Re-thinking science education


Following the publishing of an edited version of What’s Science Mummy? on The Conversation, I was invited to submit a related short piece to the ACEL Online (Australian Council for Educational Leadership) newsletter. You can view the front page here, but full access is restricted for non-members. I have printed the article below – thank you to ACEL Online for publishing this.

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Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world with science education, and this is becoming more apparent as disagreement over enviro/scientific issues increases in the public domain. A recent poll highlighted how Australians are interested in science, but don’t feel well-informed about it. This is despite the marketing/education projects many organisations deliver in an attempt to increase the public’s knowledge of scientific issues. One of the reasons these kinds of projects may not have the desired effect is that they are mostly available post-education, when many people have already formed personal interests and beliefs and values systems.

Increasing public attitudes to science needs to begin at school, where children are already being taught how the Earth and human civilisation function and interact. Compulsory education in Australia has become increasingly mundane over recent decades, delivering a detached mix of basic concepts, rather than providing the backbone for a lifetime’s worth of knowledge. This trend has affected general public knowledge of essential subjects such as English and Maths. We now see the results in poor adult literacy and numeracy levels and a dire shortage of new teachers qualified to teach maths and science.

Science education is only compulsory to grade 10 in most Australian schools. Primary science education is not consistent across states or schools and is marred by teachers who are not confident about teaching the subject (ASTEC 1997; Dekkers & De Laeter 2001). Compounding these deficiencies, the junior high years of science education are a dispassionate mess of concepts and theories that rarely develop interest in students. Dekkers & De Laeter (2001) called the compulsory core of science education in Australia ‘the most unsatisfactory aspect’ of our system. The compulsory secondary years have no real goal and don’t recognise and develop the knowledge already gained from primary science education.

Amidst this confusion, students are expected to decide on a career path in grade 9, determining whether they follow science through to tertiary education. At this age, most children are too young to understand how the world works, what they are good at, and what sort of career they would really like to pursue. If students have not gained an interest in science by the end of grade 10, then they will probably finish high school education without any real understanding of scientific concepts and processes. A 1998 survey of science teachers in Victoria showed that significantly less secondary science teachers, compared to primary science teachers, believed their students found science interesting, relevant and worth pursuing outside of school (Gough et al. 1998).

We need to change our attitude to science education in Australia. We value our right to democracy and our right to debate enviro/scientific policies that affect us. Yet a healthy debate requires us to be informed on the issues, and being informed is a result of education. English, maths and science, made accessible to students of all proficiencies, need to be the trinity of compulsory education in Australia.

References

(ASTEC) Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council (1997) ‘Foundation for Australia’s future science and technology in primary schools’. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government Publishing Service.
Dekkers, J & De Laeter, J (2001). ‘Enrolment trends in school science education in Australia’. In ‘International Journal of Science Education’. 23(5), 487-500.
Gough, A, Marshall, A, Matthews, R, Milne, G, Tytler, R, & White, G (1998). ‘Science baseline survey research report’. Melbourne: Deakin University.

© Manu Saunders 2011

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