Talking Teaching

October 15, 2010

inspired by science

This post was originally written for the Bioblog – interesting how so many topics cross boundaries like this :)

A couple of days ago I was sent a copy of Inspired by Science (Bull et al. 2010) – a paper written ‘to encourage debate on how better to engage students with science’ which focuses particularly on what’s going on in our schools. It also asks ‘whether there is an increasing mismatch between science education of today and the demands of the 21st century.’ Those of you who are regular readers will know that this is a particular interest of mine (& of several of my blogging buddies over at Sciblogs), & so of course I was very keen to read the paper :)

Way back when I was a secondary science teacher (& we really are talking last century here!) I remember thinking that some of what we were teaching wasn’t all that useful to students in their everyday lives (just how relevant was an understanding of how urea fertiliser is manufactured, for example). If students don’t see something as relevant they’re likely to switch off, & in fact Bull et al. (2010) comment that ‘many students do not achieve sufficient understanding of [science] to be able to contribute to scientific debates.’ So if ‘society’s educational purposes’ (ibid.) include a population that sees science as relevant & that’s able (& willing) to take part in such debates, then maybe we need to look at how the subject’s taught. Otherwise the trend towards disengagement from science that Hipkins & Bolstad identified in their 2008 paper, Seeing yourself in science, may become a landslide.
And indeed, that’s what informed the development of the new curriculum now being implemented in our schools. This may well be seen as a problem by university lecturers in the various science disciplines, whose views of what should be taught in school science curricula differs from the one set out in this paper, and which I hold as well. In other words, different interest groups can have quite different, & deeply held, beliefs about what schools should be doing. And because up until fairly recently students in year 13 (7th form) classes tended to be the ones going on to uni, content & assessment were pretty much driven by the needs & demands of the universities, delivering chunks of knowledge & with not all that much attention to engaging them with the nature of science (NOS) itself. Even when the 1993 curriculum introduced NOS as a ‘parallel strand’ alongside general science & the indivdual subjects of biology, physics, chemistry, that strand tended to be ‘the pages we just skip over’ rather than an integral part of the curriculum. The current curriculum set out to change this, but nonetheless Bull et al. are able to identify several factors working against such change. And they comment that ‘understanding what good science education looks like – that is, science education that is educative, that represents science accurately, and that is engaging for students – is very challenging, and that, despite much effort, it continues to be very challenging.’
Of course, this does raise the question: how do we know when students are engaged? What does this thing ‘engagement’ look like? Bull et al. offer several possibilities here: continuing with study; demonstrating true intellectual curiosity about science & what it can & can’t do; showing interest in things like technologies, environmental issues, science media; aspiring to a scientific career; evincing a belief ‘in the value of science to the individual & to society’. You may be able to think of others. And this all feeds into how we assess the quality & success of the science education offered in New Zealand classrooms – it’s one thing to have students ‘doing’ science, but just how worthwhile is that if they don’t actually want to be there?
While I work mainly with senior biology students & their teachers, I’m aware that many students make up their minds about science as a subject for further study rather earlier than that, which means that their science experiences at primary & intermediate school are crucial to that decision. Surveys like TIMSS* and NEMP** show that primary school students enjoy science, report positive experiences of it, and would like to study more science :) Alas! this enjoyment and positive attitude declines as students move through to their secondary school years, & most students have pretty much decided about things like a having a science-related career well before they hit senior secondary school. Which suggests that a lot of our effort in engaging and supporting students in science should be focused on those primary & intermediate years – but not to the detriment of science teaching in secondary schools!
However, recent data from TIMSS (cited by Bull et al., 2010) indicate that primary students in this country spend on average 45 hours/year on science – well down on 66 hours in 2002 – and that only 6 of the other countries taking part the survey reported spending less time than that on studying science. Along with this, the number of students reporting that they never did experiments (something kids love!) has declined over the period 1999-2007. Now, because a lot of classroom teaching is cross-curricular, the children surveyed may simply not have recognised when they were doing science activities. But conversely, primary teachers may lack confidence in teaching science & so don’t include it in any integrated topics they may be teaching. This isn’t surprising as according to a 2010 Education Review Office report (also cited by Bull & her colleagues) found that ‘most primary teachers did not have a science background and that low levels of science knowledge and science teaching expertise contributed to the variation in quality of science teaching across schools… [and] that many teachers had not learned about science in their pre-service teacher training.’
