'Time for Science Education' by Michael Matthews

History and philosophy of science had been at the centre of debates on science education in the first half of the twentieth century. Later, probably as a consequence of the Space Race starting in the late 1950’s, a more technocratic view of science education took over and history of science was relegated to the status of an esoteric discipline.

In recent decades, Michael Matthews, professor at University of New South Wales, Sydney, has been at the forefront of reviving interest in the history and philosophy of science as an area of core relevance to science education. It is one of his books, Time for Science Education, that I wish to look at in this blog post.

If I ever get to meet Prof. Matthews, I would like to ask him if he intended a pun in the book title! But on the surface, the ‘time’ in the title refers to timekeeping and time measurement. The theme of the book is how the history of clocks and timekeeping can be used to teach science through a historical-investigative approach.

I realised for the first time on reading this book that the simple pendulum — ubiquitous and dealt with in an abstract way in the school curriculum — had a rich and complex history that was closely tied to the development of clocks. Beginning with Galileo’s simple ‘pulsilogium’ (a weight suspended by a thread of adjustable length) that he used as a medical student to count the pulse rate of patients, to the precision of John Harrison’s famed clocks that kept accurate time on rough seas, there is a lot to delve into about the deceptively simple pendulum than just the formula of its time period.

It was also a revelation for me that until around as late as the 15th century, there was no real unit of time. The period of daylight was often divided into 12 equal hours, which meant that a summer hour was longer than a winter hour. This was good enough for people to go about their daily lives effectively.

What changed the game was the beginning of the Age of Exploration, and the need to determine longitude accurately at sea. Latitude could be determined easily by noting the position of certain stars or the Sun, but longitude was a very tricky affair and often the difference between life and death for mariners. It was this new need that drove an intense and competitive search for an accurate timekeeping mechanism. The mechanical clocks that were invented as a result, are some of the most fascinating devices ever made by humans.

Huygen's pendulum clock
(Public domain)

One of the questions that the book opened up for me in science teaching was about the value of bringing in historical-social-cultural connections to the topics that are taught. Apart from making the topic appealing to students having a wider range of personalities and interests, situating the scientific idea in its broader context seemed to me to serve an important purpose of broadening the students’ worlds and imagination. And that might be more important than mastering certain scientific concepts, especially for the vast majority who never learn science after school.

Time for Science Education is a fairly expensive academic publication, but a limited preview is available on Google Books, to take a peek at some of the chapters.

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