Talking Teaching

May 2, 2013

science challenges & science education

The National Science Challenges have been announced – and have already received a lot of attention (including on Sciblogs, with posts by my colleagues GrantSiouxsie, and John – who also points at where the money’s going). What I’d like to address here is the comment by the Panel that it

was concerned by the lack of significant proposals in educational research

I have to admit that my first response to that was, well d’oh! Because, well, the public discussion was around national science challenges, I suspect that for many (most?) submitters the focus was to come up with a science-based proposal. After all (& please note bulging cheek ensconcing my tongue at this point), isn’t science education something that schools & other seats of learning ‘do’, rather than requiring science research? Hopefully not many scientists really think that way, & it’s great to see the additional Challenge, “Science & New Zealand Society” with its two goals (the first a science goal, while the second is societal):

To ensure the science capacities and literacy of New Zealand society so as to promote engagement between S[cience] & T[echnology] and New Zealand society, in turn enhancing the role played by science in advancing the national interest.

To allow New Zealand society to make best use of its human and technological capacities to address the risks and Challenges ahead. This requires the better use of scientific knowledge in policy formation at all levels of national and local government, in the private sector and in society as a whole.


Both are relevant to what follows here.

Let’s look more closely at the question of science literacy/appreciation/education for citizenship. The chair of the Panel, Sir Peter Gluckman, has previously made it clear that we need to do much more in engaging young people with science, to the extent of developing a science curriculum that focuses far more on science literacy than on accumulation of science knowledge. But what constitutes science literacy? This is something I’ve written about previously, & my fellow Scibloggers and I discussed it between ourselves more recently. So I was interested to find a set of nine science literacy ‘themes’ listed and expanded upon in a recent paper (Bartholomew & Osborne, 2004):

scientific methods and critical testing

science & certainty

diversity of scientific thinking

hypothesis and prediction

historical development of scientific knowledge


science and questioning

analysis and interpretation of data

cooperation and collaboration in the development of scientific knowledge

And while we might not agree on the relative order of these themes, or the completeness of the list, but they do give us something to go on with. (I’m going to talk about the formal education system for the moment – but I’m perfectly well aware that there’s much more than that to public engagement with science! Let’s just treat this as a starting point for discussion.)

Now, I’d like to think that the current NZ Science curriculum gives a good basis for developing these skills & attributes in all students Right Now, regardless of whether or not they intend to go on to study science at tertiary level. And let’s face it, most won’t, so we surely have to work on engagement with and understanding of what science is about, for all students. in fact, that’s a tension I struggle with myself: a proportion of my first-year biology students are taking the subject purely for interest, & in some cases haven’t studied the subject before. I want them to come away with an appreciation of the wonder and worth of the subject in their lives, as much as I want them to accumulate biological knowledge. It’s a tricky balancing act.

Anyway, while I might like to think that about the curriculum document, in reality I suspect that it doesn’t yet deliver. And that’s something that’s unpacked further by Bartholomew & Osborne, who note that there are a number of factors that affect teachers’ “ability to teach effectivelyabout science”.

One of those factors is the teachers’ own understanding of what science is all about, as opposed to their body of content knowledge. NB Please note, at this point, that this is not a criticism of teachers and the demanding work that they do; it’s a question of whether the training and experiences we offer our teachers prepare them well for this particular aspect of teaching science.

The researchers found that a reasonable proportion of the teachers they worked with were not really confident in their own ability to teach lessons based on the ideas embedded in those themes. This was partly due to uncertainties about their own knowledge, and partly around feeling that they lacked the classroom skills to deliver such a program. Which, of course, raises issues around provision of professional development opportunities (with the associated resourcing).

Related to that is their own engagement with the subject. OK, if you’re teaching the subject as a specialist science teacher, I’m guessing that you took this role on because you enjoy the subject and want to share that. But if someone’s a primary school teacher with very limited exposure to science during their training, then the story might be very different.

And so that would be a fruitful area for research, in NZ (and at this point someone is probably going to tell me that they’re Already Doing It): what is the actual level of science literacy – using, for example, those 9 themes listed above – in NZ science teachers at all levels? And how does that translate into classroom practices? And – if the answer is, not as well as we’d like – what do we do about it?

Teachers’ ability to enhance learning about science (as opposed to of science) is also affected by factors outside their classrooms. For example, the pressure is on, at senior school level, to ensure students do as well as possible in national assessment – which, for all the changes associated with NCEA, remains largely content-based. And classroom time is limited, so it’s easy to see how there can be more focus on content & less on the other desirable attributes. As Bartholomew & Osborne comment,

developing a questioning and sceptical attitude to scientific knowledge claims in students might actually be disadvantageous.

Perhaps that also needs to change. [Pace, Schol Bio examiners!]


H.Bartholomew, & J.Osborne (2004) Teaching students “ideas about science”: five dimensions of effective practice. Science Education 88: 655-682 doi: 10.1002/sce.10135


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