New Zealand science and science education policy news

By Grant Jacobs 12/10/2010

Most of you should now be aware that the current FRST CEO, Murray Bain, has been appointed to the role of Chief Executive of the soon-to-be Ministry of Science & Innovation, which will formally start on November 1st. (H/T: NZBio and SMC.) This Ministry is a merger of MoRST and FRST into a single organisation.

Today the Royal Society and the Chief Science Advisor (Sir Peter Gluckman) has released a paper Inspired by science, prepared by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, discussing these issues. (Available as a PDF file.)

Alison Campbell has recently written a number of posts on science education and encouraging students to enter science courses. (She also shares writing Talking Teaching with Fabiana Kubke.) Hopefully we’ll me hearing more from Alison on this!


I have to admit I was a little disappointed at the seeming timidity of what I take to be their main conclusion:

[…] an important first step in engaging more young people in science could be to convene a forum of scientists, educationalists and policy makers to debate the future of science education in New Zealand.

While this echoes concerns Alison (for one) has pointed towards on sciblogs, I have to admit I was hoping to see more pragmatic suggestions that could be implemented. They do offer sketch outline scenario in the latter portion of the paper, but seem to back away from presenting this as a suggestion, instead offering it as a ‘possibility’ that others could then resolve. In the end, then, this is perhaps a more general discussion paper:

Its primary intent is to take a strategic look at how science education can best meet the needs of our emerging adults and our country.

However you view it, the paper has some material to consider. It opens with the observation that

[…] the number of young people choosing to study science at school once it is no longer compulsory is steadily decreasing[,]

where this apparent disinterest in science stems from, and how students might be encouraged to engage in science.

After giving a brief history of science education in New Zealand, they divide the purposes of science education into four aims:

  1. Preparing students for a career in science. (Pre‐professional training)
  2. Equipping students with practical knowledge of how things work. (Utilitarian purpose)
  3. Building students’ science literacy to enable informed participation in science‐related debates and issues. (Democratic/citizenship purpose)
  4. Developing students’ skills in scientific thinking and their knowledge of science as part of their intellectual enculturation. (Cultural/intellectual purpose)

which they expand upon. (Anything missing? I would wish ‘in science’ in the first, to be replaced with ‘using science’: There is a far wider range of jobs that use science than the traditional research jobs.) The conclude this section with:

There have been a great many attempts to reform the curriculum, [… but] while this work (sometimes) resulted in the appearance of new words in official curriculum documents, it has had very little effect on the way science is taught in schools. Secondary school science programmes largely continue to teach conceptual knowledge in discrete disciplines, while in primary schools science has a low profile, appearing mainly as a topic or context for inquiry learning.

They briefly offer why this is (or might be) the case.

Next they turn their attention to estimates of how well students engage with and achieve in science, before looking to future needs. In the latter they note

In addition, today’s young people have a very different orientation to knowledge from that of previous generations. For today’s ‘digital natives’, teachers, books and adults are not their main sources of information or authority and school classes are often seen as irrelevant, slow‐moving, and something to be endured.

They report that

Three recent studies carried out in Australia, the UK and Sweden which investigated why the numbers of students choosing to study science once it is no longer compulsory continues to decrease, found that students resented the lack of opportunity to discuss, reflect, offer opinions or be creative in science classes. One group of researchers found the students’ experiences were the result of an over‐full curriculum and didactic teaching methods. When teachers feel pressured to cover every aspect of the curriculum, students are, as one group of researchers puts it, ’frogmarched across the scientific landscape from one feature to another, with no time to stand and stare, or to absorb what it was they had just learned.’ Students in all three studies, while recognising the importance of science content, saw science as boring, irrelevant, unrelated to the real world, difficult and, as a result, not for them. In all the studies, the persistence of students who did go on in science was attributed to out of school factors — mainly family members who were strong advocates for science or education along with the students’ own motivation and ability to persist with independent learning.

I can’t but help think that this isn’t entirely new.

They suggest the curriculum needs to alter so that

Young people [might] understand processes, systems and relationships, to appreciate the connections between knowledge systems rather than the details of the systems themselves. […]

Educationalists who think this way are strongly critical of the traditional academic curriculum, the view of knowledge that underpins it and the role it has played in sorting students for future employment. However, they do not devalue knowledge: rather they are advocating a different view of knowledge. […]

I hope my skeleton outline and quotes encourage some readers to pursue the paper.

