“What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?”

Hello again! I’m back (briefly) to add a quick entry.

I’ve deserted Bernie and left him bravely struggling to maintain the blog while I’ve been busy writing a book on science for science teachers.

That’s actually proving much harder than I’d expected and both in search of inspiration and to test some of the key ideas I’m writing about I took myself off to the International Organisation of Science and Technology Education (IOSTE) Congress in Tunisia last week. I like IOSTE a great deal as it has a genuine commitment to Social Justice, Human Rights and Sustainable Development. In other words it sees a role for science in all those things…and so do I.

My paper (which should be online soon) concerned the science of love. Now even for a liberal organisation such as IOSTE I thought that that might be pushing it, but the scientific committee must have see some worth in it as it was accepted for presentation. I never hold out much hope at international conferences, especially when, like this one, you have seven ‘parallel strands’, in other words seven papers being presented at the same time. This usually means you end up talking to about three people, two of whom don’t speak your language and the third is there by mistake. However, this was somewhat (worryingly at the time) well attended.

After the obligatory joke I got going. In schools in the UK at elementary level (known as Key Stage 1) the science involves mainly observation. Children are often asked to observe and draw each other’s faces. These are then stuck on the wall and in some post-modern statement their diversity is ‘celebrated’. Well that’s all fine and dandy, but I’ve begun to think that we need to tread a bit more carefully here on two counts. Recognising diversity is one thing, but stressing it is something else and whatever it is, it isn’t science.

OK when we want to identify something, say a flower, from a guide we may look for individual characteristics depending on how the guide may be set out, but nevertheless, we at least recognise that what we’re holding is a flower. One really important thing about taxonomy is that living things share characteristics. Similarities are far more important biologically than differences. Indeed, taxonomic classifications are often built on that. Stressing differences amongst children always runs the risk of dividing them up by skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, all of which are pretty small fry when compared to our remarkable similarities. Division is only one step away from isolation. I’ve already spoken about this in an earlier blog, but perhaps in relation to science teaching, it’s worth stressing again.

Having argued for similarity to be stressed as a means of combatting partition, I went on to talk about the teaching of evolution in schools. How is it that even now people leave school with scratchy ideas (or none at all) when it comes to understanding evolution as a process? Still it seems that people associate evolutionary success with attributes such as strength and agility and at best large complex brains and opposable thumbs. Well, OK the last two are quite important, but so are love, empathy and compassion. In fact such traits are incredibly important evolutionary behaviours. They become especially so when you consider statements like the UNESCO Seville Statement on Violence (1986) that clearly states that Humans have no genetic predisposition to violence and aggressive behaviour. It is not our ‘nature’ to be aggressive; in fact ecologically we are incredibly social creatures. Aggression and violence are therefore, according to UNESCO at least, learnt behaviours.

This is really important, as we can unlearn such behaviour. I genuinely feel that science therefore, and good science at that, has a great deal to contribute here.

I developed this line a bit further and talked about science and its potential to break down barriers, combat totalitarianism and to be seen as a global process, not just some sort of European invention.

At the end it seemed to go pretty well, most were awake and nobody had stormed out (I must encourage Bernie to do that some day) but I think the real point is that science MUST promote hope. Hope for the future, like it did when I was a kid. If we just see and talk about the science of doom we undermine this. But if we need to inspire hope in the future, a good question would be – what do you hope for…what do you really hope for?

Take a while and think about that and I bet when it’s really stripped down it comes to peace and love, and what’s so funny about that?