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I’ve had a most enjoyable, and thought-provoking, discussion with a teacher friend of mine about the ideas & proposals contained in Looking ahead: science education for the 21st century. We both felt that the report is a provocative basis for discussion of what our science education system should look like (& indeed Sir Peter Gluckman described it in those terms last night), but after reading it & hearing what was said at last night’s launch we also felt that we’d have to agree to disagree with Sir Peter on some aspects of what he’s suggested. (Which is what you’d expect from a discussion document.)

It turned out that we both have reservations about the strong push throughout the report for this century’s science education to linked to science organisations and the scientists in them. (Linked, that is, more closely than the Science Learning Hub already achieves. The Hub, incidentally, is getting a lot of positive feedback from teachers & students & one of my colleagues who was recently featured in a video clip has commented about all the ‘science-friendly’ comments he’s getting from people who’ve watched it.) I’ve already expressed my concern that our current models for funding science don’t actually give scientists much leeway for involvement in the classroom, let alone any prolonged, regular classroom time. And of course there’s the need to make sure that their presence & involvement is linked to specific learning areas & goals. After all, how much is your average scientist in a CRI or university aware of the complexities of science education in a New Zealand classroom?

We agree 100% with Sir Peter that this country needs all its citizens to be able to interact with various science concepts and their associated sociological and cultural issues – but we’re not at all sure that the way to achieve this is to have closer links between schools & scientists/science organisations. Science is a complex subject, and the teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom (any classroom, not just science!) is also increasingly complex in nature. But the science classroom doesn’t exist in isolation – the beliefs and attitudes of those present are going to be affected by what our wider society believes about science, and we can’t change what happens in the classroom without at the same time changing what society believes. Otherwise we’re faced with a lengthy lag time while all our current students move on to become active members of society, and that’s optimistically assuming that all those students have taken on board everything that’s gone on in our brave new classrooms.

But, I said to my friend, how on earth do we do that? (Regular readers will know that this is a question that’s concerned me for some time.) How do we enter into a dialogue, out beyond the classroom, that leads to society interacting with & valuing science in a way that rubs off on students’ attitudes & understandings?

Ahah! he said. You’re right, we need to get ‘society’ on board now if changes in education are to affect the way people interact with science in the future. Apparently it can be done – he pointed me at the Finnish LUNA project (which I’d never heard of; really must add to the towering, tottering pile of bedtime reading!). These days Finland does very well in various forms of international assessment of their students’ science & maths achievement (PISA & TIMMS) – & according to Finland’s Minister of Education this has a lot to do with the fact that their science teachers are valued very highly. Teaching is a high-status profession, & only the top students get the chance to become teachers. In Finland, she says

In Finland, we think that teachers are key for the future and it’s a very important profession

This need to raise the value that society places on teachers is definitely something that Sir Peter mentioned, in both his report and last night’s presentation, but of course the devil is in the detail – what we also need to hear is suggestions as to how this might happen. And it has to happen now, in advance of any possible changes in the classroom.

Another concern my friend brought into the conversation lies with the sustainability of the proposals put forward for discussion by the Looking ahead report. (And indeed, he wasn’t the only person I heard this from.) All too often we see funding taken from one area to support some brand spanking new initiative in another, which destroys both continuity & sustainability. If any of the report’s proposals become reality, just how sustainable will they be? They’ll definitely be dependent on adequate funding – where might this come from? Hopefully it would not be at the expense of other, successful, existing initiatives. Would their sustainability be dependent on the government of the day, or might we expect some long-term bipartisan support? (Perhaps that should be, multi-partisan support, in the MMP environment…)

And of course we come back to that issue of scientists’ involvement – currently scientists are funded for their research, and of course those of us in the university sector are funded to teach tertiary students. Let’s suppose scientists get involved in the way the report proposes – how sustainable will this be in reality? Will it depend on the scientists’ passion to be part of science education in the 21st century – or will it disappear when the heat comes on, & the funding comes in, for increased research activity?

As you can see, we probably ended up generating more questions than we answered, before we both had to head off to other tasks. I’ve got a bunch of other stuff to write about, based on notes I took last night – but this post is already long enough so I’ll deal with them in another episode.

And please – join in here! get involved! New Zealand urgently needs to have this discussion, & hopefully this will be one place that this can happen.