Science teaching: Astronomer Royal

The new Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Catherine Heymans, is a publicly proactive one for science promotion, and flagged so in her introductory talk to a local society. Jun 22 I have got a good acknowledgement from her to issues in the unjust mishandling of science teaching, raised including from the autism angle. The issue and this result hold for students of any age, schoolkids of course, and adults looking at their options including after suffering as school students.

It is totally an issue of spectrum fairness, with its autism angle on unsuitedness to certain types of teaching, and to authoritarian school which can persist at them. Should be of interest to all education concerned autism pros. That the publicly proactive Astronomer Royal wants listening to lots of different voices and folks of different skillsets and abilities, as necessary towards solving this issue, and there is an issue to solve.

This was my raising of it:
Hi I’m an ASE member who saw your talk, as well as chair of local autistic group ELAS.

On the public mission of your new office. I flag up the need to encourage scrutiny of why science teaching fails and what its students present and past found hard or unworkable in it, with a view to changing it. This instead of the endless ritual of urging kids towards science careers, that folks are used to hearing, but that sets kids up for knocks and alienation by its wrong message that any interested and duly working kid can at will get through the education process into science.

This is more than an idea, it’s a concern from experience. I was a kid encouraged into a science career ambition by recklessly optimistic adults but had its school teaching utterly botched, by short tempered teaching, a devastating pressure trap from when authority assumes ability, and too many puzzle type questions that we had not been taught all the facts needed to answer.

The trend to find science subjects easy to fail, hence less popular than standard voices wish for, evidences real long-entrenched failings in the courses’ approach to teaching it. So, to always see it as the student’s failing will not shift that problem. School reformer John Holt wrote of the trick that schools take the credit for successes but pin onto the kids the blame for failures.

It is a discriminatory block to success and destroys chances for folks who may be perfectly able to absorb a subject factually, that there is a sweeping assumption in teaching that a puzzle solving approach is healthy. Questions not quite telling you all you need to answer them, trying to force you to find or guess hidden steps of reasoning, find something you have not been told or taught, before you can answer. Not everyone’s mind has that faculty strongly, and there is no popular awareness that you should need that faculty in order to study physical sciences. There needs to be it, to save kids from getting set up to fail.

The public inspired by astronomy assume that sciences can simply be studied factually. That seems common sense to them. But Edinburgh uni’s listings for its physics degrees illustrate otherwise: they say a physics degree’s value include as evidence of problem solving skill. Idealistic adults encouraging kids into science are unaware that it requires a strength in puzzle solving. They were completely naive about that with me, and it is a faculty I have not got, while teachers naively assumed that a too hastily given gifted label guaranteed I would have it. Modern autism awareness has shown how you can have tantalising islands of ability to absorb facts but not have the puzzle solving faculty.

Setting a work question should carry the responsibility to show that its answer was clearly findable for any student from what they had already been taught, without having to find/deduce an unannounced new leap of insight. Instead of being quick to judge a student unsuitable and dump them, which possibility is always an emotional pressure, suppose they asked frustrated students how findable they had needed the solution to be, to a question they could not solve, or to an integral? They at least might find out how to set the questions sensibly.

Logically it is the same as audience questions after a public lecture, for students to get to question after the reasonable answerability of the work questions set to them.

So astronomy promotion needs 2 changes from how it conventionally has been:
* to promote to educators that they need to reassess that approach and investigate how much avoidable failure at sciences it has caused.
* to make the public realise that career-serious science study in its present form requires this strength at puzzle solving, so should never be promoted to kids without cautioning of that.

Thank you for wanting views!
Maurice Frank