Instead of obsessing over learning facts, let’s teach children how to think | Jim Al-Khalili

I’ve been giving considerable thought recently to the way we teach science at school – and whether we have the balance right between catering for those children who will become the scientists and engineers of the future (and how would we be able to tell this anyway?), and those who don’t think they have a natural aptitude for science, or are simply more interested in other subjects.

The issue goes beyond which science topics we should be teaching, and in what depth. I’m more concerned by the obsession with making children memorise scientific “facts”, and whether this is what we should be focusing on so much. Perhaps spending more time learning how we “do” science – what’s called the scientific method – is more valuable than simply “knowing” stuff.

After all, science isn’t a collection of facts about the world. That’s just called “knowledge”. Rather, science is a process – a way of thinking and making sense of the world, which will then lead to new knowledge. This is a very important distinction. We’ve often heard it said that we should be teaching children not what to think but how to think. This is an admirable sentiment, but what would it mean in practice? Why spend so much of the school science curriculum loading up children’s brains with facts about the world that they can just look up anyway? Wouldn’t it be more useful teaching them how to find reliable scientific knowledge – which these days inevitably means online rather than in books – and how to assess and critically analyse and absorb that knowledge when needed?

I have no doubt that those who develop the school science curriculum, and probably a few teachers too, would balk at this idea. After all, I am not a professional educationist. They might argue that we still have to teach the scientific nuts and bolts – chemical formulas, the bones of the human body, Newton’s law of gravitation, electricity and magnetism, and so on – particularly to those who will end up studying their subject in greater depth at university and go on to take science up as a profession.

And what about the rest of society? Surely, everyone needs a basic scientific understanding. Just as everyone should have some understanding of, say, history or literature, we all need to know some science: facts about the world to help us make informed decisions in our everyday lives, from what precautions to take during a pandemic and the importance of vaccines, to the risks of vaping, the benefits of flossing or why recycling our waste is good for the planet. A scientifically literate society is one that can see the world more clearly, and can make more informed decisions about important issues that face us all. Yet what seems to be missing today is an understanding of the way we gain this scientific understanding of the world. And yes, you may be thinking: so what?

Adopting the scientific method could help us all become more tolerant and less polarised in our views – to disagree without being disagreeable – particularly online. No one can, hand on heart, deny that the internet is a wondrous invention, utterly transforming our lives over the past three decades. Even social media, that easiest of scapegoats for all of society’s ills, has played a vital role in disseminating and democratising information. That said, far too many people use it not as a useful tool, but as a medium for ill-informed, often toxic opinions, and for spreading disinformation. But the internet and social media have only really amplified societal problems that have always been with us. On top of this, our attention spans are inevitably getting shorter, and we don’t take the time to question our biases, or ask whether the information we are getting is reliable and trustworthy.

This is where thinking scientifically can help. I don’t mean being able to manipulate equations or interpret complex statistics, but rather adopting some of the ways that good science is practised, such as critically assessing what we believe and examining the trustworthiness of evidence; questioning our own biases before we attack views we don’t like; and being prepared to admit our mistakes and change our minds in the light of new evidence.

This is what we should be teaching more of in schools: better critical thinking skills, better information literacy (an understanding of data), how to cope with complexity, and how to assess uncertainty – to keep an open mind about information we only have partial knowledge about. All these skills are part of the scientific approach. This remarkable way of seeing, thinking and knowing, is one of humankind’s great riches and the birthright of everyone. And, most wonderfully, it only grows in quality and value the more widely it is shared.

To expect any kind of radical review or reassessment of what children are taught at school – given how disruptive and time-consuming even minor tinkering with the syllabus can be for many teachers – let alone asking wider society to adopt a more rational way of thinking, is probably too much to ask; but surely we have to do something. Humankind came up with the scientific method to make sense of a confusing physical universe. But even in our exceedingly more complex and confusing universe of human affairs, adopting some of the lessons from the way we progress in science can be empowering and liberating. Thinking scientifically is much more than just knowing stuff. It gives us a way to see the world beyond our limited senses, beyond our prejudices and biases, beyond our fears, insecurities, ignorance and weaknesses.

  • Jim Al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster. His new book, The Joy of Science, is out now