A view From the Bridge

Of mud pies, muscle and science education

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Steve Hildebrand, US Fish and Wildlife Service

What really prepares the young for a life in science? This week a joint Nature and Scientific American special on STEM education attacks that question on a number of fronts. In Books and Arts, design practitioners Stephen Kellert and Günter Beltzig argue that young children need the complexity of natural environments and intelligently designed playspaces to learn the joys of discovery, teamwork and materials nous necessary for a life at the bench.

‘Old school’ physicality can also counterbalance the screen-based experiences in which many babies and toddlers are now immersed. As Nicholas Carr has noted in The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (reviewed by Silicon Valley insider Jaron Lanier here), the ease of clicking and swiping can actually hinder the exploratory urge per se, while an inability to navigate in the real world might ultimately affect memory.

Very twenty-first-century concerns, you’d have thought. Except that at the dawn of modern automation in the depths of the twentieth century, other original thinkers were coming to similar conclusions about science pedagogy in Nature.

H.G. Wells is now seen primarily as a pioneer of modern science fiction. In 1937, he was also serving as president of the section of the British Association on Educational Science, and his address to it (published in Nature on Wells’s centenary, in 1966) is as breezily contemporary as his SF was often technologically prescient. Discussing elementary education, he notes:

I see no need at this stage to afflict the growing mind with dates and dynastic particulars….we ought to make the weather and the mud pie our introduction to what Huxley christened long ago as Elementary Physiography. We ought to build up simple and clear ideas from natural experience.

H. G. Wells in 1920, by George Charles Beresford.

H. G. Wells in 1920, by George Charles Beresford.

George Charles Beresford

T.H. Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, had instructed Wells in biology and zoology at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, London, in the 1880s. Lower-middle-class and poor, Wells trained for a science teaching career, and founded the Science Schools Journal. He was, however, soon catapulted into writing — landmark SF, autobiographical novels and encyclopaedic factual works, including the 1929 biology tome The Science of Life (cowritten with evolutionist Julian Huxley and Wells’s son, marine biologist G.P. Wells).

Noting that children hunger to understand wild animals — “what their real excitements are, how they are sometimes timid” — he added, “I doubt if, in itself, vegetation can hold the attention of the young. But directly we begin to deal with plants as hiding-places, homes and food for birds and beasts, the little boy or girl lights up and learns.”

Over a quarter of a century later in 1964 the biologist and educator Cyril Bibby — known as “T.H. Huxley’s bulldog”  — published the pungent essay ‘Science as an instrument of culture’. In it, Bibby (who, like Julian Huxley among other biologists of the time, was a sometime contributor to The Eugenics Review) responded to C.P. Snow’s much-cited ‘two cultures’ lecture of 1959. He proposed an alternative dichotomy: scientists and creative artists on one side, and “purely verbal” scholars on the other.

The scientist and the artist day by day explore the properties of the stuff of the universe…for each the thing is primary and the word secondary; neither can get far without the involvement of the whole personality — mind and muscle, sensuous response to sensual stimuli, persistence and experimentation, reason and imagination.

Bibby inveighs against conformist pedagogy that fails to frame science as an “adventure of inquiry”. He bemoans how the “close, naked, natural” language of the Royal Society founders had given way to “an almost universal phobia of illuminating imagery, an endemic tendency to verbal flatulence”.  Science teaching, he argued, should regain both the “sensuous richness” of the arts, and the “verbal finesse” of literature. And it should tackle real-world issues at all scales — from public health and resource use, to experiencing “the force of magnetic attraction by the actual muscular effort of moving powerful magnets”.

Bibby admitted that his was “an unlikely vision…for a society wedded to verbalism, dominated by examinations, apparently determined at every educational level to spend more time and energy on measuring children’s achievement than on fostering it”. Just as Wells, back in 1937, fretted that at a time of rocketing innovation in military technologies, “our schools are drooling along much as they were drooling along 37 years ago”.

As we navigate our own high-tech rapids, such critiques sound strangely familiar. Have we got anything to lose by bringing mud pies and muscle back into science teaching for the young?

 

For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.

 

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