You’re probably aware that the Achievement Standards used to assess senior school students’ learning are being reviewed. Science is one of the ‘pilot’ subjects in this process, where a ‘Subject Expert Group’ has developed 4 draft Science standards¹ (a significant step away from the current 30+, and a response to advice from several high-level advisory groups). These drafts have been out for consultation, and are all intended to develop and assess students’ understanding of the nature of science, with subject content providing the contexts for this learning. (That is, the subject content has definitely not disappeared.)
Why is this important?
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 in which scientific knowledge has developed and continues to develop.
The development of that list recognised that the country’s future prosperity depends on students continuing to study science and entering science-related careers. This is because – as the late Sir Paul Callaghan observed –‘rich’ countries depend on high-end science and technology, and NZ needs to invest far more heavily in these fields to maintain and enhance its standard of living. That is, we need more scientists, scientifically-literate politicians, and a community that understands what science is done and why it’s relevant to everyday life.
But in practice, since then we’ve probably focused more on subject content than on explicitly teaching what science is, how it works, why it is such a powerful tool for understanding the world around it, and that it is a human/social endeavour. (I’m sure it’s implicit in many programs, but things like this aren’t universally picked up by osmosis: practice reinforces learning.)
Does this matter?
Well, yes it does. Knowledge of content is important, but I’d argue that it is far from being enough. Around 60% of year 11 (NCEA L1) students won’t go on to take science subjects at year 12 or 13. They need – all students need – more than content to be science-literate (as this recent PISA document makes clear). To that end, the NZ Curriculum document asked that in addition to content knowledge, students gain the ability to critically evaluate science ideas and processes; to communicate about science; and to recognise that science is a human endeavour² (people develop our scientific knowledge and that their ideas change over time).
And having the knowledge, understandings, and competencies that should be delivered by a teaching & learning program assessed using these standards, students should then be able to critically engage with the various science-based & science-informed issues that they’ll encounter, now & in the future. (And to deal with claims such as “well, science got it wrong in the past, so it can’t be trusted now”; and “science is always changing its mind”, both of which are hallmarks of those arguing against established scientific knowledge.)
That’s what the draft standards are intended to deliver, together with the acquisition of content knowledge. And I think that’s a very good thing.
¹ disclosure: I am a member of this group.
² The concept that science is a human endeavour is explicit in the title of one of the draft standards.