looking ahead: science education for the 21st century

By Alison Campbell 05/04/2011

Last October I wrote about Inspired by Science, a document commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor with the aim of “[encouraging’ debate on how better to engage students with science”. The paper had a particular focus on science education in primary and secondary schools and also asked  “whether there is an increasing mismatch between science education of today and the demands of the 21st century.”

Today saw the launch of Sir Peter Gluckman’s report Looking ahead: science education for the 21st century, a document that builds on Inspired by Science and a second report (Engaging young New Zealanders with science, which I’ll talk about in a subsequent post) to identify

the challenges and opportunities for enhancing science education for the benefits of the whole of New Zealand society and our national productivity.

In his covering letter to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter comments that

the changing nature of science and the changing role of science in society create potential major challenges for all advanced societies in the coming decades

and New Zealand is no exception.

So, what does he see as the challenges, and opportunities that we face, and the ways that we can remaster our science education system to meet them?

One of the key challenges is the need to motivate today’s young people to study science at a time when science and innovation lie at the heart of economic growth, and of our solutions to such disparate challenges as climate change, problems associated with an aging population, or environmental degradation. (Sir Peter refers twice to the need for us to be a ‘smart’ nation but I’m not entirely sure what he means by that.) He makes the very important point that

science education is not just for those who see their careers involving science but is an essential component of core knowledge that every member of our society requires.

I believe that this point applies as much to the universities as it does to the compulsory education sector: not all those taking my first-year biology paper, for example, intend to major in biology or in any science, so I & my colleagues do need to think hard about what knowledge & competencies we want those particular students to gain.

Going by some of the on-line commentary I’ve seen, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone would necessarily agree on the issue of science being a core knowledge area for everyone, and therein lies a major difficulty for those involved in teaching and communicating about science. We all need some level of understanding about contemporary scientific issues – we can’t just leave it to ‘the gummint’  to deal with them – but how do we change what appears to be a fairly pervasive ‘anti-science’ attitude in some sectors? Such change needs to be achieved alongside any changes in how (or what) science is taught in our schools, and I was rather disappointed not to see some recognition of this in this report.

One of the underlying problems here may be that the nature of science has moved on, but not peoples’ perceptions of it. In the report released today, Sir Peter characterises science as

a process by which complex systems are studied and modelled and knowledge is exprressed in terms of increased probability and reduced uncertainty, but never in terms of absolutes.

Yet we seem to seek certainty, and I’ve seen complaints about scientists’ inability to provide that, more often than I would like. This is something that may underlie some people’s readiness to accept confident (& horribly wrong!) pronouncements on a range of issues, easily found on the internet via ‘google university’. Thus a key role for modern education lies in giving students the skills to sort out what’s reliable and what’s not – but we should remember that this is not the sole preserve of science education – development of critical thinking skills should span the entire curriculum.

But back to the nature and purposes of the science curriculum in our schools. While in secondary schools its traditional role has been to prepare students for tertiary study in the sciences, in fact only a minority of school students take this path – a worryingly small minority, if we are to be dependent on scientific & technological innovation. There are other objectives for science education at this level & indeed throughout the curriculum, characterised by Sir Peter as ‘citizen-focused objectives’, in which all children need to have:

  • a practical knowledge at some level of how things work;
  • some knowledge of how the scientific process operates and have some level of scientific literacy
  • enough knowledge of scientific thinking as part of their development of general intellectual skills so that they are able to distinguish reliable information from less reliable information.

The tricky bit is going to be working out how to deliver all this, not least because we probably need a different pedagogical approach for the ‘professional’ vs the ‘citizen-focused’ objectives. Because of this, Sir Peter suggests that we’re looking at the need for fairly radical changes in the science curriculum, possibly to the extent of offering separate curricula for the two sets of objectives. This could well be viewed as a somewhat alarming prospect by teachers currently grappling with the implementation of a curriculum that was introduced only 4 years ago – and a curriculum endorsed by the second of the two consultative reports (Engaging young New Zealanders with Science).Indeed, the authors of Engaging comment that they

recognise the need to support the current ongoing work of implementation of the revised curriculum, and for implementation of measures from this paper to take account of the impact of this curriculum change

– something that’s not mentioned in the main report. 

These suggested changes also beg the question: how do we decide which route a student should take? Are we looking at streaming, and on what basis? Is a student’s access to one route or the other going to be the same regardless of where they live in the country? (This last question is particularly relevant to the suggestion that students could obtain ‘hands-on’ science learning experiences at museums & science centres: leaving aside the question of available resources, such institutions are not found in every population centre.)

