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Taking risks with science education

23 September 2011

It is clear that the decision to take risk is highly subjective. 

I mused on the subject of risk while away in Italy this Summer. Italians are enthusiastic mushroom collectors and I get involved in the hunt through the efforts of my neighbours, in the little village where I have a house.

On this occasion, I was offered some fungi which were called something which sounded like “sanguinem”.  When I touched them, they secreted some red liquid. While I would usually then turn to the internet to do some research, the connection in this location was not good enough to do so. I therefore decided, given the strangeness of the fungi, to forgo the risk of cooking and eating them. This, and an “altercation” with a rickety stepladder, made me realise that I am quite risk averse when it comes to personal safety.

In the past week, risk-averseness has once more been on my mind, but this time in the context of science education. The recent House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, to which I gave evidence earlier in the Summer, has prompted a well-aired discussion about risk averseness and field trips. The committee considered whether health and safety legislation, or the need to assess risk, is a reason why teachers take children out of the classroom less than is desirable. 

But what about risk aversion in the classroom? Could it be that teachers influence students to take up GCSE and A level courses which are a safe bet, rather than an appropriate challenge to their abilities? And do young people take the safer option themselves?

It seems that a balanced attitude to risk is appropriate for situations in and out of the classroom. In all of the cases I’ve mentioned - mushroom consumption, ladder balancing, science experimenting and course selection, the benefit of taking the action must be balanced with the likelihood of misfortune occurring and the severity of impact. 

We have to provide suitable challenges for young people and it would do them a huge disservice to advise them to take a safe course, which fails to stretch their thinking. With that said, perhaps I’ll eat the mushrooms next time, once I’ve done some research.

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