Saturday, 21 July 2007

Science school and culture school

*Since writing this piece my understanding has changed and I now believe it contains fundamental flaws. Anyone who would like further clarification is welcome to e-mail me at hklaxnessat-*


Science school and culture school: Improving the efficiency of high school science teaching in a system of mass science education

Bruce G. Charlton

Medical Hypotheses. 2006; 67: 1-5


Educational expansion in western countries has been achieved mainly by adding years to full-time education; however, this process has probably reduced efficiency. Sooner or later, efficiency must improve, with a greater educational attainment per year. Future societies will probably wish more people to study science throughout high school (aged c. 11–19 years) and the first college degree. ‘Science’ may be defined as any abstract, systematic and research-based discipline: including mathematics, statistics and the natural sciences, economics, music theory, linguistics, and the conceptual or quantitative social sciences. Since formal teaching is usually necessary to learn science, science education should be regarded as the core function of high schools. One standard way to improve efficiency is the ‘division of labour’, with increased specialization of function. Modern schools are already specialized: teachers are specialized according to age-group taught, subject matter expertise, and administrative responsibilities. School students are stratified by age and academic aptitude. I propose a further institutional division of school function between science education, and cultural education (including education in arts, sports, ethics, social interaction and good citizenship). Existing schools might split into ‘science school’ and ‘culture school’, reflected in distinct buildings and zones, separate administrative structures, and the recruitment of differently-specialized teaching personnel. Science school would be distinguished by its focus on education in disciplines which promote abstract systematic cognition. All students would spend some part of each day (how much would depend on their aptitude and motivation) in the ‘science school’; experiencing a traditional-style, didactic, disciplined and rigorous academic education. The remainder of the students’ time at school would be spent in the cultural division, which would focus on broader aspects, and aim to generate a more rounded and social individual. For this to happen depends upon a recognition that science is relatively difficult to teach, requiring non-spontaneous and un-natural cognitive processes from students. Furthermore, it is much easier to learn science when young – if science is missed at school, it can be difficult or impossible to make up the ground later. Modern schools currently try to do too many things, and end-up doing none very well: the one big thing all schools should do for all students is to teach them science. For this to happen, schools need to specialize in their core function.


The recent expansion of university education to include around half the age cohort in several Western countries has generated a population which almost certainly has a much higher average educational attainment than 30 years ago [1]. However, educational expansion has been achieved mainly by adding more years to full-time education: in the UK, approximately 30% of the population now have an extra 3–5 years of education. However, if efficiency is (roughly speaking) defined as the amount of educational attainment per year, then educational expansion has also probably significantly reduced the efficiency of the educational process; for example by diluting standards and motivation among both students and their teachers, and in universities by reducing the funding per student [2].

It is probable that most societies will in future wish to educate a greater proportion of their population to a higher level in scientific disciplines. For instance, most of the population will need to study science throughout high school (i.e. schools with student between approximately 11–19 years old) and probably also throughout their first college degree [3]. For present purposes, ‘science’ may be defined to include a range of abstract systematic disciplines [4], which are sufficiently mature and developed to have a tradition of advanced research: most obviously these include mathematics, statistics and the natural sciences; but science is also an appropriate term for economics, music theory, linguistics, and the more conceptual or quantitative branches of social sciences such as management science and sociology [3].

Declining efficiency of science teaching in mass education systems

Despite a greater proportion of the population studying science than in the past, it is likely that both school students and science graduates have a considerably lower age-specific average science attainment than did the smaller and more elite cohort of thirty-plus years ago. This dilution has been disguised by inflation of the value of educational qualifications, so that more people get educational certificates and a higher proportion of certificated students attain higher grades [5]. Nonetheless, the decline in standards is apparent in exact and quantifiable subjects such as mathematics, where remedial courses and extended courses have needed to be introduced at many colleges, or else a decline in the level of degree attainment has simply been accepted. Furthermore many students avoid studying sciences because they are more difficult (both requiring more cognitive effort for most people, and having clearer criteria for failure and a higher percentage of people failing). One very unfortunate response to this decline in the UK has been to make the sciences easier by making them less ‘scientific’ – for example by replacing ‘didactic’ teaching with less-structured class discussions, and replacing tough quantitative and conceptual subject matter with easier and more superficially-interesting debates concerned with social and ethical controversies.