I can’t offer much in the way of thought, not being familiar enough with the current school regime. (Others, please do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.)

Having said that, two quick general thoughts:

Firstly, before trying to engage those outside of the teaching profession, they will need to elaborate what takes place in the classrooms at present. Without this, the contribution from those outside of teaching may be limited to parents of older children who are near completion of their schooling or who have completed school.

Secondly, I will quibble – again! – that their year 11-13 scenario should be worded ‘careers that use science’, not ’careers in science’.

Other articles on Code for life:

Career paths, redux – the academic research career is the exception

How to teach elementary science – chicken feet first

Advice for students heading to university

The roots of bioinformatics

Finding platypus venom

0 Responses to “New Zealand science and science education policy news”

  • I sometimes (actually, more than sometimes) think that a huge part of the problem in NZ is because it doesn’t prioritise science, education, thinking (not necessarily in that order). School terms are being shifted for the world cup – would schools (en mass) organise for all of their students to miss a day of school to hear a Nobel Laureate speak? Is it considered “cool” by kids to be smart or thoughtful? No, and I point that out not because I blame children, but because children absorb the values of their surroundings, their society…

    And I’m just throwing this out there, but it might help to attract (or retain) more top scientists in New Zealand so they can train undergrads/postgrads WELL, do science WELL. Hell, not every person in that system will stay in science, but they might go teach science well at other levels or apply science in other areas. But that whole pipeline is blocked because so many aspects of the system does not lend towards _science_. There is no money and when there is money, it is often siphoned away. I personally think there aren’t enough faculty for the numbers of students going through University science courses, meaning some not-up-to-scratch “understanding” can slip by.

    But maybe I’m too cynical. Think less, more babies, eh?

    Sorry, more of a rant on science, rather than education, strictly. 😛


  • science_girl,

    Rant away 😉

    It’s a big system with a lot of issues.

    Your mentioning classes being moved for the rugby reminded me as a kid being dragged out of a class unexpectedly to another room. On getting their it turned out that the athletics coach decided that all the distance runners ought to watch the Olympic marathon live 🙂

  • My long post??? Pot, meet kettle 🙂

    They did have that ‘forum’ incidentally. The ‘more scientists in schools’ thing was given a bit of time, which is all well & good provided (as I said in my own post) that the scientists get recognition for this. As things stand at the moment for uni scientists it’s PBRF all the way down; talking with school students may be seen as a Good Thing but it also doesn’t get any brownie points in the PBRF system. There’s also the idea of having a ‘lead’ science teacher in primary schools, but personally I think good professional development for all would be more productive.

    And the fact that wretched game involving an ovoid ball is deemed sufficiently important to muck around with the school terms really really annoys me. I was down in Hastings running a Schol Bio workshop this weekend & one of the teachers was saying that they’ll basically get 2 weeks with their senior kids after the break & then it’s off to exams; really useful [not]. You’re right on the button, science_girl – we wouldn’t see this happening for something major in the science-y world.

  • Pot, meet kettle 🙂

    Your post is way longer than mine: mine is mostly quotes of others’ words 😉

    that wretched game involving an ovoid ball

    Would a round ball make it any better? 😉

    (All JK, obviously…)

  • I think the main problem with education in general (keep in mind I’m no expert, nor a teacher or parent…) is the shift towards teaching kids to pass exam questions, rather than teaching them to think, learn, and solve problems.
    Also, the NCEA focus on how well kids are doing, with endless reporting and measuring, doesn’t seem to be helping much. All that time and effort could be better spent actually teaching.

    (Re: the rugby – is there anything interesting for the rest of us to do next September? Us sciencey non-rugby types should start up a nationwide round of open lectures or something during the cup…)

  • Us sciencey non-rugby types should start up a nationwide round of open lectures or something during the cup…

    If you could manage to find a “spare” pub, a Café Scientifique would be more lively. Finding a pub that’s not full of rugby supporters might be a challenge, though…

  • Well, next September there could be great swathes of the country that’re empty cos ‘everyone else’ is at the rugby. So peace & quiet for the rest of us (if that’s your cup of tea) 🙂

    I think (& hope) that the new science curriculum, at least, should see more emphasis on the thinking/learning/solving side of things. Actually, in good classrooms that’s been happening for a while. Nor did the NCEA really signal a seismic shift towards teaching to pass exams – that’s been going on for as long as external exams have existed. I do agree that the Achievement Standards have tended to exacerbate the trend, though – not because that was the intent, but because teachers are only human & the pressure from schools/parents/communities for kids to do well in exams can be pretty relentless. I mean, look at the whole ‘league tables’ thing.

