Considering science and children

I did my PhD on children’s science books. I happen to think children’s interactions with science – and the way adults decide to build such interactions for them – is a fascinating area of social analysis. I hope to spend much of the next few months (while I’m on research leave) going back to this work, so I thought I’d turn some of my old teaching notes into a blogpost.

In advocating research on children and science it is all too easy to fall back on overly self-important (and under-analysed) celebrations of their significance. Yes, political intersections between children and science and/ or technology can be some of the most controversial: vaccinations, digital culture, the future effects of current energy policy. As I wrote on an old blog years ago, children are at the center of an awful lot of science news stories. Yes, increasingly, science and technology is a central part of children’s lives; whether because they find themselves in front of flickering electronic screens or because various people mobilise their concern to train a scientifically literate futurepeople, plotting science into curricula the world over. But I am not in the business of repeating such rhetoric. I’d much rather have a good, hard look at it; examine it, consider what makes it tick, take it apart and see if we can’t put it together in more useful and interesting ways.

Imagining the child and science

There are many ways to define both ‘science’ and ‘the child’. Moreover, the ways we imagine what counts as either scientific and childish effect how we structure our world, and can be used rhetorically. Interestingly, both the child and science are subjects that have, at the end of the 20th century, been described as being ‘under threat’ in some way: the Science Wars (see Labinger & Collins, 2001) and a perceived End of Childhood (e.g. Postman, 1994). Arguably both were largely momentary non-events, the controversies of which have largely settled down to be unpicked by social and historical scholars (e.g. see discussion in Leane, 2007, Broks, 2006, Prout, 2005, Buckingham, 2000a). Still, notions that either science or the child might be under threat from aspects of post/late modernity remain in public discourse. Moreover, both (non)events at least underline not only a suggested ‘crisis’ in childhood/science, but also a desire to maintain a sense of singular identity for these groups.

As Anne Higonnet (1998) and Patricia Holland’s (2004) studies of iconography of the child in visual culture both emphasise, the child is often used to stand for a form of unquestioned, unsullied, pre-social ‘natural’ human state. Higonnet in particular emphasises the ways in which imagery of childhood continually depicts children as existing somehow beyond or above social life: presenting a ‘secret garden’ of classless, androgynous non-identity. Several scholars of children’s literature have argued that such Romantic imagery put the child at odds with science, placing children firmly (iconically, even) on the side of the natural. As Jacqueline Rose puts it, the child is thus ‘set up as the site of a lost truth’ (Rose 1994, 43) somehow in opposition to book-based, scientific or technical knowledge. Noga Applebaum (2006) argues that such Romanticism surrounding the child also explains a thread of anti-science/ technology she perceives in much of contemporary children’s science fiction.

However, sociologist of childhood Chris Jenks (2005) stresses that there is a diversity of ideas as to what the nature of childhood equates to: innocent, pure, pre-social, but also playful, innovative, futuristic, mischievous, even deviant. It is worth quoting Jenks at length to help us consider the range of meanings at play here:

Whether we regard children as pure, bestial, innocent, corrupt, charged with potential, tabula rasa, or even as we view our adult selves; whether they think and reason as we do, are immersed in a receding tide of inadequacy, or are possessors of a clarity of vision which we have through experience lost; whether their forms of language, games and conventions are alternative to our own, imitations or crude precursors of our own now outgrown, or simply transitory impenetrable trivia which are amusing to witness and recollect; whether they are constrained and we have achieved freedom, or we have assumed constraint and they are truly free – all these considerations, and more, continue to exercise our theorising about the child in social life (Jenks, 2005: 2)

It is important to note that when Jenks talks about ‘theorising’ about the child, he does not only mean academic work, but also refers to the quite prosaic theorising which we all do as part of everyday social life.

As Jenks acknowledges, there is a key distinction to be made between such everyday theorising of the child and similar social work we all also do around class, race or gender. Every adult has at one time been a child and every child (tragic events avoided) has the potential to be an adult. Indeed, it is what is expected of them. As Jenks puts it, children are both alien and similar to adults: ‘the child inhabits our world and yet seems to answer to another’ (Jenks, 2005: 3). James and Prout (1997) in particular draw our attention to temporal issues in terms of ideas of the child and emphasise that part of the work of the sociology of childhood is also an understanding of the social construction of time. Childhood is social identity that is, unusually, at once apparently timeless and yet also heavily reliant on ideas of change over time. Vivian Sobschack (1991) puts it well when she describes children as equally futuristic and nostalgic.

