As a science education researcher who has been interested in disasters for several years, my job, in times of disaster, is to collect a range of primary and secondary information about the crisis and draw lessons for how we teach science in schools and beyond. When I told this to friends and colleagues before the pandemic, they almost always got curious (sometimes with a hint of doubt) as to what science has to do with disasters. This is a natural reaction, I thought, given the link is sometimes invisible until we open the ‘black box’ of the disaster.
Since the spring of 2020, however, things have changed dramatically. We get daily updates on vaccine trials and plasma therapy results, medicines being approved and tested, and the effectiveness of face coverings. There is much ‘hard science’ communicated in daily briefings by governments. It is perhaps one of the very rare times in history when news headlines feature so many scientific research findings and scientists’ work. For all of us, this time is giving a truly lived experience of science-in-the-making, and also of the interrelationship between disasters, science and society. In my research on disasters and science education, I think about why we should teach disasters, what to teach about disasters and how it could be done effectively and meaningfully. Now I feel much less burdened about having to convince other people about why I do these than before, since the pandemic is demonstrating their importance more vividly than ever.
In the meantime, the current COVID-19 pandemic has also made me critically reflect on what current science curricula are doing for the pandemic, and what we education scholars could do better when the next disaster comes along. Schools do teach about the human immune system, structure of virus, and how vaccines work to produce immunity. No doubt such knowledge relates to the coronavirus itself. Yet let’s be frank and ask: How much has knowing these really helped us with the pandemic? Has what we learnt from school helped individuals understand and cope with it better? Perhaps not much, at least not in the way that one can explain with confidence. Although it will take some time to develop more concrete answers, there are some general principles to approach the problem.
I have argued before that disaster education in schools should aim for ‘understanding’ disasters besides simply training pupils to survive them (Park, 2020). Safety drills are important, but they don’t do much help with the questions about disasters, which are the keys to resolving the post-disaster conflicts and learning from the disaster. In this sense, I prefer using ‘disaster education’ to more specific terms such as ‘disaster risk reduction education’ and ‘safety education’, because understanding disasters can involve a lot more than reducing risks and keeping oneself safe.
From my experiences with disasters, one thing that is essential to understanding (and hence teaching) disasters is a pluralist epistemology that recognises multiple ways of knowing about disasters. This is because questions about disasters are complicated, nonlinear and multi-layered (Perrow, 1984). Why a disease spreads faster at some places than other places, whether face coverings can slow down the spread of a disease, who is to blame when a ferry capsizes in the middle of the sea, and whether scientists are liable for failing to predict an earthquake are not as straightforward as problems in science textbooks. Deciding what to do in the face of these crises is even more so. Answering these questions needs science, but they can’t be answered by science alone.
What we particularly need is to infuse a human point of view when teaching disasters. Science is a human activity, and disasters occur as a result of human choices and is defined by their impacts on society (Kelman, 2020). Reading Camus’s La Peste, watching the 2011 film Contagion, and debating the ethical and economic implications of lockdowns, contact tracing and border shutdowns should not be disconnected from learning the science of infectious disease as well as the nature of science and scientists’ work. Only when the dots are connected, could we get to a holistic ‘understanding’ of the disaster. This will in turn enable us to decide what should be remembered and passed on to future generations about the pandemic.
It follows that cross-pollination between school subjects would be crucial to tackle disasters. Yet not much collaboration occurs naturally due to the deep-rooted compartmentalisation of school subjects, hence a need for intervention to facilitate it. In the Oxford Argumentation in Religion and Science project, we bring together science and religious education (RE) perspectives to promote pupils’ skills to construct and justify arguments on complicated issues such as evolution, environment and disasters. Pupils learn how to construct arguments with empirical evidence as well as normative, a priori propositions about humans and the world. In the meantime, they can experience different modes of thinking in in different disciplines. Efforts such as this would be essential for pupils to develop deeper understandings of disasters and those of science itself, and to cultivate rational and responsible citizenship in times of disaster.
As with many other aspects of our lives, education will never be same after the pandemic. But how it will change is up to curriculum makers and educators across all grade levels. I can imagine pictures of face masks, COVID-19 vaccines, and perhaps a bit more details about infectious diseases added in biology textbooks, but that shouldn’t be all. We must take this crisis as an opportunity to rethink the raison d’etre of school science, hand in hand with other subjects, and upgrade it to respond to social needs in the long run. Changes can begin from taking the pandemic as one instance of many disasters, and as something that exists in connection with various past and future disasters.
Kelman, I. (2020). Disaster by choice: How our actions turn natural hazards into catastrophes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Klinenberg, E. (2003). Heat wave: A social autopsy of disaster in Chicago. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Park, W. (2020). Beyond the ‘two cultures’ in the teaching of disaster: or how disaster education and science education could benefit each other. Educational Philosophy and Theory.
Perrow, C. (1984). Normal accidents: Living with high risk technologies. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Suggested Readings (optional)
Erduran, S. (2020). Bringing nuance to ‘the science’ in public policy and science understanding. Science & Education.
Wonyong Park is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Education, University of Oxford. His research focuses on using philosophical, historical and sociological studies of science to inform how we teach science in schools, particularly for cultivating pupils’ critical thinking and democratic citizenship. He received his BSc and MSc in Physics Education from Seoul National University.
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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.