  • If numbers of students studying science at school are dropping, then what subjects are increasing in student numbers. And is the teaching in these subjects didactic or innovative. If it is the former then I don’t buy the argument being that the teaching is diadactic. Teaching in any area can be didactic.
    My impression is that the new curriculum will be better with more focus on the scientific method and on processes. However the moment performance in assessment becomes the measure of education the tendency for didactic teaching to be used increases (in my opinion)
    Having spoken to many students coming into polytech, many still choose subjects based on how easy they perceive them to be. I think better career advice in school, from year 10 through to 13 would help identify better subject options for school students.

  • “If you could manage to find a “spare” pub, a Café Scientifique would be more lively. Finding a pub that’s not full of rugby supporters might be a challenge, though…”

    Surely there must be someone here with the technical expertise to build a signal jammer to interrupt rugby transmission at any pub we might be inclined to take over 🙂
    I can’t believe they moved the school terms around for the world cup. It made our timetabling an absolute nightmare.

  • @michael edmonds

    probably a bit more than career advice from yr 10 – 13… it’s the the whole attitude towards education – to get through with high marks or to go through having learned something or gained skills to be a good learner (e.g. enquiry, critical thinking) or having become a better person… blah-de-blah.. stuff.


  • ‘get through with high marks’ is definitely part of it; i see it with my students here and i’m sure it’s the same with you, michael. at school…. kids may see science as too hard, as not relevant, may not enjoy it, may perceive other subjects as more fun. some schools may encourage students to take more of the ‘other stuff’ as a way to broaden their experience. basically we need something of a cultural sea change.
    dang but it’s hard to type while you’re hooked up to the plasma donstion mschine!

  • Science_girl,
    I agree that more than career advice is needed, and Alison’s points about science being too hard, not relevant and not enjoyable certainly have to be dealt with, but perhaps good career advice is a starting point. Identifying a students strengths and getting them to think about what type of career would engage these strengths might be a good starting point and help motivate them to keep at it, even when science seems a little hard. There seem to be too many students reaching year 13 who suddenly decide that medicine, engineering or science is the career for them and then realising they haven’t studied the right subjects. Career advice won’t fix all of the problems with dropping numbers doing science, but it could play a small part.
    As various politican pundits keep repeating the idea that class size doesn’t matter, I would also say that science teachers have a better chance of showing students that science is fun if the class sizes are smaller and the teacher can engage students one on one for some of the time.

  • Yes, you’re right, Michael – they do need good career advice. And engagement with science has to happen early – after year 10 it’s probably too late (apart from those who make the sudden turnaroudn decisions!).

    That class size thing really really bugs me. My labs back at PNGHS had desks & seating for 30, but that really was too many & the layout excluded a lot of kids from getting actively involved in whatever we were doing. OK, that’s also a resourcing issue, but still… Plus I can’t understand the recent statements on class size not being important – if I’m supposed to work individually with each student, how much time exactly do you suppose each one’s going to get during a 50 minute period if there are 30+ in the class? (Let alone the extra marking, report writing & so on that I have to get through once I’ve finished ‘work’ for the day!)
    Sorry, rant over…
    Cynically, I wonder if ‘class size doesn’t matter’ might not be related to any future cost-cutting plans the Ministry might have; goodness knows there’s enough paring back going on elsewhere in the state system.

  • One of the things on my list of “things to do if I had time” is to track down the literature that is being used to support the “class size doesn’t matter” arguments and see what it’s parameters. I suspect there is some selective interpretation going on. My experience is that the best class size for teaching is 24 students maximum. And my impression is that most of the people touting these studies have never set foot in a classroom.
    Even if a teaching is capable of maintaining good teaching to 40 students, no one ever thinks what the cost is to the teacher in trying to teach more students – the extra assessments, extra marking, etc.
    Oops ranting must be contagious – lol

  • My brief experience with tutoring at tertiary level leads me believe that 15 students per tutor for 3 hour labs is just about ok (i.e. 12 students is better, but 5 does not leave enough individual thinking, etc.) to get a good grasp of where every person is at (i.e. have conversations about the topic).

    Yes I suspect class size may not matter for learning “procedural” things. And yes – would like to dig up literature. 😛