The future of science education in Australia – there is an elephant is in the room and no one is looking

When I took on my first Year 11 physics class in 2007, I remember saying this to a colleague:

“I do so many things to make science interesting in Year 7-10. But when it comes to Year 11 and 12, it all goes out the window. It’s just about learning the dot points.”

I was reiterating what many senior science teachers feel – science in the senior years of high school is mostly about passing on content, making sure students can remember the content and pass the exam so they can get into the university course they want. (Note: I still do engaging activities with my senior students. I just have less time to do it)

This is one of the major findings in the report “The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools”. The report indicated that science in the senior years of high school is mostly taught via the traditional transmission model, driven by the perception of teachers and students that the purpose of Year 11 and 12 science is to get them into university and prepare them for university. According to the report this has made the senior science curricular cramped with so much content that teachers don’t feel like they have enough time to integrate the social aspects of science and students feel they don’t have enough time to think about what they are learning. These quotes from students in the report sums up how students feel about science as they progress through high school:

“Science just got harder and harder … it went from like fun and exciting to like boring and numbers.”

“There is a major difference [between junior and senior science]. In junior they had to make it fun and interesting otherwise we just wouldn’t have done it.”

 

While the report pointed out that junior science is more about scientific literacy rather than just content, and allows more flexibility to make it more engaging, the report did indicate that the transmission model of teaching has filtered down to junior science in for some students, perhaps in order to prepare students for senior science.

Some other interesting points of the report are:

For students who don’t chose not to study science in year 11 and 12:

  • Many of these students like science and think learning about science is important
  • These students often had negative experiences in year 7 to 10 science, but still think science is important to learn
  • Some of these students have been counselled against studying science in year 11 and 12 because teachers and career advisers think it is too difficult for them and will not help their university entrance score

For students who do choose to study science in year 11 and 12:

  • The majority of these students indicate that the purpose of year 11  and 12 science is to get into a university course they want to apply for and/or meet prerequisite requirements set by universities
  • These students also think that science is enjoyable to learn

So the trends are showing that many students have an intrinsic interest in science and think it is important, but they are turned off from studying science.

The report made several recommendations including:

  • Setting a realistic amount of content in senior science courses so that the social aspects of science and science inquiry skills can be included
  • Making junior science more interesting by using an inquiry based approach where learning has authentic contexts and audiences

I wholly agree with the second recommendation. However it seems to me that the report in general appears to be avoiding the elephant in the room – that a summative, high stakes, university entrance exam is possibly driving pedagogy in year 11 and 12 science and unless that changes, it will continue to do so. The report findings such as an overcrowded curriculum, students copying notes from the board and a focus on memorisation, are typical teaching strategies that result from trying to maximise scores in high stakes exams.

The report overall asks this question: “Are we as a nation content that only half our senior secondary students are studying science?”

 

I would like to ask these questions instead:

  •  If year 11 and 12 science is to prepare students for university, when did universities say they wanted students who spend most of their time copying notes, memorising a lot of facts and not have enough time to think about what they are doing? How does this prepare them for university?

 

  •  Are we as nation content with our future scientists and innovators being prepared to solve the complex problems of the 21st century by being encouraged and rewarded for low level thinking?

 

  • If we reduce the amount of content in year 11 and 12 science would it have any impact on the way it is taught if there is still a high stakes university entrance exam?

 

Perhaps there should be a recommendation of getting rid of university entrance exams as they currently are and look at alternative models of university entry. Without the exam, students will be able to learn science for the love of science and not as a means to an end.

6 thoughts on “The future of science education in Australia – there is an elephant is in the room and no one is looking

  1. It is time to ask what is the purpose of science education? Is content as important in the modern world as it was in the 60s, 70s 80s? Is science education about a way to view the works, approaches to thinking and approaching problems? What are the really important concepts for science students?

    • Great questions. I’ve often asked what is our role as science teachers. With technology content is so accessible w/out the need of a teacher (Khan’s academy, YouTube, etc). Our role should no longer be just passing on knowledge. It should be about critically analysing knowledge & coming up w/ solutions.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Alice. Having done my schooling in QLD and now teaching in NSW, I think the HSC is more a sacred cow than an elephant! And the big issue with the new national curriculum is that it does not specifiy assessment, and of course assessment practices will affect pedagogy – see NAPLAN. Until NSW (ok, the Board of Studies) wakes up to these issues, we will be stuck with the pressure of being ‘marks factories’ rather than agent of change for young minds …

    • Yes, assessment drives pedagogy. However, do teachers support using the HSC as the main vehicle for university entry for most Year 12 students? Or is it the general public that supports the HSC? There are many countries who do not have an one-off high stakes exam for uni entry. If there are many who think such exams negatively affect student learning, then why do we accept it?

  3. Hi Alice, I did well in senior biology as I was a brilliant rote learner. I enrolled in a science degree after school and was completely unprepared for ‘thinking’ and empirical playfulness. I dropped out, drove buses, then started what was to be a fairly prosperous career as a creative agent. I would question whether the system really does prepare students for what, in a uni career, is really independent learning. I know I had no clue how to study for anything but the HSC. It was a shame as my innate creativity could have really helped me had it been channelled.
    Rebecca.

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