology should play in human origins. He suggests that as the largest sub-group of the discipline it should be a relatively simple task to shine the light of social anthropology on our evolution to correct the errors made by all those cold, clinical scientists. As a final coup de gråce, after a very selective review of some of the more recent human evolutionary literature, he concludes that we need to reclassify human origins as a sub-field of social anthropology. Please excuse me if I don’t jump up and shout hooray this suggestion, but at the same time don’t think I have an axe to grind with social anthropology – as part of the RAI team I’ve worked on designing an anthropology A-level which combines both social and biological themes to celebrate what we share as a subject while enjoying the differences of opinion and approach. Barnard argues that the traditional methods employed by biological anthropologists are not good enough to explain our evolution, as they do not take in to account the social or cultural aspects of our evolutionary journey. I find myself at loss to reconcile this statement and others like it with the subject I am part of. The study of human origins is no longer the preserve of ‘us’ biological anthropologists: we collaborate with geneticists, climate scientists, primatologists and archaeologists and ecologists to do just that.

Barnard’s approach is to suggest that the application of lessons learned from social anthropology could improve the depth of human origins as a field. A laudable intention, but with a fatally limited scope which Barnard inadvertently points out at the end of chapter three when he states that social anthropology can not really offer anything for the study of species other than Homo sapiens – and of course we only form only a small part of the evolutionary story of hominins.

This book and the thesis it presents unwittingly portrays social anthropology as a subject that is crying out from the wilderness in search of modern day relevance – yet nothing could be further from the truth. Anthropology is a vibrant subject that has multiple applications across a wide spectrum. The lack, or perceived lack, of social anthropological ideas in human origins is the product of the nature of social anthropological study, based as it is on the often solo participant observation method of study. While this is a point that Barnard concedes it really only makes the conclusion of his book all the more galling for the huge range of scientists working in the field of human origins