For instance, recently advocates of the ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) idea of evolution have urged that schools should ‘teach the controversy’ concerning the validity of evolution by natural selection [6]. Aside from the lack of scientific credentials of ID, this implies that school students should debate a theory they do not understand, for the simple reason that they have not yet been taught it. This recommendation to ‘teach the controversy’ is therefore either to underestimate the difficulty of teaching the theory of natural selection, or simply designed to ensure that natural selection will not be taught. As anyone who has tried to teach it will know, natural selection is a highly abstract concept that most people find extremely difficult to grasp; indeed some (otherwise intelligent) people apparently find natural selection impossible to grasp, even at a basic level. The same kind of criticism applies to those who (with whatever motivation) attempt to teach science by stimulating what are inevitably un-informed class discussions on media-prominent subjects such as environmentalism, the biographies of famous scientists, or the fallacies of past science. Whatever the non-scientific value of such discussions, from a scientific perspective all this is merely an encouragement to voice ignorant opinions. To teach the controversies of science to school students who do not yet know basic science, simply amounts to not teaching science. Consequently, there is a general feeling among those who wish for more and better science (including mathematics) teaching not only that more science be taught to more people, but that what is being taught really is science – science in more than just the name.

However, despite the faults of current science teaching, it is important to recognize any wholesale attempt to restore the past seems doomed to fail under modern post-expansion conditions. In the past, science was taught to minority elite students who were intending to make science their vocation – either as practitioners or teachers. Typically, such students began studying science in their teens at school, in an academically-selective and specialized educational milieu. These students were able to spend many hours per day in formal classroom settings, focused on rigorous and abstract school work (including, but not necessarily, science). Traditional academic teaching methods which have apparently been effective and relatively efficient in the past include lectures, exercises, catechisms and class quizzes; practical demonstrations; essays and tests of memorized knowledge – such teaching occurring in small classes, each probably containing less than 20 students.

But, what was possible and appropriate for this highly able and motivated vocational elite of a previous generation, is impractical for the vastly larger and more diverse student group who should be studying science as a general education in present and future generations. It is almost inconceivable that the majority of modern high school students (in a modern societal context) could be induced or coerced to spend (say) five hours a day, five days a week for seven years engaged in formal abstract learning. Yet, although this is too great a volume of science teaching to be practical, tolerable or useful; exactly this kind of intellectually-tough education is very probably the best way to teach science. The short answer is that everyone should get some proper science education of this tough kind, but that the amount of such education received needs to be tailored according to ability and attitude.

Improving efficiency – general principles

Assuming that educational expansion should continue, and that educational efficiency has indeed declined, then clearly, the problem cannot forever be tackled by adding more years to the educational process [2]. Sooner or later, there must be efforts to make school education more efficient, to improve the amount of educational attainment per year. Furthermore, it is not clear that science can effectively be taught by the more relaxed, participative, non-judgemental, discussion-based environment which is encouraged in many schools. The fact is that science teachers know science and their students do not (yet), so – at least initially – the information flow must be from teacher to student, and the teaching methods must reflect this.

Changes to improve science teaching, including its efficiency, depend upon a recognition that science is both more difficult to learn and more difficult to teach than ‘culture’. Abstract systematic thinking is (for almost everyone, apart from a few prodigies) non-spontaneous, unnatural and hard toil, when contrasted with most of the activities that come under the umbrella of culture. Furthermore, school is just about the only place where science can be learned for most students; while culture is assimilated or inculcated without specific effort on the part of a child from interactions with family, friends, community and the mass media. Perhaps most conclusively, learning abstract systematic thinking seems to get ever-harder with increasing age, so if this is part of education missed-out at school, it can be difficult or impossible to make up the ground later.