So, if we’re going to turn this around, to improve the quality of science education in students’ early years at school, and enhance and maintain their engagement with the subject (however this manifests), then surely we need to make sure that primary teachers a) receive greater training in science than is currently the case & b) are better supported to deliver science experiences to their students. This doesn’t mean simply having a specialist science teacher in each primary school as this by itself may not be sufficient to change attitudes – it means all teachers in primary schools having regular access to relevant professional development and to specialist advice from trained science advisors. Both are extremely important. However, there are significant funding issues surrounding the provision of professional development, and in addition the introduction of National Standards appears to have focused attention elsewhere, away from the delivery of science. (I know that it should be possible to address the Standards within the context of science – or pretty much any other subject – but the risk is that this won’t be recognised by many teachers without opportunities for further training.)
For example, in late 2009 the Minister advised schools that the relevant university advisory groups would not be providing schools with help in any subjects other than reading, writing & mathematics, which may well have a negative effect on how science is taught in primary schools. This is not the first instance where PD has been delayed or removed: the same thing happened in regard to professional development for the Science Exemplar project & development of Building Science Concepts resources, with lack of funding cited in both instances. The related issue of whether/how to get scientists from the various research organisations more deeply involved with schools is no substitute for enhanced training & support for the classroom teachers themselves. So any suggestion of a national program directed at enhancing primary school science programs would be a very welcome one.
At the secondary level – I agree wholeheartedly that professional development involving both scientists & teachers is the way to go, with positive spin-offs for both teachers & the scientists involved. In fact, this sort of relationship should be in effect at all levels of schooling, as it would promote a situation where ‘[students] are challenged to develop deep understanding through strategies that emphasise student questioning, exploration, and engaging with significant ideas and practices. There would be much greater interaction between schools and the science community and more emphasis placed on students’ active engagement in their own learning’ (Bull et al., 2020).
With two caveats: firstly that it will be essential for those scientists involved in such programs to receive proper recognition for this role from their institutions, in things such as promotion rounds, as this would send a clear signal that these activities are valued. And equally important is the need for discussions around what is ‘core’ to the science curriculum. My experience in biology is that as new techniques or information become available they tend to be ‘front-loaded’ into the curriculum (e.g. by way of things such as the explanatory notes that accompany Achievement Standards) without any real consideration of how to fit everything in or, indeed, what might usefully be omitted in their place. I have argued for some time now that these discussions are essential in all science subject areas but see little real sign of this happening. But that over-full curriculum may give little opportunity for students to spend time discussing what they’ve learned, or take a creative approach to classroom work, especially if they’re working towards a series of assessments over the year. Maybe, with the advent of the new curriculum, there’s the opportunity for changes in teaching & assessment practices – maybe things like the integrated learning programs that some secondary schools have developed? – that will turn us around from the situation described by Bull et al. where ‘[traditional] science education, designed to prepare science-able students for science careers, is in fact turning many students away from science…’
And of course, there’s also the need for proper funding of professional development to make all this possible…
Unfortunately there’s quite a lot of support for ‘traditional’ science teaching among university academics, & the modes of teaching that are becoming more common in secondary classrooms have yet to make much of an inroad in the tertiary sector. This is a real pity as I believe such changes would go a long way towards enhancing students’ success as they move into their tertiary studies. There’s also a failure by many in the tertiary sector to recognise that university is not the next destination for a sizeable proportion of year 13 students. For example, while collectively our universities do emphasise the importance of the ‘secondary-tertiary interface’, one document on Te Pokai Tara (the NZVCC’s website) states that ‘the appropriate interventions must continue at the secondary level to minimise the extent to which bridging support is necessary at tertiary level.’ On the face of it, this fails to recognise the diversity of learning experiences offered to secondary students and the reasons for that diversity. Such expectations have the potential to constrain schools’ ability to offer innovative combinations of achievement standards that best meet their students’ needs & interests, and run counter to the intention of the New Zealand Curriculum.
I’d like to make a call for the development of a much stronger relationship between coordinators of first-year university classes (in particular) and secondary schools as there would be clear benefits for all parties involved: significant opportunities for professional development of both secondary & tertiary teachers; enhanced opportunities for secondary students to learn of new developments & opportunities in science; and improvements in the ability of tertiary teachers to bridge their students into successful university study (highly desirable now that TEC will be linking funding to completion & retention). This is something that I’d be very keen indeed to be involved in developing, & in fact I’m looking forward to speaking about it at an upcoming first-year biology educators’ colloquium, in Dunedin at the end of next month :)
* TIMSS = Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study
** National Education Monitoring Project

A.Bull, J.Gilbert, H.Barwick, R.Hipkins & R.Baker (2010) Inspired by science: a paper commissioned by the Royal Society and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), August 2010

R.Hipkins & R.Bolstad (2008) Seeing yourself in science: the importance of the middle school years. NZCER 



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