This is the focus of A Nation of Curious Minds: He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara – the national strategic plan for science in society. So to what extent does science learning at school support this goal? Before we can answer that we need to be clear about what supports the development of innovators. According to Tony Wagner the answer is play, passion and purpose. He says that in his interviews with highly innovative young people, their parents, teachers and mentors, “passion” was the most frequently occurring word. He found that innovative young people described a childhood of creative play, leading to discovering passions in early adolescence that in turn evolved into a sense of purpose.
In my recent interviews with young people who had gone into science-related careers (see previous blogs) I was interested in finding out how they experienced science at school. Were there opportunities for play? Did they develop a passion for science through their school experience?
In these interviews many of the young people made the comment that they chose the STEM subjects they studied because they liked them. Does this count as passion? Certainly sometimes there was a sense that the young person was really passionate about the subject.
I chose my school subjects based on what I liked – not on what possible careers might be. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the 7th form. I did calculus and statistics and I did A-level maths, history, art history, chemistry and physics. I love history and art history. I didn’t know whether to do a B.A./ B.Com or to do something with science/ maths. I couldn’t imagine not doing maths because I really like it and so I decided I could always pursue art and history as an outside interest.
More commonly, though, there was a sense that they liked the subject because it was easy for them – rather than it was something they were fascinated by.
At high school bio was my favourite subject. I just followed what I enjoyed most – and what came more easily.
I went into computing because I was good at science and maths at school and I was always interested in technology. We had computers at home.
Several of these young people identified a teacher who was passionate about their subject though – and this was infectious.
The bio teacher was my favourite – he was really passionate about bio – really enthusiastic. We did some field trips in bio, learning about evolution was cool. There were lots of exciting ideas.
I remember two teachers at secondary school as being particularly enthusiastic and inspiring. They were so passionate about their subjects – and they could make it seem relevant.
Sometimes the “infectious enthusiasm” came from outside of school.
Where do you think your interest in technology came from?
From home mainly – what I learnt at school didn’t have much to do with my interest in the long term.
My father used to bring home things for me to play with when I was a little kid eg a lab coat and a petrie dish – stuff to play with.
Few of these young people talked about the playful experiences in school science that Wagner maintains lead to the development of passion – although of course there were exceptions.
What I loved about 6th form electronics was that you got to play with things. I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with things.
Most of the descriptions of secondary science school science did not seem very playful at all.
You are always doing assignments and things that are new so there is not a lot of unstructured learning or knowledge just for the sake of knowledge. Everything you do is tested.
There was lots of talking and textbooks. There wasn’t much practical stuff in biology though in chemistry you got to do little experiments. I didn’t like either biology or chemistry. I found it hard.
One participant talked about actively being discouraged to ask curious questions in class – both by teachers and peers.
At home I grew up in an environment where there was never a dumb question. I was encouraged to question. “Why?” is a good question. I’d put up my hand at school to ask a question and my mates would say “Don’t do that.” My friends thought I made myself look stupid by asking questions.
Some teachers were happy to answer my questions. One teacher would just tell me what chapter to go to in the book to find the answer. Probably about a third of the time I would follow it up.
It seemed that some students stuck with science even though they weren’t finding it particularly interesting because they had some other purpose driving them.
I kept doing biology even though I didn’t like it because I knew you needed it to become a nurse. I decided I wanted to be a nurse when my grandfather passed away when I was about 10. I thought the nurses that looked after him did a really good job and I wanted to be like that.
Other students identified internal motivators that kept them going in science at school – regardless of the learning environment.
I was always very determined – I worked hard. I’m very driven. I set high standards for myself in my schooling. These expectations came mainly from me. My parents wanted me to do well but they didn’t push me particularly hard.
From these interviews I did not get a sense that play, passion or purpose were the main drivers of the school science these young people experienced. In some cases it felt as though these young people succeeded in science despite the system. If we were to take Wagner’s developmental arc of play, passion and purpose seriously, how might school science look different?
What if the whole focus in the primary years was on creative play? Students would be exposed to a wide range of experiences and would have the freedom to develop their own questions, explore, take risks, change direction, work with others – be curious. Success would be about generating questions not knowing answers. I’m not simply talking about “free play” here although I think the freedom is an important element. I’m talking about explicitly exposing children to a wide range of experiences – to see what ignites the passion for learning.
In the middle school years (Years 7-10) we could change the focus so students have an opportunity to develop their own passions and follow them in depth. At senior secondary, the focus could move to the purpose – helping students see how their passion could be useful in the world. Seeing a purpose helps build the resilience necessary to put in the “hard yards” necessary to develop expertise. I know many schools are already exploring variations of these ideas. What would it take to really shift the system so that science education was based on the principles of play, passion and purpose? Is this possible?