Some ways of framing child/science interaction

Different definitions of what it means to be scientific and a child mingle to construct a range of presumptions over how children and science should relate to one another. The following list is not exhaustive, neither are any of these categories mutually exclusive (see Bell, 2008, for development with examples. It is free to download).

Children as distinct from the scientist. This is an oppositional category that, like scientist/public or any number of other cultural dualities, draws a boundary and defines one member in comparison to another. In such a system we might imagine the child as naïve, lacking a scientist’s “mature” knowledge, and therefore work the boundary and its associated definitions of child and scientist around notions of intellectual capacity and/or learning. We might, however, equally see the child as good and science as corrupt. The cultural image of the child comes with many optimistic and positive connotations, and we should not assume that children are always placed at the bottom of the comparison.

Children as similar to the scientist. In some respects, this is the opposite of the first category in that it finds points of similarity between children and scientists. We see this both in educational theory with ideas of the child as acting “like a scientist”, and in the construction of images of the scientist where a sense of the childlike can be worked to endow science with the positive connotations of the child. For example: the idea of having “the future in their bones”; the curiosity of a child; an intuitive link to nature; or a sense of innocence which fits neatly with the scientific aim to attain the simplicity of Occam’s Razor.

Children as scientists in waiting. This is often articulated in policies stressing the need for more trained scientists to maintain the national economy. In some respects, this is to think of the children in question not as children, but as the adults they will be in the future. Thus, studies of the child and science also show us something of the (youthful) construction of the scientist, as well as ways in which science interacts with a (youthful) public. This category could be subsumed within child-as-scientist; it tends, however, to maintain a sense that children will remain distinct from science at least until they have reached a certain age. Therefore it could also be seen as a mix of the first two categories.

Children as “critical friends” (in waiting). This has a very different political history from the other three categories. Rooted in “post-PUS” calls for engagement or dialogue with science, it suggests a collaborative relationship between science and the child, in which they can work in dialogue to work out issues of science policy. I place the “in waiting” in brackets, rather than defining a separate category, because such dialogic work tends to be considered only in terms of adult relationships with science. This is not simply a science-specific issue. Opinions on current affairs and matters of public policy may be encouraged as part of personal development, but tend to be ignored substantively until individuals reach voting age. When the education community has taken on such ideas, it tends to be seen as preparation for a later, adult role.


References:

  • Applebaum, Noga (2006) ‘The Myth of the Innocent Child: the Interplay Between Nature, Humanity and Technology in Contemporary Children’s Science Fiction’, The Journal of Children’s Literature Studies vol. 3(2): 1-17.
  • Bell, Alice R (2008) ‘The Childish Nature of Science: Exploring the child/science relationship in popular non-fiction’, in Alice R Bell, Sarah R Davies & Felicity Mellor (eds) Science and Its Publics (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) 79-98.
  • Broks, Peter (2006) Understanding Popular Science (Maidenhead & New York: Open University Press).
  • Buckingham, David (2000a) After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Higonnet, Anne (1998) Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London: Thames and Hudson).
  • Holland, Patricia (2004) Picturing Childhood: The Myth of the Child in Popular Imagery (London: IB Taurus).
  • James, Allison & Alan Prout (1997) ‘Re-presenting Childhood: Time and Transition in the Study of Childhood’, in (eds) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Studies of Childhood, second edition (London & New York: Routledge) 230-250.
  • Jenks, Chris (2005) Childhood, 2nd edition (Routledge, Abingdon).
  • Labinger, Jay A & Harry Collins (eds) (2001) The One Culture? A Conversation About Science (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press).
  • Leane, Elizabeth (2007) Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies (Hampshire: Ashgate).
  • Postman, Neil (1994) The Disappearance of Childhood, vintage edition (first published 1982) (New York: Vintage Books).
  • Prout, Alan (2005) The Future of Childhood (London & New York: Routledge Falmer).
  • Rose, Jacqueline (1994) The Case of Peter Pan: Or the Impossibility of Children’s Literature, 2nd edition, (Macmillan: Basingstoke).
  • Sobschack, Vivian (1991) ‘Child/ Alien/ Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange’ in Constance Penley et al (eds) Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2-30.

2 thoughts on “Considering science and children

  1. Pingback: Tackle adversity with your students – they will surprise you | edjitraining

  2. Pingback: Involving kids in research | through the looking glass

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