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My reading assignment today was a report just out from the Australian Academy of Science (the AAS) on science in Australian secondary schools (Goodrum, Druhan & Abbs, 2011). Not what you might expect on a reading list in the week before Christmas, but I was up to speak (briefly) about it on Radio NZ & needed to have an idea what the report contained.

It’s a really thorough study of the state of senior school science across the Tasman, based on an extensive literature review, a survey of students (both those taking science, & those who aren’t) in NSW, South Australia & the Australian Capital Territory, a phone survey of senior science teachers in the same states, and a series of focus groups involving not only teachers and students but also scientists & members of the wider community. This allowed Goodrum & his colleagues to describe the ideal state of senior school science education in Australia (my marginal note at this point says ‘Wonderful! but does it/can it happen?) in terms of students & the curriculum, teaching as a profession, the resourcing of science teaching & learning, and the value of science education. They describe the last item thusly:

Science and science education are valued by the community, have high priority in the school curriculum and science teaching is perceived as exciting and valuable, contributing significantly to the development of persons and to the economic and social well-being of the nation.

And then… they identified the actual state of affairs, “by focusing on different dimensions of the school experience: the students, the curriculum, the pedagogy, the teachers and finally the resources.”

I must say that I think we are well ahead of the Australian state of play in terms of the curriculum document as discussed in the AAS report: Yes, the NZ curriculum is probably still too content-heavy, but at least the clear understanding and expectation is that senior school science should do much more than simply prepare a relatively small cohort of students for university. (This is something that I believe the universities need to be much more aware of, as otherwise we will continue to have a disjunction between lecturer expectations and the actual prior learning experiences of our new first-year students.) Also, the NZ Science curriculum explicitly requires that students be given the opportunity to learn about the nature of science; it’s not all about content knowledge.¬†However, the AAS survey found that both students and teachers in the Australian school system believed that

Year 11 and 12 science is constructed to prepare students for university study. This university preparation perspective has resulted in an overcrowded content-laden curriculum. WIth the amount of content to be covered there is little room for flexibility from either the teacher or student.

Goodrum & his colleagues also found that most senior science teaching** in the schools they surveyed is done using the transmission model (teacher talks or writes on the board – or uses powerpoint – & students simply write it all down); that teacher demonstrations are common; and that practical sessions tend to be of the ‘cook-book’ variety where the outcomes are already known and the students are simply following a pre-determined method. Where there is opportunity for more inquiry-based learning in labs, teachers reported that these really sucked through the time & that this in turn led schools using open-ended student projects to advise students not to take all three sciences as the demands on their time would be too great.

So what did they find when they looked at levels of participation in senior science: the proportion of students in each year’s cohort who were enrolled in science subjects in their final 2 years of secondary school? The news was not good, and it’s news that’s obviously generating a lot of concern: looking at the proportion of students enrolled in each discipline in each year, they found that

[s]ince 1991, the percentage of students enrolled in Biology, Chemistry and Physics has been gradually falling. For Biology the fall has been from 35.9% in 1991 to 24.7% 2007, for Chemistry 23.3% in 1991 to 18.0% in 2007, and for Physics 20.9% in 1991 to 14.6% in 2007. While the fall has slowed there is no indication that it has stopped.

(The proportion taking Psychology, on the other hand, has almost doubled – from 4.9% in 1991 to 9.2% in 2006. Geology – this in a country where mineral resources are so significant to the economy – has remained at a fairly constant 1% throughout the study period.)

And looking at total science enrolments in Year 12:

there has been a dramatic fall in the percentage of students studying science in Year 12 from a height of 94.1% in 1992 to a low of 51.4% in 2010

with a particularly large drop-off in the period 2001-2002. The researchers weren’t able to identify any reason for this in terms of policy changes. Part of the decline may be linked to how students perceive science in schools – something that probably needs to be addressed in junior schools, because

Some non-science students report that if science was more ‘interesting and relevant to their lives’ then they would consider enrolling in it… Many, however, think so poorly of their experience and achievements in junior secondary science** that they won’t consider senior science under any circumstances.

This is a real pity, as the community members surveyed clearly felt that all students need to study science throughout their schooling – it shouldn’t be just for those who need it for their careers. They felt that science in schools

should be relevant… and demonstrate how science understanding and process impacts daily life.

Which is great – but I did wonder if those sentiments are shared by the wider school community as a whole (parents, teachers, students, the works). Schools do seem to be under pressure to broaden their curriculum, which places time constraints on teachers in the various subjects, & at least some of that pressure comes from the communities in which the schools are situated.

Correction: So how do the Australian data stack up compared to senior science education in New Zealand? I gathered from my radio host that the PM’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, will be soon releasing a report on just this issue. Watch this space. It seems that the host (& I) are a bit ahead of things here *blush*. However, while they don’t have any active projects in this area, the Chief Science Advisor & his office are very supportive of Ministry of Education initiatives introduced in response to an earlier report by Sir Peter.

** The researchers make the point that this is different from the teaching methods used in junior (our years 9-11) science classes, and suggest that “[p]erhaps this more enlightened approach in the junior years should influence how science is taught in Years 11 & 12.” (Some students obviously gained a different impression…)

D.Goodrum, A.Druhan & J.Abbs (2011) The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools. A report prepared for the Office of the Chief Scientist.