These aren’t really questions that should be decided at the primary school level. But teachers there do face a particular set of problems as they work to support and enhance their students’ interest in & enthusiasm for understanding the world around them. There’s a comment in this report that

[a] well prepared primary school teacher will integrate excitement about the natural world and scientific forms of thinking into literacy and numeracy teaching, and into general educational processes. The challenge is how to provide primary teachers with the skills to do so.

To which I would add: and the support. Remember, current government policies relating to the National Standards in literacy and numeracy have seen the loss of funding for specialist science advisors to primary schools, something that can only hinder teachers wishing to integrate “scientific forms of thnking” into their classroom curriculum. It will be very interesing indeed to see how these conflicting issues are resolved. Further, we should also review the amount of exposure to science that trainee primary school teachers currently receive. It’s not really enough to expect a ‘champion’ for science in each school to lead the way (and I am cynical enough to suspect that in reality this champion would end up ‘doing it all’) – we really do need a shift towards all primary teachers having more confidence and ability in science. That will require not only changes to teacher-training curricula, but also provision of sufficient resources and support to classroom teachers, including on-going professional development – something for which schools are woefully under-funded. Money, again.

For the majority of secondary students, their formal exposure to science education will end with their schooling, while a minority will go on to further study in the sciences. However, all of those students need some exposure to the ‘citizen-focused’ learning outcomes. Sir Peter suggests that these two sets of objectives – professional and citizen-focused – may diverge to the extent that they have completely separate curricula. (The latter may well include some level of ‘life skills education’ – not least because a fascination with the ways their bodies work may be an excellent hook to draw young people into a life-long interest in science. It might also help to put a lot of ‘health-woo’ sellers out of business!) However, this does raise significant questions relating to equity of access, and funding. If students are to gain hands-on science experiences in science centres & museums, for example, then how do we ensure equal access to such resources? As I said earlier, not all towns have well-equipped science centres, for example, and without consideration to the funding & resourcing of such places we run the risk of the level of students’ hands-on experiences being predicated upon their geographical location.

There’s also the need to attract good science teachers (although really the status of teaching per se needs to be raised 🙂 )And the need to offer these teachers continual opportunities for professional development (currently limited & poorly funded), maybe including sabbaticals from the classroom and hands-on exposure to new technologies. And the need to make science careers sufficiently attractive to our students – after all, there’s little point in telling them how much we need more scientists if they perceive things differently. We also need to look at ways to turn around the current tendency for many of our best & brightest science students to chose medicine & other health-related programs over training in the ‘other’ sciences. whether for reasons of income, status, or because as a group of Biology Olympiad students told me, they simply ‘want to help people’. This suggests that science as a career has multiple image problems in the eyes of these students.

All this calls for changes in funding focus – and at a time of when we are looking at austere budgets for the next few years at least, how much will be available for implementing even some of the report’s recommendations? It also calls for changes to the way we view & fund our research scientists. Sir Peter calls for a much stronger relationship between schools and the science community, so that schools and teachers can work alongside practising scientists. (This seems to go a lot further than, say, the Science Learning Hub.) Yet at the moment scientists’ jobs depend on research outputs, and this includes those in the university sector. In order to implement Sir Peter’s recommendations we need to look at a change in how science is valued and funded by those who provide the funds. And this must happen – without their institutions’ express & explicit support, few scientists have the time to commit to increased involvement with science teaching in schools. (Yes, of course the internet can allow for schools to access knowledge & ideas outside their immediate communities, but it can’t completely compensate for a lack of physical infrastructure & face-to-face contact with actual working scientists.)

Finally, from my perspective as a university science educator, this report has some significant implications for my sector. If even some of the changes recommended in Looking ahead are implemented, it is not going to be a case of business as usual for university science teaching. The nature of students’ experience and knowledge is going to change significantly and we will need to adapt our practices accordingly. Not to ‘dumb down’ – never that! but to teach differently. And we need to start coming to terms now with the need for such change.

P.Gluckman (2011) Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century. A report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. ISBN 978-0-477-10337-4 (pdf)

0 Responses to “looking ahead: science education for the 21st century”

  • As a secondary teacher, I’ve been happy to move more into technology and away from science. This is because the emphasis in secondary science education was (and still is, I think) too much on memorising a bunch of facts and not enough taking the time to learn how to apply those knowledge blocks to real life application and innovation. The Technology area of the curriculum might be a good match to your “citizen” focused education as it draws from science knowledge and encourages application and innovation.

