The paralytic fear of mythmaking

A driving force behind many science education programs in Australia is to boost  the confidence of teachers in their covering of the subject. Primary teachers are expected to be polymaths, covering the fundamentals of literacy, numeracy, scientific thinking and fitting in the development of artistic creativity, social awareness and personal health and hygiene. As an ex-secondary school teacher who has had minimal experience with pre-adolescent students, I have nothing but respect for the talents required for such a varied curriculum.

In developing curriculum resources in science and sustainability and delivering teacher workshops, I’ve found myself sitting before more than one primary teacher who has leaned in close and confessed their trepidation in covering more science in their classroom.

This is hardly surprising. Most primary teachers don’t see themselves as science literate[1] and as such, often believe they are incapable of teaching it[2]. There’s no question that on average, primary school teachers have low confidence in their abilities to provide their students with a firm foundation in science knowledge and skills.

There are numerous programs available endeavouring to address this through various means, be it linking career scientists with schools or providing classroom materials, and there is evidence that such programs are successful at addressing the problem.

Yet while the reasons behind this are multidimensional[3], I can’t help but wonder what distinguishes science from other disciplines. Most schools cover a broad range of topics in their curriculum, from Australian history to foreign languages to art to technology; any one of which teachers would be expected to learn and communicate to their class.

In discussing the materials I’d constructed for a national sustainability program, most teachers felt comfortable when it came to integrating activities that weren’t science-dependent, even if it wasn’t a topic in their field of expertise. Even politics was spared the same apprehension as climatology. In other words, it’s not just the fact that science is full of things they don’t know or understand. Familiarity appears to be only part of the problem.

A variation of a single question kept popping up during my workshops; ‘What if I give the students the wrong answer?’. In fact, it was so common I’ve come to see it as a defining feature of the anxiety behind the teaching of science. This question could equally apply to any other discipline, but it wasn’t as significant as it was with science.

We live in a world where science has become a product-based issue, where facts are ‘discovered’ as inarguable truths and science fails us when people can’t agree on statistics and models. There is visible relief in the faces of teachers when we discuss science as an epistemology rather than a textbook of facts, where open investigation is given priority over content.

That isn’t to say content isn’t important, of course. Yet more shocking than the student who doesn’t know the name of the element with an atomic number of 8 is the student who is incapable of varying their confidence in a belief beyond true or false as they encounter conflicting views. Without encouragement to view science as a process of exploration as opposed to an authority on knowledge, teachers back away from science, feeling they could never do it justice, leaving us with a complete deficit of both skills and knowledge.

Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning. Confidence is gradually increasing as education programs employ open investigation approaches and facilitate a more social aspect to engaging teachers with science, one that involves a greater focus on critical thinking and an evaluative epistemology. In the meantime, many teachers continue to find themselves paralysed in the face of science for fear of not just seeming stupid, but of accidentally teaching a student a bad belief.

[1] Mulholland, J., & Wallace, J. (2002). Navigating border crossings: How primary teachers learn to teach science. Australian Science Teachers’ Journal, 48(2), 12–19.

[2] Watters, J. J., & Ginns, I. S. (2000). Developing motivation to teach elementary science: Effect of collaborative and authentic learning practices in preservice education. Journal of Science Education, 11(4), 301–321.

[3] Howitt, C. (2007), Pre-Service Elementary Teachers’ Perceptions of Factors in an Holistic Methods Course Influencing their Confidence in Teaching Science, Research in Science Education Volume 37:1 pp  41-58

Published in: on October 11, 2010 at 2:34 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I find it peculiar that they have this anxiety of being wrong in natural science but not social science. Is it some ingrainded feeling that in natural science you can be wrong but not so in social science? Or do they view social science as just some list of facts as opposed to natural science?

  2. Bear in mind this is my personal experience, and not an extensive survey or a blinded evaluation. So I can only guess. But I suspect there is a cultural trend to treat social science as more variable and open to opinion. In Australia discussion of politics and religion is a lot more relaxed than the UK, which in turn is far more relaxed than in the US, so I can’t say that the trend would be the same in American states. But here in Australia, I suspect that this leniency in social sciences opens teachers to feeling somewhat more confident in teaching about how Australian politics works or facts about foreign cultures with less fear of reprisal, while in natural science I get the feeling there is a distinct objectivity and elitism where scientists have the right answers, and if you’re not a scientist, you could stuff it up.

    I know some of the feedback from programs like Scientists in Schools is that by having a scientist in the classroom, it helps defeat this anxiety and gives teachers confidence to teach it even when they’re no longer present.

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