looking ahead: science education for the 21st century

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)

3 thoughts on “looking ahead: science education for the 21st century”

  • It’s interesting to see Massey’s timely announcement of a new science degree centered around an inquiry-based pedagogy. Designed to more closely match the teaching currently happening in schools, it’s a significant change to how much of tertiary science is currently taught.

  • Paul Scott says:

    I have just been working with molecular biologists at Massey Uni and they were stunning. My ‘pre-professional students’ (Y13 Biologists!)have had a great enrichment programme thanks to the Dr Justin O’Sullivan and I have had some great PD!!!

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