    I think the spirit of the new curriculum (I’ll probably call it the new curriculum until it changes again) has been to push education as a whole in the same direction that this report would have science education move. The emphasis on developing key competencies of learning leads to much more success in learning (the knowledge development part in my simplistic model) and success in life (the application part). There is a lot of evidence for this from different studies. Guy Claxton was my introduction to much of this material. He also discusses how to implement new ideas that are so big they seem to require an overhaul of the entire system to restart from new foundations. He suggests gradual change from passionate individuals. His book, “What’s the point of school?” get’s into the details and is very inspiring. I wrote a few blog posts about this book while I was reading it if anyone is interested:
    http://sambooksandthoughts.blogspot.com/2010/08/whats-point-of-school-by-guy-claxton.html (parts 2, 3, and 4 are there also)

    It’s encouraging to me, as a sometimes disillusioned high school science and technology teacher, to read about these positive ideals for future change. Thanks Alison! And I hope the effects on tertiary practice aren’t too much of a difficult shift to implement.

  • Glad you found it interesting, Sam 🙂 I think we’re in agreement thta the new curriculum is already moving science (& the other disciplines) in the way that this report recommends – consequently I was suprised not to see any acknowledgement of that in the report. As it stands I think it would be unsettling (at the least) for science teachers already working to implement the curriculum to hear that things have to change.

    I also felt (& the feeling was reinforced when I heard the presentation itself yesterday evening) that the report skirts around a couple of rather large elephants in the corner of the room: the need to address levels of science education for all primary & intermediate teachers, & the significant issue of how the various suggestions might be funded. Cos it’s not gonna happen on the smell of an oily rag.

  • As an ex technology teacher I always found the ‘new’ science curriculum the best curric. document by far, when teaching. As a manager though, I know that the main trouble for teachers, after short attention-spans and lack of self discipline among students, is rapid academic change. The homily would be: its better to go at 10 MPH in a Morris Minor than not go at 200 MPH in a Porsche that is broken.
    But what hasn’t been mentioned, as far as I can see, is world view.
    Operational science doesn’t have anything much to do with origins (beyond the Newtonian axioms of cause and effect & an objective & rational universe, ha ha), but Darwinism is referenced constantly along with other debunked myths like Haeckels’ faked embryos showing recpitulation of gills etc.
    Students who don’t share these polytheistic evolutionary beliefs are at a disadvantage due to the religious bias favouring ‘scientific’ totemism within the science curriculum.
    The solution to putting these students at a disadvantage is to teach different world-views that relate to scientific origins, in acceptance of those different views, in a tolerant atmosphere.

    An inclusive approach to these different views would resolve many issues students of non-polytheistic evolutionary faiths have to face. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of most NZ academic science communities is to belittle those of other faiths, denying them the tolerance required in a democracy.

    An acceptance that polythiestic evolutionary pantheism (the dominant faith of this forum) is in fact a religious world-view, would go a long way to resolving this impasse, and help thousands of students.

  • but Darwinism is referenced constantly along with other debunked myths like Haeckel’s faked embryos…

    It doesn’t sound as if you’ve been in a biology classroom lately. Of course the theory of evolution is taught as it’s e only evidence-based explanation we have for life’s diversity. But Haeckel isn’t part of the curriculum in the sense that you imply; evidence from embryology, on the other hand, is.


  • polytheistic evolutionary pantheism
    nice mischaracterization of people with whom you disagree.

  • Is it a mischaracterization? Surely polytheistic can’t be argued with, as Carl Sagan and Francis Crick, neither of whom need any intro, are both clearly polytheistic and part of accredited academia, and then the adoption of local animistic mythologies into school curricula and science streams would be pantheistic, but perhaps you are correct. How would you describe yourself, then?
    On the evidence-based point, evolution isn’t particularly evidence-based when you consider the last 15 years of microbiological revelations. What Darwin thought of as blobs of jelly that spontaneously (contra the evidence-based celularum omni celularum) reproduced, we know know to be sub-cellular machinery that self-assembles and performs mechanical intra-cellular tasks at the atomic level, something that can’t be accounted for by mutations nor natural selection, as Crick & Dawkins know only too well, hence their appeal to aliens.

    But Alison, this is the discussion that kids at school need to have, to motivate them to discover more. At present there is a kind of moratorium on any discussion about this, and a vacuum in the school sci books. Why do people despair of the meaning of life? Perhaps because they can’t have a real discussion about their views on where life came from.

