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SCIENCE, SOCIETY, AND EDUCATION



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SCIENCE, SOCIETY, AND EDUCATION

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About the Relation of School Teachers with Science YVES QUéRé Interacademy Panel on International Issues T he organization of school teaching in France is set in such a way that the elementary administrative cell, called a Circonscription, includes approxi- mately 350–400 teachers in the same geographical area. The head of the Circonscription is an Inspecteur de l’Education Nationale (IEN) who, in particular, organizes one-day meetings of a pedagogical nature for the teachers. I have been invited more than 60 times in the past few years to participate in these meetings with essentially the following structure: one or two lectures about science in the morning, each 45 minutes, followed by a 1- to 1.5-hour period of open discussion. They take place in large cities as well as in the suburbs and rural areas. Therefore, I have “met” more than 20,000 school teachers, plus a number of IENs; I have heard a great deal on how they feel about science and about sci- ence teaching. Although there would be some danger to generalize these feelings to the whole population of teachers (approximately 340,000 in all), a first impression may be drawn from those reactions with which most agree. First, school teachers in France have an initial training of three years in university, ending with a Licence (in any subject of their choice, such as French, foreign language, history, science, arts, and so forth, although only 15 percent have chosen science or math- ematics), plus two years in a specialized institute devoted mostly to pedagogy. This means that a majority of the reactions quoted herein are from teachers with minimal training in science. The comments heard most often are in response to the following ques- tions: Is science easy or difficult? Open or closed? Good or bad? Necessary for development, or useless? The first question is the most frequent. The answer is almost always the same. Science is difficult and, in fact, too difficult to be taught: 1

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2 SCIENCE, SOCIETY, AND EDUCATION “Science is definitely too difficult for me,” is a sentence I have heard hundreds of times.1 TOO DIFFICULT? The specific difficulty of science as seen by the teachers—not only in France, but in most countries where I have visited schools—seems to come from what they hear about science from TV and newspapers in dealing with big events such as the inauguration of a large accelerator in Geneva or a huge telescope in Chile, the launching of a man into space, or the determination of an immense genome of some plant. All these famous technical achievements give the public the idea that science is, from now on, more or less out of the normal world. If we tell them about growing a bean and measuring its growth in millimeters over time as a function of illumination or temperature, they frequently answer, “But this is not science, this is gardening!” They have the impression that the word science cannot cover something as commonplace and ordinary as the growth of a bean or the melting of an ice cube. We have to explain to teachers that science is indeed like a high mountain (Everest) that only a few very specialized people (perhaps Nobel Prize or Fields Medal winners) are able to climb. Nevertheless, everybody can walk on those nice hills around the Alps, the Rocky Mountains, or the Elbourz. Everybody can find a suitable altitude. Science provides the same possibility to reach a given level, in complete continuity and according to one’s talents and training. Contrary to the fear of many school teachers, there is no initial gap that must be overcome before enter- ing into science. One must just want to take a walk with the students and enjoy it. This is why they should not be frightened—for the erroneous reason that “it is too difficult for me”—of teaching science. This is also why scientists should leave their laboratories—their ivory towers—from time to time to visit teachers, give them examples of simple experiments to be performed and to be understood by children, and explain that these are real aspects of science. OPEN OR CLOSED? There was indeed a time, especially at the end of the nineteenth century, when scientific inquiry was considered to be practically finished. For physicists such as Biot or Kelvin, physics was on the verge of being completed; this naïve belief still exists in some places. It is clear now to any scientist that, on the con- 1The same teacher who finds science “too difficult” usually considers that history is comparatively quite easy. If the remark is made to a teacher that historians still discuss the immensely difficult ques- tion of the causes of the first World War, he/she will answer immediately, “We do not have to go into details with children,” without noticing that the same could be said for science.

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 ABOUT THE RELATION OF SCHOOL TEACHERS WITH SCIENCE trary, each discovery opens unforeseen new fields of research. Teachers should know that knowledge is like a precious nectar poured into an amphora, each new drop increasing the contents, but at the same time enlarging the container, in a kind of endless adventure. Science is an open field of knowledge that will prob- ably never be contained in a closed horizon. Children should be taught early that they have in their hands a huge book full of white pages waiting to be filled in by young generations. GOOD OR BAD? Does science spread the evil (weapons, pollution, arrogance) in societies and individuals more than the good (health care, communications)? The question— unthinkable a few decades ago when science was believed to be the source of indefinite happiness—is nowadays a matter of discussion, especially in industrial- ized countries. Many teachers are sensitive to these societal questions, and some may discourage children from entering the field of science when they become older on the basis of ethical concerns. Children should be told at early ages that science, and, more generally, knowledge, is immensely beneficial for humankind, but also that citizens should be aware of potential and sometimes real dangers that it may create. They should be ready to discuss these matters. NECESSARY FOR DEVELOPMENT? Is science useful for development? Any child should know that it is not only useful, it is necessary. There could not be an applied science without a vivid and imaginative basic science. Development is not possible (e.g., in health, engi- neering, agriculture) without an applied science-based technology upstream. A complete continuity exists between fundamental research and the most practical applications: no mobile phones without the useful band theory of solids and no treatment of infectious diseases without useful research on the complex geometry of proteins. Individual and societal capacity cannot be built without a minimum of educa- tion in science and technology. Education will be proper and profitable only if it is provided by teachers who not only convey some knowledge to their students but who are themselves comfortable with science, aware of its ethical issues, and con- vinced of its importance, its openness, its universality, and its intrinsic beauty.