Controversial science: abortion

Secondary school can be one of the few places young people will be encouraged to consider the discourse around oppositional and controversial human rights issues. This seems fairly obvious to a Religion, Ethics and Philosophy teacher, or even a history or English teacher, but science perhaps more than these other subjects provides a version of discourse that speaks a different kind of language. An opportunity then to speak to a type of person less interested in the opinions of debaters and more interested, perhaps, in the statistics and objectivity of an issue.

Christopher Day, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, described three types of teacher whilst describing ‘action research‘ (an approach which encourages teachers to become educational researchers, in order to grow their understanding of learning and therefore become better at teaching):

  1. those interested in the statistics and peer-assessed research surrounding an issue
  2. those interested in the voice or opinion of the most well-experienced or knowledgeable person on an issue
  3. those interested in the opinion(s) of the affected

I think this description is useful in understanding how all people approach controversial issues and that in communicating effectively with the greatest number of people requires appealing to all three domains, the statistical evidence, the opinions of experts, and the perspectives of the affected.

Those in camp number 1 may be of the opinion that abortion does not seem particularly controversial today. After all, fewer than 3% of Britons would agree with the statement ‘abortion should be illegal under any circumstance’, compared to 17% in US (source). Others, plugged into the news cycle and in camp number 3, may think we are on the brink of a resurgence in all things regressive – such as a rise in the observance of anti-abortion groups congregating near clinics to ‘provide information’ intended to dissuade those wishing to seek abortion.

In the UK it is legal for a women to have an abortion up to 28 weeks gestation (~6 months). This has been the case since 1967. Many other nations permit abortion up to only 14 weeks. Controversial aspects lie within the details of abortion, the question, ‘should abortion be legal?’ is to oversimplify the concept. Indeed ‘it is legal for a women to have an abortion up to 24 weeks, provided certain conditions are met – as decided by medical professionals’, might be a more accurate statement than the one I opened with. Those in camp number 2 might be pleased with the addition of a responsible professional into the decision. Others may be concerned for what this means for the rights of the individual women and what this does for their individual agency.

Science teachers have a statutory requirement to facilitate discussion around controversial scientific issues, with it they have the opportunity to provide a more empirical perspective, a perspective which some students will pay special attention to. Abortion is one such controversial issue which goes deep into philosophy and religion, there is a huge amount of historical content. What can science do for such a debate? When does life begin and when does it end? – a fairly simple question. But what about consciousness? When does that begin? Are the questions the same? Their are limitations to a purely empirical approach, and that’s useful to know too.

Unfortunately there’s no agreement in medicine, philosophy or theology as to what stage of foetal development should be associated with the right to life. That isn’t surprising, because the idea that there is a precise moment when a foetus gets the right to live, which it didn’t have a few moments earlier, feels very strange. And when you look closely at each of the suggested dates, they do seem either arbitrary or not precise enough to decide whether the unborn should have the right to live. Nonetheless, as a matter of practicality many abortion laws lay down a stage of pregnancy after which abortion is unlawful (because the foetus has a right to life), and the dates chosen are usually based on viability.

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Chemical reactions, KS3 chemistry

chemical change
The progression of understanding related to chemical change and the closely related topics. Physics is in red.

This post follows my KS2 post on chemistry, where changes applied to materials were distinguished by whether the change was reversible or irreversible.

At KS3, pupils are introduced to a number of new types of reaction and given many examples. The RSC has described this jump as significant for pupils, this is because most of the underlying context relies on a familiarity with the language of chemistry. For example, the word neutralization encodes within it a series of expectations which the experienced chemist is familiar. See the image below.

chemical change
A ‘mental slot’ ready for thinking about a type of reaction. Source: RSC (here)

So overall, I think the minimum intention should be to increase familiarity with chemical language. Meaning the symbols and words used to represent pure substances, be they elements, compounds or complex molecules. Language learning has been exhaustively studied by many very very clever people. It appears that in the end, all people learn language in the same way. In summary, what helps us learn language is the following:

  1. contextualise new words
  2. maximise input
  3. listen and pronounce
  4. ensure the experience is positive

Hearing or reading new words without a context makes it very unlikely that anything is learned. Repeating the exercise or slowing down speach still has no help. So how is new language learnt? in a term: Dual coding.

We need words contextualised, we need to understand messages, it’s called ‘comprehensible input’ within academia. Acquisition is not the same as learning. Language is not dependent on learning! We need not be aware that we are actively being taught things. We don’t need things explained, we just need to be listen, pay close attention to the context and the words and we will unconsciously begin to pick out vocabulary once we understand the meaning of the messages behind the words.

So. We need dual coding. I’ll no doubt talk about this a lot more in future posts.

Do you like science?

As I was waiting for the rest of year 7 to arrive, I stood in the corridor with a few of my students. I asked them what their favourite subject was, one of them had just scored the second highest in the class and so I was expecting that she might say a STEM subject. She’s a bit of a cool kid, with a specific interest in sport, and she said maths. I asked if they liked science, ‘not really’, she said.

I’d spent a few precious minutes in the lesson before relating the study of organisms to a few more exotic jobs, marine biologist, zoologist, biomedical scientist… several of the students knew a thing or two about these jobs, one had a particularly keen understanding of what a zoologist did, but none seemed to consider this to be something they should consider for their own future. They are a kind bunch and seem to give me a lot of room when I probe them with my questions, but I can’t help but notice that slow glaze over, perhaps with the thought ‘when is he going to get on with today’s lesson…’ ‘is this going to be on the test?…’

I probed a little deeper, ‘why do you think we study science?’. ‘It’s one of the core subjects sir…’ an incredulous look crept over her face, as if to say, how does our science teacher not know that science just is important?! ‘Yeah it’s just something you have to learn, like English and maths’ said another. I decided to refocus them, ‘yeah but can you see how it might be useful, you know, in your life outside of school?’ ‘What do you mean sir? Like, not really.’ With that, the conversation was over, they seemed restless. Time to bring them in and teach them forces, lesson 1.

Why do we study science? It’s something science teachers should know the answer to: perhaps it is the study of our observations, the building of our concepts so that we might understand the world around us, so we can see links between phenomena, so we can feel like we have a little edge, that we understand. But these year 7’s, some of whom seem to have a real knack for science, see it as little more than another one of life’s hoops to be pushed through before they can learn the real lessons of life. If they were to say this I’m not sure I could disagree. They’ve been tested to the bone since they got to secondary school, parents express concern their kids aren’t being set enough homework, and teachers tire to cram ever more complexity into the curriculum. It’s no wonder a bright year 7 sees beyond it all.