Why do we want to teach science?

In previous blogs that I have written for Education Matters, I have emphasized the economic importance now given to science. In Ireland, this is revealed by the investment made in attracting science and tech companies. For these companies and research institutions, science graduates are a requisite. As such, attracting students to science and science careers is a key objective for government institutions.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), for instance, has come up with the strategy SFI (Smart Futures 2014-2017). Its objective is to increase the uptake of science in second and third level by 10%. According to this strategy, SFI is going to organize visits by volunteer research staff to schools in order to showcase their research, discuss more general science issues, and promote careers in science.

This is not new; several countries in several different periods of time have called for an uptake of science by students, showing concern for the low numbers, going as far back as to the 1950’s. What is interesting is that these situations tend to repeat themselves and things seem to roughly follow the same pattern. The remedy has been long prescribed in the science education literature: change the way science is taught at the primary and post-primary level. A central issue of these calls for reform was and still is:

How can school both prepare some students to go on to careers in science and technology and prepare all students to be responsible, scientifically literate citizens?

This question brings to the fore the goals of science education. Why do we want to teach science, and what type of science do we want to teach to primary and post-primary level students? Four different arguments can be found in the literature for science education: democratic, utilitarian, economic and cultural.

The four arguments have different objectives, are based in different schools of thought regarding science and science education, and are sometimes seen as incompatible.

In the next few blogs I’ll be discussing these four different arguments for science education.

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