School science lessons have lost their whizz-bang.
Concerns about experiments involving high heat or explosions resulting in accidents and possible claims for compensation have taken the excitement out of science in many schools. An over-cautious, self-protective attitude by education authorities and head teachers is counter-productive in educational terms. The basis of science is proof by experimentation and it is the satisfaction achieved in carrying out experiments that stimulates a scientific curiosity in young people about how the world works.
Instead, too many are now expected to learn second-hand by watching experiments either conducted by a teacher or on a computer screen. Education Scotland has identified the problem in a new report on the teaching of science which emphasised the importance of developing science teaching in a wider range of stimulating and real-life contexts.
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The approach in schools makes no sense at a time when the Scottish Government regards the Stem subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics as vital to the economy and is funding an increase in university places in these areas. The danger is not an over-enthusiastic application of bunsen burners but a lack of future scientists.
The Health and Safety Executive has said there is no legislative reason why pupils should be stopped from taking part in what some consider risky activities but throughout the UK an increasing emphasis on health and safety has reduced science experiments and curtailed out-of-school trips for pupils. Field trips are an important component of other subjects, such as geography, and it is obvious that music or literature students gain from going to concerts or plays. It is understandable that teachers are keen to reduce risk but there is a vital difference between minimising danger and being over-fearful.
Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, is right to say experiments are the key to making science relevant and interesting. And her warning that, without visually exciting experiments, pupils are less likely to be inspired by science is timely. However, it should be recognised that parents' attitudes have also played a significant part in the growing culture of risk aversion. Judith Hackitt, chairwoman of the Health and Safety Executive, believes part of the problem is the pressure some parents place on schools, as well as the threat of legal action if accidents do occur. In a culture where accidents are increasingly followed by claims for compensation, teachers are naturally fearful of being sued. It is time to recognise that the best way to avoid accidents is for children and young people to learn how to explore and experiment safely, whether that is in the science laboratory or in the natural world. It is the children who are wrapped in cotton wool who are most at risk.