Emotion in science education

Author Glenn Murphy writes in the Guardian today:

You see, since the very beginnings of science education and the so-called Public Understanding of Science movement, the whole approach has essentially been an argument to ethos. Never mind what science is, you should learn it because it’s good for you. It’s the educational equivalent of shouting: “Eat your greens!”

Straw man. This hasn’t been the conception of science engagement for years. Perhaps a decade or more.

Instead, why not begin lessons, discussions or curricula with appeals to logos and pathos? Discuss why science is important, don’t just assert that it is – kids are too smart for that. Have them consider why they should bother with science, how their lives can be enriched and improved – what has science ever done for us, and what’s in it for them? And make it personal. Why did you study science? What was in it for you?

This isn’t going well, is it? By which I mean: this isn’t original thinking. However, stick with it, it gets better:

Above all, don’t make it feel like a lesson to be learned. Make it an emotional – yes, emotional – journey of discovery.

Ah. Now this – this is both valid and interesting. Also, the subject of at least one current doctoral thesis (no, not mine. You know who you are, and if you’re reading this, you’ll know that I’ll rant at you for faffing about. Paul).

The article’s worth reading, if only as a useful summary of the sorts of discussions one has with newcomers to the STEM engagement field. It’s rather brazenly a plug/love-in between the author and the Science Museum, the branding of which is plastered all over the author’s books, but so it goes.

Speaking of the Science Museum… actually, that’s another post.


  1. Spotted this *during a coffee break* (honestly Jonathan) and I couldn’t resist replying.
    Book flogging aside, I thought this was quite a good article in the way that it pointed up relevance and emotional engagement as the two key ways to hook pupils. And did so in way that didn’t just bash all science teachers!
    According to the media and public discussion, the apparent panaceas for all of science education’s ills are – “make it fun”, “make it relevant”, “make it hands-on”. Sadly, experience would suggest it’s not as simple as that. For example, what does “fun” mean exactly?
    The research that Jonathan alluded to is exploring how science teachers can find or create emotional engagement “hooks” that attract the involuntary attention of all pupils (eg curiosity, uncertainty, anticipation, surprise, amusement, amazement, joy of understanding, imagination, wonder, etc).
    Speaking of which, I’d better get back to it, before I get shouted at 🙂

  2. You’re always welcome here, Paul. Just as long as you write more words in your thesis than you do in the comments.
    I think what riled me was the paragraph, quoted about, that appears to be beating the ‘make it relevant and useful’ drum. There are times when this is an appropriate tool, but it’s clearly not a complete solution to inspiring children with science. We seem to have been hearing that mantra since the introduction of GCSEs, and I guess I’m frustrated that the conversation sometimes doesn’t seem to have moved on.
    You’re quite right about the article treading a delicate line in advocating changes in approach without criticising teachers, thanks for pointing that out. I rather missed it, and you’re absolutely correct that the audience for much of this sort of discussion is the teaching profession itself, not children at all.

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