By Alison Campbell 28/02/2020

Many readers will probably have read this RNZ article (or heard the related interview), or seen calls for consultation on the Ministry of Education’s suggested changes to the number of subjects – and achievement standards – on offer to year 11 students.

I’ve been following (& participating, where I can) all this with colleagues and friends, and thought I’d share some of my thoughts here. But before I get onto that, I’ll point out that there’s been a fair bit of consultation even before we got to the point where these materials have gone out, in their turn, for feedback. That process began in 2018 and resulted in a “change package“. This was published in May 2019, and I really recommend reading it carefully as it provides the rationale for the latest 2 rounds of consultation (about the draft L1 Science standards & their supporting material, and about the number of individual subjects that should be offered to year 11 students.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a member of the Subject Expert Group (SEG) that is working on the draft L1 Science achievement standards.

So, the SEG members were tasked by the Ministry with developing four Science achievement standards (ASs), but that decision on the number of standards was based on a lot of feedback from a wide range of sector & interest groups, which signalled very clearly a need to reduce the complexity of NCEA & reduce the number of standards¹.

I’ll admit that one of my concerns regarding these two recent consultation rounds is the overlap between requests for feedback about the initial drafts of the Science material, and the announcement of consultation on the number of subjects on offer. I think it’s meant that people have conflated the two.

But – none of this is set in stone; it’s all draft material. Feel strongly about it? Then follow the appropriate links above, and be heard. And – read all the relevant materials before you comment.

One of the things I’ve heard quite often about the Science ASs is that the actual subject material is “hidden”. To some degree this might be due to people reading the headlines, and the ASs, and not also going through the supporting material: the learning matrix (which clearly identifies content) or the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Guide (TLAG for short). But from my perspective, the content material for biology, physics, chemistry, and earth & space science remains the same, and provides an essential context for delivering concepts and competencies relating to the Nature of Science strand in the National Curriculum document (NZC). Hopefully the next round of consultation documents will see the inclusion of some examples of teaching and assessment plans that show what this would look like in practice.

Thus, I think there does need to be an element of trust that teachers will continue to deliver content, & in fact – speaking personally – I would hope there will be a clear statement at some point about the need to cover content. However, I also think it’s important to remember that at the moment there are 31 standards available to schools delivering a year 11 Science program (which is almost all of them) and thus there is no guarantee of consistency now about what content students may or may not have covered.

I’ve heard a lot of concern about the need for professional learning development (PLD) opportunities for teachers. It’s a concern that I know is shared by all of us on the SEG, and it’s one that we’ve communicated to the Ministry. This is a shift in direction; it will entail a significant amount of work by classroom teachers; and there absolutely needs to be a substantial amount of PLD available well before implementation of any confirmed changes to the NCEA. (Not least, for science teachers, because the year 11 changes will probably flow down – to year 9 & 10 classrooms – and may have some impact ‘upwards’ as well.

But – & it’s a very big ‘but’ – I think that it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that the proposed standards are very much aligned to the NZC in placing  the nature of science front & centre (its delivery to date, if present, has been largely implicit).  As I wrote in my previous post,

Back in 2007 New Zealand implemented a new national curriculum. One of the features of the science component of that document is the overarching importance of students gaining an understanding of the nature of science (the “unifying strand” of the curriculum). In that context, it expects that:

students learn what science is and how scientists work. They develop the skills, attitudes, and values to build a foundation for understanding the world. They come to appreciate that while scientific knowledge is durable, it is also constantly re-evaluated in the light of new evidence. They learn how scientists carry out investigations, and they come to see science as a socially valuable knowledge system. They learn how science ideas are communicated and to make links between scientific knowledge and everyday decisions and actions.

And the document specifically adds that these outcomes are pursued through the following major contexts (the various science ‘subjects’) in which scientific knowledge has developed and continues to develop.

Given that currently about 60% of students in year 11 science don’t go on to further study in any of the sciences, I’d argue that while a scientifically-literate society does need some knowledge of science, it also requires a solid understanding of the nature of science itself.


¹ In my personal opinion, the inclusion of additional specific subject standards at year 11 would pretty much destroy the kaupapa of the SEG’s work, in that we would not see students gaining that key, core understanding of NoS. The nature of the 4 ASs currently out there for feedback was not determined randomly, but as the result of a fair bit of thought and discussion by the SEG members.