  • Carl Sagan and Francis Crick, neither of whom need any intro, are both clearly polytheistic and part of accredited academia
    Really? On what evidence do you base that description? And it’s news to me that “local animistic mythologies” are being adopted into our science curriculum! (And yes, I do think I would know.)

    something that can’t be accounted for by mutations nor natural selection
    Well. yes, they can; there’s been a fair body of work published in this area. As for Dawkin’s so-called “appeal to aliens”: this is an excellent example of how someone’s words can be twisted (in this case, when Dawkins was interviewed for the film Expelled by Ben Stein. Dawkins (like the other evolutionary biologists interviewed for this movie) had not been told what the film was actually to be about & treated Stein’s questions as genuine. Stein asked him if he could think of any circumstances in which ‘intelligent design’ might have occurred. Dawkins said he supposed it was remotely – very remotely – possible that life on earth could have been seeded by extra-terrestrials, not that he believed this. “Dawkins believes in aliens”, said the headlines, & I’m afraid that you’re perpetuating that line here.

    this is the discussion that kids at school need to have, to motivate them to discover more
    How far will the discoveries go, if the explanation for anything we currently don’t fully understand is, goddidit?

  • polytheistic evolutionary pantheism

    I think you need to pick one – do these folks believe in lots of gods or one (that happens to be the universe)? I can’t be both!

    BTW, neither Dawkins nor Crick “appeal to aliens” to explain aspects of biology. Alison explained the Dawkins soundbite, Crick published something about “panspermia” in the 70s, but that was because he’d presumed nucleic acids couldn’t reproduce without proteins. We now know RNA can reproduce itself just fine (and perform chemical reactions too), and Crick gave up on the Alien idea long before he died.

  • So there you have it Alison: God did it, or it made itself (contrary to all experimental scientific principals, like Pasteur’s Celulare onmi cellularum, also like the repeatable principal that complex systems break down into simple ones without constant input of energy and information. This notion, that is glibly put forth, of self making, is similar to totemism, where a tribe believes they came from a rabbit (for example). in this case you believe you came from monkeys, and you have drawings of monkeys becoming men, as your totem.
    The alternative is to ascribe the original info & energy to an extra-universal creator, which is rational, but not materialistic.

    As to explaining away Dawkins et al, they are merely two examples of well known Darwinists confessing their folly: another famous one is Arthur C Clarke, whose movie (Odyssey 2001) is a confession of evolutionary failure. (monkeys don’t have conscience until aliens turn up) Others are nearly all the Creation ministries staff, who were doctoral scientists & Darwinists originally.

    Regarding RNA, it can’t function outside a cell David, so it is of little import. These things break down quickly in water, and are tools the cell uses, not the cell itself. Where did the cell come from? This is the classroom discussion: did the chair make itself, or did someone design and build it? Adult presuppositions aside, every child knows the chair was designed and built by someone greater than a chair.
    Cells are no different, despite 150 years of Darwinian conditioning.

    I do appreciate the privilege of contributing to this discussion, and the points I make are ones that I have considered since I was at school 35 years ago, and that my kids and their friends point out to me. The lack of class discussion about the impossibility of spontaneous reproduction (stated in bio 101), and yet its necessity for Darwin, is an irrational position.

  • gjphilip,

    I’m under the impression you haven’t spotted that you can use your own logic against your own religion: I believe you were telling us that man ‘came from G-d’; just replace ‘G-d’ and ‘monkey’… and play your logic out again.

    To correct a few errors:

    – scientists don’t argue that we ‘came from’ a present-day species but from an ancestral species, long since gone.

    – in the case of man, we’re apes and our ancestral species is usually considered to be an earlier form of ape (not monkey)

    – This notion—evolution—is not a ‘totem’ to scientists. Religious groups have totems (n. a natural object or animal believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance and adopted by it as an emblem): science doesn’t work that way.

    Regarding RNA, it can’t function outside a cell David, so it is of little import. These things break down quickly in water, […]

    Wrong on both counts, actually. Molecular biologists routinely do experiments on functional RNAs outside of cells (aka in vitro studies) and these are typically done in water solutions. In any event, you’ve shifted goal-posts in the middle of your paragraph.

    the impossibility of spontaneous reproduction (stated in bio 101), and yet its necessity for Darwin, is an irrational position

    You’re confusing different things: spontaneous generation and reproduction. The former is the idea that life arose ‘spontaneously’ from non-life. Reproduction is always from another living organism.

  • “Carl Sagan and Francis Crick, neither of whom need any intro, are both clearly polytheistic and part of accredited academia”

    I don’t know about Carl Sagan, but I just finished reading an excellent biography of Francis Crick (by Matt Ridley) and Crick was a militant atheist. To put it mildly.

