Science: Too much like hard work?

Wouldn’t you think that kids in countries where technology and scientific endeavour are ubiquitous would be the ones most interested in persuing science as a career? It would make sense to me. However, it would appear that exactly the opposite is true. Digging in my RSS clippings, I rediscovered this Cognitive Daily post from the middle of last week, which links on to an article in an online journal called ‘Science in School’. This article examines the responses of children from 35 different countries to questions designed to ascertain their interest in science and technology as potential career paths. The results are striking.

I’m no statistician, nor an education professional, nor a scientist for that matter, so any deep examination of the methodologies and results will have to be left to those truly qualified to perform them. However, that’s not going to preclude me having a bit of an open-skull session about the implications of the results. 😉

If you read the article (it’s not that long, and worth the ten minutes maximum it’ll take you), you’ll see that, although children from all the countries in the survey acknowledge that ‘science and technology are important to society’ with positive responses, the countries that benefit most from science and technology in their everday lives are much less interested in working in science or technology fields. To snip out a quote from the article’s intro:

“It is a paradox that the most S&T-driven economies in the world are experiencing a lack of interest in S&T studies and careers among young people. The economic significance to a country of a high number of skilled scientists and engineers is well accepted. But young people do not choose their studies or careers because it is good for the domestic economy. Instead, they base their choices (when they have such choices) on their own interests, values and priorities. It is obvious that S&T studies and jobs no longer have the appeal in wealthier countries that they had some decades ago.”

It’s that bit in bold that interests me. What is influencing these choices? Obviously I can only comment knowledgably on kids in England, due to a lack of experiential knowledge about kids elsewhere – anything else is, by my own admission, conjecture.
To start with, I’m going to put on my ‘cynical’ hat. Science and technology subjects, at school level and beyond, are the ones that, by their nature, involve children using their brains to take on board new concepts. The scientific method is a thing of rigour – media studies doesn’t really compare. It is my opinion that the British education system has dumbed down hugely over the last twenty years. This is not simply the grouching of someone saying ‘how much harder things were in my day’, it is something that I have heard teachers complain of frequently. The teachers, for the most part, are not to blame – they are tangled up in relentless systems of targets, curriculums and testing structures. Examination-style testing doesn’t teach kids to learn, it teaches them to regurgitate facts – and that was the case when I was at school as well.

This is compounded by the ridiculous notions that recent governments have asserted, basically saying it isn’t fair to kids to tell them they’re failing, and that if standards are slipping the bar must be lowered for them, so as not to make them feel ostracised. Aside from the fact that this utterly fails to prepare children for life outside of school (where the success/failure dichotomy has a tendancy to leap out and kick you in the reproductive organs, with little concern for your wounded sensibilities), it seems to miss one very simple point. Children, just like adults, are lazy.

People are like electricity – we take the path of least resistance. Kids are smart enough to know that if they don’t want to work hard at learning a subject, they can slack off and get put into a lower ‘stream’ where they don’t end up looking so bad. ‘Streaming’ or ‘setting’ is a cop out – a way of making schools look as if they are still educating successfully when in fact they are churning out classes of children who, year by year, are getting higher and higher pass rates in increasingly easy exams and courses.

How do I back up this assertion? I work in a library right next to a university hall of residence, and so I join up a lot of students. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to expect people being educated at undergraduate level, even for non-technical subjects, to at least have enough facility with the written word to be able to fill in a library joining form correctly and legibly. It seems, however, that this is not the case. I guess it would be ‘discriminatory’ to exclude people from a university education just because they can’t read or write accurately. I always thought that was the whole point of higher education. My mistake, I guess. Meh.

But back to the point – science and tech. Those are the long hard courses. The ones where simply regurgitating the textbook sometimes isn’t enough. At university level, some of the courses actually involve (gasp) more than twelve hours of lectures a week – lectures where you have to take notes and concentrate, at least if you want to pass the course. Science and tech is hard work. I think that may be why there is little interest in it as a career in ‘developed’ countries – it’s a lot easier to coast through something simpler, get all the ‘ticks in the boxes’, and then grouch in the pub that you’re deeply in debt for a fancy piece of paper that can’t even get you a job. Science and tech degrees will get you a job – and that is why those courses are filled by foreign students from poorer countries. They are hungry to better their position. British kids, in general, appear to be uninterested unless it comes served on a plate.

Is this the fault of the kids themselves? Not really; they’re just being human. I’m not advocating a return to Victorin-era schooling methods, but I think the current system is demonstratably failing to educate as well as the one that existed a few decades ago. There are a huge number of factors involved, many of them sociological, and I couldn’t lay claim to knowing a way to undo this Gordian knot. But I think it is valid to see a marked decline in useful skills in school leavers as a symptom of broader problems, in the education system and beyond. Kids don’t study hard because they don’t see any reason to do so. That is the core of the problem, and that is why we have a huge lack of people to take up scientific and technical jobs in this country.

OK, so enough of the back-to-basics soapboxing. Putting on my ‘ever-changing-world’ hat, there is another way to look at these results. In a world where children are growing up surrounded by technology, is it still possible for them to see the wood for the trees?

The obvious illustration here is computers. I grew up with computers in the home, but that was more thanks to my father being in the industry (and being a proto-early-adopter – he’d have bought shares in Betamax if he could have afforded it, bless him). Computers were a rarity. Just a decade and a half ago when I was doing my GCSEs, computer studies was an optional course. That says it all, really.

Now, of course, computers and technology are utterly ubiquitous. Kids doing GCSEs now have been surrounded by technology for as long as they can remember. They use the stuff with enthusiasm, sure – but the notion of science and technology may be one that, thanks to its omnipresence, just doesn’t seem that interesting. “Yawn, like, whatever,” you know?

Add to this the fact that it is still considered ‘geekish’ to interested in how technology actually works. Knowing how to use it, of course, is a social necessity, one that drives a huge wedge between kids and their parents in many cases. But, outside of technologies that are hip status symbols (cars, for example), it isn’t ‘cool’ to be overly curious about exactly how your mobile phone can download music. After all, why question serendipity? If it works, you don’t need to know how. When I was a child, I wasn’t curious about how curtains blocked light. They just did, in my house and everyone else’s; end of story.

And this could explain why kids in poorer nations are more fascinated by science and technology – because for them it still holds a promise of things that they’ve never had. Technology for them is a goal, a target – for us, it’s just furniture with function, or the status symbols of conspicuous consumption. Add this to economic factors that encourage third world kids to go out and earn the best money they can, for themselves and often for their families too, and the picture becomes clearer. They aren’t jaded by luxury. There is no system that will take care of them for doing nothing, but there are ways for them to reap great rewards by the simple expedient of working hard. Which is why the balance of power in many industries is changing, and will continue to do so. It is why countries like India, China and Mexico are full of kids trying hard to get on the career ladder, to get out there and earn big money at the cutting edge of science, to work with the technologies they have witnessed changing their worlds as they have grown up.

I think we can expect to see a lot more kids from overseas studying and taking jobs in science and technology here in the UK, and probably in other countries like us, too. And I don’t find myself too upset by it, either – the universe rewards action, and that’s just fine by me.

3 thoughts on “Science: Too much like hard work?”

  1. My friend at work can’t believe I’m wasting my time at Uni when I could be working full-time and rising the awesome ranks of retail. After all she got a “piece of paper” (much like the ones you describe) and it hasn’t done her any good.

    What highly relevant subject does she have a degree in?

    Airport Management.

    The mind boggles.

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