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Ministry’s plan for science taking flak

The Ministry of Education [MoE] has come under fire from teachers after an advance version of its new science curriculum was leaked, with no mention made of core subjects physics and chemistry.

The “fast draft” document was shared with select teachers and subject matter experts, but some teachers were so alarmed by what they saw they shared it with the press.

It said science would be taught through five contexts: the Earth system, biodiversity, food, energy and water, infectious diseases, and “at the cutting edge”.

While earth sciences and biodiversity are valid and core aspects of any science education, the most shocking aspect is the absence of physical sciences [physics, chemistry] as explicit standalone contexts.

Some teachers aren’t happy about it.

Education council chairman of the NZ Institute of Physics, David Housden, said physics and chemistry are fundamental sciences.

“We would expect to find a broad curriculum with elements of it from space all the way down to tiny particles,” he said.

Waikato University education researcher Cathy Buntting is co-writing the new curriculum.

She said the reform is about taking a more holistic approach to how different science concepts interact rather than a “purist, siloed approach”.

She said that the core subjects of physics and chemistry would still be in the curriculum but would be repackaged in a context-based approach.

It can only be assumed that by not taking a “purist, siloed approach”, Buntting means the curriculum would not teach physical sciences from their conventional foundations.

Conventionally you take physics and learn about mechanics, optics, and electricity; you take chemistry and learn about atoms, ions, molecules, bonds, and reactions.

But it seems that, in the new curriculum, those foundational concepts would start with an applied topic.

Maybe you begin by studying food and, from there, extrapolate out to foundational physics and chemistry.

I’m not convinced a new approach is a good idea.

The ministry has overseen two decades of decline in the science performance of New Zealand’s students.

It should absolutely not think it’s in a position to lead some avant-garde reform of science education.

Every three years, all 38 OECD member countries measure the science performance of 15-year-old students; New Zealand’s mean performance score fell by some margin since 2006 from 530 points to 508 points in 2018, at which point only Australia, Finland, Hungary, and Greece, had slipped more than us in that time.

Now cannot be the time to reform the science curriculum further away from the basics.

If anything, the ministry should be looking to countries performing better than New Zealand – or even to countries that are staying steady.

If the science curriculum continues to be dumbed down like this, universities will become responsible for teaching first-year students the fundamentals of science, which always involves learning a lot of content.

You must learn content as a science student, like how to calculate forces or describe molecular structures, because content, not just context, is foundational to the discipline.

University science departments are certainly not afraid of taking a “purist, siloed approach”, especially with first years who don’t know much.

Let’s hope the science teachers and experts involved in this “fast draft” tell the ministry to pull its head in before the new curriculum goes out for full consultation in August.

Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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