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0 Responses to “Thoughts on the proposed changes to NCEA”

  • Thank you Alison, for sharing some background on the process.
    Here is a summary of the feedback we gave through the official form via the Kōrero Mātauranga Level 1 Review website, although very difficult to do so, given the structure of the feedback form.
    We have also sent this to the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor to make sure her office knows what is going on as well.
    The invitation at the end also extends to you and any others in the SEG group …. have you actually been out to schools to see how the present standards are being used?

    At Cashmere we believe that New Zealand has an excellent curriculum document based on sound values with the aim of producing well-balanced citizens capable of creative and critical thinking. The Science curriculum rightly emphasises the Nature of Science (NOS) to complement these overall aims and the current NCEA assessment matrix allows the flexibility to design different courses that suit the needs of our students, whatever their future pathways. We aim to satisfy both of the objectives identified by Professor Gluckman (2011):

    There are at least two distinct objectives of science education at secondary school – the first is that of pre-professional education which is traditionally for careers needing science, usually arranged around mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and perhaps general science. The second is the citizen-focused need for all children as they mature to have a clear understanding of the complex world of science that they will confront as citizens over the next 60 years of their lives.

    The proposed changes address the second point Gluckman makes, but miss the first completely. In order to prepare students for the rigour required in scientific careers students need to learn and deeply understand a significant body of knowledge. This has to be tested by traditional external examination which forces students to commit the time and effort required to gain that deeper understanding.

    Teaching this content can be done using a NOS approach, making the information relevant to the student, and satisfying the goals of the NCEA review. It is not a wholesale change in assessment that is needed but a wholesale change in pedagogy and quality of teaching. Either way, a massive amount of professional development will be needed to effect change. The history of curriculum changes in science (which this NCEA review is in disguise) is not good, with time and again the intended curriculum change being far removed from the enacted curriculum in the classroom.

    One key requirement for the successful translation of the formal curriculum into the curriculum actually experienced in the classroom is the provision of considerable support and professional development for teachers. Crawford (2014) maintained that introducing new curricula ‘without attention to robustly supporting teachers is unlikely’ to result in any change of teaching practise in the classroom. While Bybee (2010) argued that professional development of teachers had to be an integral part of any curriculum reform. This has been an ongoing problem in New Zealand with fragmented and under-resourced professional development for teachers concerning NOS, resulting in wide variations in the quality of science teaching across the country.

    One new requirement in the proposed changes is the inclusion of assessment around the history of science. While there are many good arguments for including the history of science in the curriculum, the main difficulty is in finding teachers who are able to deliver this effectively. Solomon (1991) raised concerns about the difficulties facing science teachers in delivering NOS, suggesting that teaching the processes of science by carrying out experiments or even open-ended investigations might not give students any real understanding of NOS. Allchin (1997) and Meyling (1997) showed that key NOS concepts could be influenced by well-designed units of work, but that these required a teacher with exceptional skills and knowledge who was prepared to put in a great deal of extra work. Some of the reasons for teachers struggling to deliver NOS lessons were clearly described by Gallagher (1991), the main one being their lack of formal education concerning the history, philosophy or sociology of science. Without this training about science, teachers had great difficulty in planning lessons that enabled students to think of science other than as a body of knowledge. Thus while, the proposed Achievement Standard sounds good in principal, as with the other proposals, unless it is extremely well resourced and teachers have significant professional development, student outcomes will be low and teacher frustrations high.

    Overall, the proposed changes narrow the curriculum and take agency away from schools to meet the learning needs of their ākonga. The proposed changes are also a narrowing of assessment styles, focusing purely on report writing, which is not equitable. It is important for schools to have choice – for example, whether they offer the broad Nature of Science standards being proposed, or choose to offer the more specialized Physics, Chemistry, Biology or Earth & Science standards, or to choose whether they offer a blend of these standards, to best suit their ākonga. Externally assessed examinations must be retained as a choice of assessment option at Level 1. In short: there is nothing wrong with the current NCEA set-up which provides sufficient flexibility to meet the learning needs of all ākonga in NZ, provided schools implement it in the correct spirit that the NZ curriculum was intended. Rather than implementing a wholesale change of the curriculum and standards (by abandoning the subject specific standards at Level 1), we suggest some fine tuning of the current assessment matrix, supported by significant teacher professional development. The new standards could be offered in addition to subject-specific content-based standards, but schools need to have more agency in terms of what standards they offer their ākonga, and how they are to be assessed – and retaining genuine external examinations is an important part of that.