Indeed, it is plausible that the root of the problem with science education is that modern schools are trying to do too many things, and too often end-up by doing none of them very well. In particular, school may be failing to accomplish the one big thing which ought to comprise its core function – i.e. formal, academic education: especially in sciences. Part of the answer is surely that schools need to follow the lead of almost all other institutions in modernizing societies – schools need to specialize in their core function.

Improving the efficiency of science teaching therefore has two elements: the first element is establishing a competitive and selective framework which rewards institutional teaching efficiency and punishes inefficiency; the second is to restructure schools such that they focus more upon their core function – which should be, in broad terms, teaching science.

Increasing competition and selection between schools

A major requirement for improving efficiency in all complex systems – including human organization – is the existence of selection pressures [7]; such that organizations which are more efficient tend to survive and grow while organizations that are less efficient tend to decline and become extinct.

This implies that educational systems which teach more science per unit time or per unit resource should expand, while less efficient ones should contract. Over time there will then be an increasing proportion of students who are being taught science in more efficient ways. This might happen by successful schools expanding and taking more pupils while unsuccessful schools are closed: or by successful ways of organizing science teaching tending to spread through the educational system, because unless the less-efficient schools emulate the more-efficient ones, they will not survive.

Educational efficiency can therefore be seen as a specific instance of the general phenomenon of the selection of systems [7] and [8]. Economic efficiency is improved by economic markets; likewise, educational efficiency is improved by educational markets. The education system and the economy are therefore analogous but they are not identical. Economic efficiency is about maximizing monetary profit per input, while educational efficiency is about maximizing educational attainment per input. Schools must of course operate within a monetary budget, and they are constrained by economic factors, but schools are (or should be) education-maximizing institutions – not profit-maximizing institutions. This is to say no more than that schools are primarily part of the educational system and only secondarily part of the economy.

The difference between economics and education is therefore that educational efficiency is promoted by ‘markets’ but not for money, instead for educational credentials. For example, in the educational marketplace the ‘best schools’ are those which get the best exam results (if exam results are regarded as a reliable proxy measure of educational attainment, and assuming that the data is controlled for the standard of the students etc.). The ‘best schools’ are not the schools with the largest profit, which would be the case if economics were primary. So, parents sending their children to private schools often know which school has the highest exam results; but seldom know which school makes the highest profits (unless profits are so low as to threaten the survival of the school – or when large profits are being ploughed-back into primarily educational improvements, such as smaller classes).

For school science teaching to become more efficient would therefore probably require an educational market, including variation in the organization or methods of teaching science, over-provision of school places, and competition between schools for the best students. Furthermore, schools which attract the most and best students should tend to prosper while those who fail to attract enough students should wane.

But of course, science teaching will only improve if scientific aptitude is valued. Parents would need to make their choice of schools substantially based on each school’s ability to teach science and get good results in science examinations. However it is probable that scientific aptitude will indeed become increasingly valued in the future. Skills in abstract systematic reasoning, such as mathematics and statistics, are always scarce and are increasingly widely required in modernizing societies. As more people learn the long-term pay-off of science education leading to valued skills – in terms such as salary-per-hour, conditions of employment and degree of autonomy at work – the more parents will exert the kind of selection pressure likely to lead to more efficient science teaching [3].

Division and specialization of function – science school and culture school

The intention is to retain traditional methods of teaching science, but to adjust the quantity of this kind of rigorous education to the abilities and attitudes of the student. This implies that it would be more educationally efficient for weaker students to spend just one or two hours per day learning science in a rigorous and ‘didactic’ classroom situation than to spend much longer in less-structured forms of classroom experience. At least, it is known from extensive experience (with elite students) that traditional methods are an effective and efficient way of teaching science.

A general understanding of efficiency in systems suggests some principles which would be likely to lead to greater science education efficiency. Perhaps the most frequent way in which human (and biological) systems are able to increase their efficiency is the principle of ‘division of labour’ which was first articulated by the economist Adam Smith. Division of labour increases the complexity of organization by specialization of function, and coordination of these specialized functions. Smith’s famous example involved a pin factory, in which the procedure for making a pin was broken down into numerous simpler, more-specialized sequential steps; and these steps were coordinated by managers leading to vastly increased efficiency (as measured by the numbers of pins produced per person per day) [8].

