Policy makers have to justify the money spent on science education. During the early to mid cold war, the West was terrified of falling behind Soviet science and technology. School science was part of the arms race. We needed a well trained scientific and technological workforce.
From the 80s, a democratic argument was made for the importance of all citizens to know and understand science.
In the 90s, academics began to justify science as culturally important, contributing to “the best which has been thought and said.”
All of these arguments remain valid, but they all suggest science curricula with subtle differences.
An arms race style science curriculum is all about ensuring we maintain a technological edge as a nation, whether militarily or industrially. It is about developing and supporting a scientific elite. The solution in the 50s was grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns – each with a different science curriculum. This is the curriculum I grew up with – I failed my 11+ in 1982 and was sent to the local secondary modern (where I spent a lot of time doing metal work). By the time I was moved to the grammar school at the end of my third year, I was already at least a year behind, and had to spend my summer holidays copying out exercise books. I was extremely lucky – it was (and remains) very rare for pupils to move between schools.
During the 80s, educators began to emphasise the importance of citizens having access to sufficient scientific knowledge to be able to take part in democratic debate. It emphasised the impact of science on society: vaccines, the environment, nuclear power. Textbooks were produced with double page spreads on fertilisers; oil rigs and automation.
By the time I began teaching in the 90s, we had begun thinking about science as a cultural achievement – the wonders of the universe, Mendeleev, Mendel and Curie and their discoveries.
We have inherited a bit of a mess. When we look at a curriculum, we can use the lenses of ‘scientist pipeline’, ‘science and society’ and ‘science’s contribution to the best which has been thought and said.’
If you find yourself disagreeing with colleagues about the science curriculum, it may be that you are thinking about different purposes for the science curriculum.