    We believe that at Cashmere High school we have created Gluckman’s balance of pre-professional knowledge of science with the citizenship requirements about science that the current curriculum requires, but that the proposed changes in assessment will fail to deliver. Much of this success has been due to the adoption of the recommendations from my thesis (Paterson, 2017) concerning NOS and engagement of students, and the collaborative approach taken by all the science staff in the faculty to implement a NOS approach to teaching science at all levels. The key to implementing these recommendations and thus implementing NOS in any school is to have a person with the knowledge and enthusiasm to drive the process. This requirement has been noted in New Zealand, with Alton-Lee (2012) placing educational leadership that focused on student outcomes as the most significant factor in producing systematic change. Similar conclusions and recommendations were made by Lederman and Lederman (2012), regarding the large-scale implementation of NOS in schools in the Chicago area. Rather than change the NCEA assessments across New Zealand we recommend implementing the successful, research based strategies that already exist.

    Finally, one of the most disappointing aspects of the proposed changes and the presentation of these to the teaching community is the lack of any supporting evidence from research in science education. Science teachers are being asked to teach and assess NOS, but the very principles of NOS appear to be completely missing from the process of creating these standards. This is why we are reaching out to you as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, to bring some rigour and evidence based insight to the proceedings. Some data we can report from Cashmere is that while the whole school role has increased by 29% from 2010 to 2020, the number of students opting for science subjects in Year 12 and 13 has increased by 92%, from 546 to 1051 students, with high NCEA pass rates maintained.

    In order for you to see how NOS is being successfully implemented in a New Zealand school we offer a warm invitation for you to visit our Science Faculty and see for yourself how fascinating and fun science can be using the current curriculum and assessment tools. Meanwhile we urge you to investigate the proposed changes to Level 1 Science, engage with science teachers and the science educational research community, and exert your influence to create positive outcomes for ākonga and the future of science in Aotearoa.

    Ngā mihi

    Dr. David Paterson (On behalf of all the science teachers at Cashmere High School)
    Head of Science
    Cashmere High School

    Phone +64 3 3329 129


    Allchin, D. (1997). Rekindling phlogiston: from classroom case study to interdisciplinary relationships. Science & Education, 6, 473-509.

    Alton-Lee, A. (2012). The use of evidence to improve education and serve the public good. Paper prepared for the New Zealand Ministry of Education and the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Vancouver,
    Canada. Retrieved from

    Bybee, R. W. (2010). The Teaching of Science: 21st Century Perspectives. NSTA Press: USA.

    Crawford, B. A. (2014). From inquiry to scientific practises in the science classroom. In S. K. Abell & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education, Volume II (pp. 514-541).

    Gallagher, J. J. (1991). Prospective and practicing secondary school science teachers’ knowledge and beliefs about the philosophy of science. Science Education, 75(1), 121-133. DOI: 10.1002/sce.3730750111

    Gluckman, P. D. (2011). Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century. A report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

    Lederman, N. G., & Lederman J. S. (2012). Nature of scientific knowledge and scientific inquiry: Building instructional capacity through professional development. In B.J. Fraser et al. (Eds.), Second international handbook of science education (pp. 335-359). Dordrecht: Springer. DOI:10.1007/978-1-4020-9041-7_24.

    Meyling, H. (1997). How to change students’ conceptions of the epistemology of science. Science & Education, 6(4), 397-416.

    Paterson, D. J. (2017). The effectiveness of introducing “The Nature of Science” strand into the New Zealand curriculum with regard to increasing student engagement in science. Thesis presented for Doctor of Science Education, Curtin University.

    Solomon, J. (1991). Teaching about the nature of science in the British national curriculum. Science Education, 75(1), 95–103. DOI: 10.1002/sce.3730750109

    • Hi David – thank you so much for taking the time to write such a detailed, thoughtful response to my post. Hopefully you’ve also sent this through to the Ministry, as it’s certainly something that needs to be fed through.

      Do remember that the material that went out for discussion was a first cut. There will be a response from the SEG to the sector’s concerns, along with exemplar learning plans, that will hopefully address some of your concerns about content delivery. It would be great to hear your further feedback when that happens.