When the modern school is examined in this light, it can be seen that there is already considerable specialization. For example teachers are specialized according to age of children taught, subject matter expertise, and administrative responsibilities. Schools are also internally specialized by age stratification and academic aptitude of students (also, sometimes, by the sex or socio-economic class of students). However, logically there is a further possible division of function. My proposal is that the efficiency of science teaching might be increased by introducing a functional division between science education, and what might be termed cultural education – which would include arts, sports, ethics, social aspects of schooling and any other educational objectives such as good citizenship.

Schools might have an internal functional division into ‘science school’ and ‘culture school’. This functional division should be reflected in terms of physical plant, separate administrative structures, and the recruitment of differently-specialized teaching personnel. These divisions would be characterized by the nature of their system-characteristic internal evaluations. For instance, the evaluations within science school would be relatively narrow and more examination-focused than in the culture school. In science school the performance of both teaching staff and students would be judged mainly (although not exclusively) by scientific criteria, including formal examination results. Science school would be distinguished by its academic ethos and scholarly expectations. The focus of science school would be to inculcate the aptitude for abstract systematic cognition.

For example, an existing school might become physically divided between science and cultural parts, each on distinct parts of the campus. Each student would spend some significant part of each day (depending on their aptitude and motivation) in the ‘science school’, experiencing a traditional-style, didactic, disciplined and rigorous academic education which is (so far as we can tell) the best way to teach real science at the basic level. Science school teaching would need to be stratified according to ability and aptitude, since this is more efficient than teaching widely-mixed classes. Different strata of students could be taught from a broadly common curriculum (enabling educational credit accumulation and transfer); but different abilities of student would cover different amounts of subject matter, different specific subjects, and progress at different speeds.

The remainder of the students’ time at school would be spent in the cultural division, which would focus on broader aspects, and aiming to generate a more rounded and social individual. Examinations in culture school would be much more based on participation, sustained effort, attitudes, attendance etc. Inevitably, since it has many aims and a wider focus, culture school would apply many evaluations to its teachers and students. Inevitably, too, these evaluations would be less clear-cut and more contested.


To enhance the efficiency of science teaching requires an education market combined with parental valuation of science teaching. If such a framework is in place, then schools – by trial and error – will eventually find ways to improve the efficiency of science teaching. If specialization of function increases efficiency, then science schools may emerge. By rewarding success and suppressing failure, the education market would tend to spread this discovery throughout the educational system, to benefit an increasing proportion of school students.


[1] B.G. Charlton and P. Andras, Universities and social progress in modernizing societies: how educational expansion has replaced socialism as an instrument of political reform, CQ(Critical Quarterly) 47 (2005), pp. 30–39. Full Text via CrossRef

[2] A. Wolf, Does education matter?: myths about education and economic growth, Penguin, London (2002).

[3] B.G. Charlton, Science as a general education: Conceptual science should constitute the compulsory core of multi-disciplinary undergraduate degrees, Medical Hypotheses 66 (2006), pp. 451–453. SummaryPlus | Full Text + Links | PDF (63 K) | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus

[4] Charlton BG, Andras P. The educational function and implications for teaching of multi-disciplinary modular (MDM) undergraduate degrees. OxCHEPS Occasional Paper No. 12.,; 2003 [accessed 9.02.06].

[5] B.G. Charlton and P. Andras, Auditing as a tool of public policy: the misuse of quality assurance techniques in the UK university expansion, European Political Science 2 (2002), pp. 24–35.

[6] Wikipedia. Intelligent design,; [accessed 9.02.06].

[7] B. Charlton and P. Andras, The modernization imperative, Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK (2003).

[8] B.G. Charlton and P. Andras, What is management and what do managers do? A systems theory account, Philosophy of Management 3 (2003), pp. 1–15.