We want to find exactly out what kind of beliefs students bring to science lessons, and how teachers can deal with them
Alom Shaha recently raised the issue of how science teachers should respond to being asked questions about God that arise in science lessons. Shaha draws attention to an increasingly sensitive issue for teachers already challenged by the ever-shifting demands of curriculum, assessment and other expectations. This became clear two years ago when the education director of the Royal Society, Professor Michael Reiss, a highly respected biologist and science educator, resigned after pointing out that science teachers need to take into account student worldviews in teaching about evolution. Yet one of the central principles of teaching science is that pupils' existing beliefs and understandings will influence their learning, and there is much research to show that teaching which ignores this is seldom effective.
Sadly, Shaha is right. Some young people will come into the school science laboratory assuming that science and religion are necessarily in conflict. This may derive from views at home: but in recent years there have been a number of high-profile television programmes claiming that science has ousted religious superstition with its rational approach. Students from religious communities who have accepted this view are indeed likely to find science an uncomfortable school subject, and so to later avoid further study and employment in science.
As there are many religious scientists, and diverse views about whether science should be seen as in conflict, harmony or dialogue with, or even as totally irrelevant to, religion, it is clearly unfortunate if some children are disengaging with school science because of a popular conception that science and religion are opposed. The arguments for how a supernatural God might relate to a natural world ordered through regular laws are often nuanced, and are seldom encountered by school-age students. This links to understanding about the nature of science itself (its limits, the status of its laws etc), which has recently become a more central theme of the school science curriculum – although this has traditionally been an area of relative weakness in science teaching and learning.
It was concerns such as these which led to the setting up of the Learning about Science and Religion (Lasar) research project, which is a collaboration between researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Reading. The project sets out to explore how secondary age pupils actually do perceive the relationship between science and religion, and how this impacts on their thinking about the science they are taught. The researchers are based in university education departments that are heavily involved in teacher education, and it is hoped that investigating student thinking in this area will enable us to find ways to better support teachers in Shaha's position, whatever their own personal views about the matter.
The researcher leading the project from Reading, Dr Berry Billingsley of the Institute of Education, has previously undertaken research in Australia, where she found that university students generally reported showing limited sophistication in dealing with the issue during their own earlier schooling. Indeed a common response had been to avoid considering a potential conflict by switching into science mode in science lessons, but then to switch away from that way of thinking in other classes. This may be a good coping strategy, but it is not good education. Science teachers desperately want their teaching to influence students beyond the laboratory or examination room. As Shaha points out: scientific ways of thinking are important life skills.
The Lasar research, funded through the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St Edmund's College Cambridge, is now underway, using both survey methods and detailed interviewing of a sample of secondary age pupils in various parts of England. Our early impressions are that considerable numbers of students do consider science and religion to be in conflict, and that few have developed sophisticated ways of thinking about possible alternatives. A surprising number of Christian students – not just those from more fundamentalist churches – consider that their religion is committed to a six-day creation of the world, including special acts of creation to produce Adam and Eve as progenitors of the human race. That is something I would not have realised when I was a school science teacher, knowing that mainstream churches have no problems with scientific theories of origins. Science teachers currently have little preparation to deal with student questions on the issue. That is something our project intends to address by better informing science teachers about where students' thinking is at, and by making them aware of the full range of positions that different scientists adopt on the issue. Science teachers should neither tell students what to think about God, nor what to think about how science relates to religion. However, they should introduce students to the range of views available. Shaha wants science teachers to equip young people to arrive at their own decisions, and our research is aimed at supporting teachers in this important task.