  • According to Wiki, “Crick once joked, “Christianity may be OK between consenting adults in private but should not be taught to young children.”[47]

    Thus, GJ Philip, it appears that you should not be recruiting Francis Crick as an ally.

  • Crick was a militant atheist.

    My impression is that Crick was an atheist, too.

    If anything, I’d have picked (that is, guessed) Sagan to be the more militant atheist of the two, not that I know either personally or have read enough about them. Crick always strikes me as more subtle about externalising his personal opinons in the British way 😉 Must find Ridley’s bio of Crick sometime. (I’ve read Crick’s own books: have you read What Mad Pursuit?)

  • Spontaneous generation. of course.
    RNA: but where did this experimental RNA come from? Inside a cell. Also, the experimenters used complicated additives to keep it from breaking down,,,as if it were within a cell. It’s meaningless as proof that RNA exists naturally without the cell.
    Crick et al: I’m not saying they weren’t non Christian, nor weren’t athiests most of their lives, but they appealed to alien forces to explain the cell’s origin.
    Relating to Dawkin’s confession:, he admits that every looks designed: so, putting the question of where this design came from is within context for his work. His answer was that aliens did it. This classifies Crick and Dawkins as Polytheists, surely. IE.You have posited billions of Carl Sagan-like planets out there, teeming with life, and Dawkins believes some of these alien gods came here to seed it.
    If all-knowing inter-stellar aliens aren’t gods, then what is?
    Ergo Polytheism is the root origin of neo darwinism.

  • Monkeys aren’t totems to scientists, neither are they to American Indians: they also truly believe in their totems. Totems they are nonetheless.
    True. I have switched God for monkeys, that’s my point: your position is equally dependent upon some miraculous event, the difference is I can face it and you don’t seem able to.

  • This classifies Crick and Dawkins as Polytheists, surely.

    No. Their ‘aliens’ have nothing to do with gods. They are simply referring to including considering what might have happened outside of this planet. (Writing it in phrases like “Dawkin’s confession” is using loaded language to try ‘spin’ a meaning, too: I doubt very much it was a ‘confession’ of any sort.) In Crick’s case, didn’t someone say he’d rejected that later?

    Monkeys aren’t totems to scientists, neither are they to American Indians: they also truly believe in their totems. Totems they are nonetheless.

    They are and they aren’t. A complete contradiction. They aren’t to scientists. You can’t then write “Totems they are nonetheless.” They just aren’t.

    True. I have switched God for monkeys,

    No, you didn’t. You missed that it could be rephrased that way. Excusing yourself after the fact is a bit silly. And, no, science doesn’t require any “miraculous event” for this to happen. You’re also repeating you error of referring to present-day species, which I pointed out.

  • Grant, Matt Ridley’s bio is called ‘Francis Crick: discoverer of the genetic code’, and it is a very good read. I got miy copy in a sale at the University of Canterbury bookshop. I haven’t read anything Crick has written. It sounds like Watson’s ventures into science writing were more successful than Crick’s. Watson’s book ‘The Double Helix’ had the famous opening sentence “I have never seen Francis in a modest mood”. Heh. Apparently things were a bit strained between them for a while after that.

  • in this case you believe you came from monkeys, and you have drawings of monkeys becoming men, as your totem.
    Excellent example of a straw-man fallacy – evolutionary biology does not ‘believe’ anything, we accept theories on the basis of the available evidence & their predictive power. And we definitely do not think that humans ‘came from monkeys’. If you’re going to critique a subject, please do make sure that you are accurate in your basis for that critique.

    As to explaining away Dawkins et al, they are merely two examples of well known Darwinists confessing their folly
    Grant & Carol have already responded here too, but for some reason you seem to be ignoring my earlier comment.Dawkins wasn’t ‘confessing’ (odd choice of word!) to anything. He was responding to a loaded question with a hypothetical example that was then seriously quote-mined. In saying Dawkins believes some of these alien gods came here to seed it. you are simply continuing to misrepresent him (& to engage with previous comments by David & me).

    And regarding a movie as anything more deeply meaningful than entertainment – come on!

    I find it quite odd that a post on the possible direction of science education (based on a report that has some inherent flaws) has been sidetracked so far down this path rather than addressing some of the issues in the report itself 🙂

  • Crick et al: I’m not saying they weren’t non Christian, nor weren’t athiests most of their lives, but they appealed to alien forces to explain the cell’s origin.

    No, they didn’t. I think you need a new canard.

  • “I’m not saying they weren’t non-Christian, nor weren’t atheists” .. there were so many negatives crammed into this sentence that I lost track of its meaning. Is a triple negative the same as a single negative, once the double negative has cancelled itself out?