Annette Smith:

Comment: Let’s keep politics out of climate change education

Comment: Let’s keep politics out of climate change education

By Annette Smith

Without a well-informed younger generation, able to distinguish science from the trumpeting of vested interest, we could be at risk of not taking seriously the risks of great harm to our lifestyle. Climate change is a perfect case in point.

We're in the middle of the consultation period for the draft programmes of study for the national curriculum. For science, we've had some constructive discussions and the prospect for a workable curriculum is looking hopeful. But the place of climate change in science education, which had been becoming very well developed, could – if we're not careful – fall by the wayside.

Such an important current challenge should be well understood by young people who might want to be involved in later life in the science and engineering around the subject.

There is a wealth of opportunity for employment in future energy sources, in conservation of resources, in mitigation of the negative effects of climate change and in engineering for disaster relief, for example.  In addition to possibly working in science and engineering, young people will certainly have to make informed decisions within our democracy that arise because of changes to the climate, and for this they must have a good grasp on how the science is developing.

So regardless of whether climate change is explicitly mentioned in the new curriculum, the argument for teaching about it and through it is made and the support to teachers which ASE will provide in future, as we have in the past on important issues in science, will include treatment of the issues and the science of climate change in many different ways.

This leads us to consider a bigger headache faced by those drawing up the new national curriculum. Those advocating the importance of science in education face a big problem: the economic argument for teaching science (to create the next generation of scientists and engineers) is often held as the most important aspect of science education, whereas the other purposes of science education should be regarded more seriously.

This is simply because a relatively small proportion of those in school, and therefore studying science, will go on to use science in their careers. The alternative arguments for learning science are for the 80% of young people who need to learn science for utilitarian, democratic and cultural purposes.

In a new curriculum, a list of the topics to be taught will never do justice to the necessity for science education to be more than an education for future scientists and engineers. Science education must also aim to help students to avoid being poorly informed by the debates put forward by the media, in which a controversial or difficult subject might be framed as an adversarial debate.

Young people, whatever their background and belief system, must, for the sake of being able to make informed choices, become familiar with the way in which science progresses, with the nature of evidence and how to question it and with an ability to extract the mischievous search for headlines from the real issues. Otherwise, we could see again the serious damage done to herd immunity by the MMR inoculation catastrophe and we could be at even further serious risk from antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Annette Smith is CEO of the Association for Science Education

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