Science in the Formal Curriculum – and Sustainability – 1

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This is the first of 3 postings today about sustainability and the science curriculum.  They are designed to be read in sequence.  Any literature cited will be set out at the end of post 3.

It seems very evident that environment / sustainability issues are excellent examples of how science concepts and processes can be exemplified in the ‘real world’ – the one that young people will grow up, live, work, and become patents themselves, in.  It is also evident from research for the DfE (Barratt Hacking et al., 2010) that young people do tend to find the study of such issues inherently interesting and motivating – possibly because of a realisation that it is their future (and world) that is being considered.  But this argument, which is essentially a recourse to the slippery notion of relevance is not the only way of thinking about the science curriculum and sustainability and, in what follows, I contend that there are two quite different sets of arguments about how sustainability can usefully be seen in relation to the compulsory school science curriculum.  These are:

[ 1 ] Sustainability – as one of a number of sources of social and personal relevance that give purchase and meaning to science concepts and processes, and hence enhance the learning of science.

This might be termed: teaching concepts through a consideration of sustainability

[ 2 ] Sustainability – as one of a number of socio-economic perspectives without which the full realization of an appropriate scientific literacy as the goal of a science education will not be possible.

This might be termed: teaching concepts to enable a consideration of sustainability

The first involves an extrinsic argument which says that science teaching will likely be more engaging and effective because of what sustainability, and young people’s interest in it, brings to it through this external validity.  The second involves an intrinsic argument which says that science teaching requires such a socio-economic perspective in order for it to be a science education that enables scientific literacy to be developed.  Here, the validity is internal.

It seems to me that the intrinsic / internal argument is much the stronger of the two, especially as this appeal to external relevance has failed so often before.  Importantly, the two approaches are not alternatives, but are better viewed as complementary.  Approach [ 2 ] certainly implies approach [ 1 ], and would be much weaker without it.  And approach [ 1 ] would likely be emasculated without the framing provided by [ 2 ].

In the next post, I shall develop the rationale for what is set out here.

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