How to get people to study science

Norm Geras writes:

If there’s a long-term decline in the number of pupils studying science, is it a good idea trying to remedy this by making science exams easier? The Royal Society of Chemistry doesn’t think so.

Nor do I.

It benefits society the more people understand science. If exams are dumbed down, and as a result, more people study science, there will be more people with science GCSEs, but each of them will know less science. But that doesn’t help society; we need people to have a greater understanding of science not a lesser.

Managing groups of people is in principle very simple: to decide what you want people to do, and what you want them not to do, and you provide incentives for them to do the things you want, and disincentives against doing the things you don’t want. This principal holds whether you’re managing a small number of people within an organisation, or managing a whole country. (Of course, the devil’s in the details).

In this case you might ask how do you incentivise kids to take science at GCSE and A level? Well you could stipulate that science exam passes count for more than non-science subjects for getting in to university, or you could offer a bounty for each science GCSE or A level passed, or you could say that every child in a year at a school gets a rewards for each child in that year who passes science exams (this might encourage a co-operativre spirit). Or you could try other incentives — no doubt some would work better than others, and it’s hard to tell in advance which would work best.

But if the government isn’t prepared to provided incentives for school students to study science then they are giving out a message loud and clear that they don’t think it is important for science to be studied. And every speech they give saying the opposite is, without incentives, a lie pure and simple.

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6 Responses to How to get people to study science

  1. dianarn says:

    The entire education system is dumbed down. It used to be that before they made the Board of Education, American kids were the smartest at math in the ENTIRE world. Now look at us. How can you not be dumbed down and not know where the USA is on the map if you never get taught anything good? Why isn’t every class an “advanced” class? Even the honors and advanced curriculum have nothing in comparison with what schools used to teach 100 years ago.

  2. George Carty says:

    Wouldn’t outlawing the outsourcing of science-related jobs be a better idea? No one is going to study a difficult science subject if there’s little prospect of a job at the end of it…

  3. cabalamat says:

    Why isn’t every class an “advanced” class?

    I’m not sure how that would be possible — not everyone can be advanced, just as not everyone can be above average.

    Wouldn’t outlawing the outsourcing of science-related jobs be a better idea?

    How would you do that? I can see how laws could be written that would prevent businesses from having oversees subsidiaries, but I suspect that if a country if that, its economy would suffer.

    What can be done is preventing companies from abusing laws that allow immigration of skilled workers, to undercut local labour.

  4. padraic2112 says:

    @ Dianarn

    > The entire education system is dumbed down.

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with this one. There are some serious problems with the educational system, but IMO most of the problems come from two different directions, not the system itself, per se.

    One, children are often “dumbed down” – not in the sense that they’re unintelligent, just that they’re coming into a grade well behind where they ought to be, which means each teacher has to overcome huge amounts of inertia. This is due to a large number of factors outside of the educational system; less engagement from parents (due to working household couples) and too little stimulation in recreational play are the biggest culprits.

    We have lots of kids in our neighborhood playgroup. Most of them have highly engaged parents (and no, I’m not talking the “get them into the best preschool!” sort of engaged but “make sure they’re learning every day” sort of engaged). A good chunk of the households, even the ones with dual-incomes, put a lot of work into giving their children intellectually stimulating play exercises. The incidence of broken or distressed households is really low.

    These kids, as a block, are probably going to perform well above average. This advantage has nothing to do with the educational system itself.

    Two, we are really, really, really bad at measuring teacher performance, and we’re horribly ineffective at recruiting and retaining people who would be good teachers… because effective teaching is not an easy thing to measure (you certainly can’t do it with some sort of checklist), and no matter how passionate you are about teaching, it’s simply crazy to expect someone to go to work in the public school system when you can’t afford the cost of living on a teacher salary. This is a legitimate criticism of teacher’s unions; they don’t work at helping solve either of these two problems.

    > It used to be that before they made the Board of Education, American kids were the
    > smartest at math in the ENTIRE world. Now look at us.

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc. American kids are no longer the smartest at math because math and science aren’t afforded the respect they deserve as academic disciplines (for that matter, neither are English, History, Philosophy, Logic, Civics, etc.) There is a huge anti-intellectualism movement in this country, just look at the rhetoric that was thrown around in the last election cycle.

    > How can you not be dumbed down and not know where the USA is on the map if you
    > never get taught anything good?

    My two children are both under the age of five. The younger one isn’t three yet. They can both find the U.S. (not to mention our home state, the home state of their grandparents, etc) on a map, and neither of them got it from school. Placemats with maps on them and family dinners where the conversation is focused on the kids telling the parents what they learned today did.

    > Why isn’t every class an “advanced” class? Even the honors and advanced curriculum
    > have nothing in comparison with what schools used to teach 100 years ago.

    I don’t think this is a realistic comparison; I also think this isn’t borne out by the history of educational testing (check out Google Scholar for some references like this one: http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=9y4rAAAAYAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA173&dq=historical+high+school+entrance+exams&ots=wBFklQXhDy&sig=XNgRogqsRySz7cw7agEVBakOQ-E#PPA177,M1). Merit testing has always been a bad indicator of academic performance. Merit tests 100 years ago focused on handwriting among other things, because back then people thought there were objective links between handwriting and psyche.

  5. I don’t agree that you motivate people with separate incentives. I think the best incentive to get people to take the exam is to make the exam worth more. In other words more difficult.

  6. Constantin says:

    Isn’t it coincidental that chronologically the drop in American education quality lags just behind the rise in liberalism and state-ism in America?

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