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Words, Science and Learning. Clive Sutton. Open University Press (1992). ISBN 0-335-09956-4. 115pp.
This is an excellent book which provides a fascinating manifesto for the future of science teaching.
Clive Sutton, a Senior Lectruer in Education at the University of Leicester, begins with a detailed examination of the role of words in science. The common assumption is that scientific facts are absolute, and when scientists observe, they report the irrefutable truth. Sutton disputes this with the argument that scientists' perceptions are guided very much by the words that they have in mind prior to making the observations. Since these words have meaning that have developed and changed over the years, and indeed each person's understanding of their meaning may be slightly different, then it is the words themselves that determine what a scientist reports in an experiment. Sutton quotes many examples from the history of science where Boyle, Hooke, Lavoisier and Faraday, to name but a few, struggled to find words to adequately express the observations that they made. Sutton goes on to say that the words scientists use embody the theories in current usage and may even retain hints of former theories, as in the use of "conductor" and "capacitor" in electricity retaining the echoes of the former electric fluid theory. The importance of words in the public knowledge of science reveals science to be as human an activity as literary criticism. Scientific "facts" are largely of human construction, although scientists have frequently refused to acknowledge the figurative value of words and turned scientific literature into impersonal and dull descriptions of experimental methods.
Throughout, Sutton reveals a disappointment with the direction science teaching took until recently. Science teachers have devoted ever increasing amounts of time to practical work in a presumed attempt to emulate the work of real scientists. The favored type of experiment has been "Do this... and see what happens," followed by a write-up demanding a formal description of method and observations. Teachers have tended to use words as labels--e.g., acid, vitamin, force--rather than as a means of interpreting ideas. This produces pupils with practical skills and ability to name things, but unable to develop ideas or, indeed, express their understanding of scientific concepts (or lack of it).
Sutton advocates a different strategy of science teaching that is very close to the CLIS model of elicitation-investigation-consolidation. He suggests more time be spent discussing, reading, and writing about scientific ideas, using the writings of scientists both past and present to initiate discussion, the design of experiments and comments on results. Pupils should be encouraged to use words in a greater variety of contexts, so as to exercise their understanding of the meanings. By using scientists' own work, pupils should come to see that science is a human activity, and perhaps get over the problems that teachers face in these days of national curriculum and science-for-all, where science has a poor reputation with many young people. Sutton presents many suggestions for bringing his ideas into the science classroom.
I found the book most illuminating and hope to be able to adapt my teaching to incorporate some of Clive Sutton's ideeas and suggestions. I am particularly pleased that he sees the history of science as being an essential tool in fostering understanding of the meaning of scientific terminology. However, I am worried that he demands a lot of science teachers; not only must they understand their science, but they must also understand the structure of scientific language, the history of scientific ideas, the nature of science, and how to teach it. In an ideal world all science teachers would display these many faceted talents. Notwithstanding the changes that need to be made in teachers' methods, I can heartily recommend this book as a significant contribution to the continuing debate on the teaching of science.
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