Opinion: Finding a productive way forward with the refresh of the science curriculum

Monday 17 July 2023

By Senior Lecturer Dr Jared Carpendale.

The science curriculum reform presents a number of opportunities for science education in New Zealand.

The opportunities that are presented with the current science curriculum reform in New Zealand allow us to think about our views on the purpose of science education in our context, especially as science is a compulsory learning area in New Zealand until the end of Year 10, with many schools also requiring students to take a science subject at Year 11.

All students need to benefit from learning science – some will choose to specialise in their senior years of schooling and possibly study science-focused qualifications. Some research (although from an Australian context) indicates that around 8 per cent of students will complete a science-focused post-secondary qualification (which increases to around 22 per cent if we include science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – i.e. a STEM-focused post-secondary qualification).

What is the purpose of science for the 80 per cent of students that do not intend to study post-compulsory science and how does the curriculum support this purpose?

It is clear that the curriculum writing team is thinking about these fundamental questions as expressed through the opening purpose statements. While in draft form, these points align with the notion of students developing dispositions and competencies, such as those outlined in this formative report commissioned by the Ministry of Education. These points also align with international contemporary views of science education – giving students the knowledge and skills to be able to make informed decisions about personal and societal issues.

Dr Jared Carpendale.

Developing these competencies and habits of mind is critical when we want all students, including those that choose not to study science beyond compulsory classes, to make informed decisions regarding significant issues – such as the temperature of the oceans increasing at an alarming rate or threats to biodiversity in New Zealand.

Developing such competencies requires moving beyond learning key concepts and facts to seeing connections between concepts and appreciating the nature of science and how scientists work together, often in transdisciplinary ways, to generate new knowledge.

The draft curriculum document promotes a transdisciplinary way of thinking and teaching science, removing traditional subject siloes, encouraging teachers to engage students in learning through meaningful and authentic contexts. Teaching and learning in this way helps to make important links between content, while also giving students opportunities to develop skills such as critical and creative thinking. Such learning is important for all students in New Zealand.

Experienced and expert teachers will be able to identify concepts within this curriculum, although an increased focus on physical science concepts would be useful. Teachers, particularly those new to the profession or teaching out-of-field, or those without strong content backgrounds, will need some reassurance about the fundamental concepts at different levels in the curriculum. For example, as one of the key contexts is around climate change and Earth systems, it would be necessary for students to have some understanding of the particulate nature of matter, along with understanding chemical and physical changes, with the sophistication of understanding increasing as students progress through their schooling.

Appreciating the relationships between concepts is important – which this document supports with a transdisciplinary approach. However, students (and teachers) need some understanding of concepts to be able to integrate them in effective ways, particularly to link them with contexts.

Additionally, there seems to be some discussion in online forums from concerned teachers about the ‘vague nature’ of the refreshed curriculum (in its current form) and they are requesting more guidance. Many have linked this discussion to the 1993 New Zealand science curriculum and how examples were provided. Portraying the curriculum as a broad framework positions teachers as highly skilled and agentic professionals, which is how Te Mātaiaho frames the learning areas. This approach acknowledges the specialised professional knowledge that teachers have and is better than a prescriptive syllabus that limits teachers’ professional autonomy.

It will be critical that appropriate time and resources are given to teachers if the Ministry expects teachers to act in this way and make decisions about their school science curriculum. Especially given the current situation with a shortage of teachers and difficult conditions, including time available for such thinking and decision making.

So, what is a productive way forward?

The intention of the Ministry is certainly in the right direction. However, more work and clarity is needed, which is acknowledged as this is a draft stage. Feedback through appropriate channels needs to be considered, especially to ensure strong alignment between the intended curriculum and how teachers might enact it with students of all ages in New Zealand. Explicating fundamental concepts for some teachers in the science curriculum will be important, and teachers will need to be afforded appropriate time and resources to make decisions about their local curriculum and implement changes going forward.

While outside of this piece, there also needs to be some clear discussion from the Ministry about the relationship between the Review of Achievement Standards (RAS) for science and this curriculum refresh, as it seems that the assessments are being developed and finalised while decisions about what (and how) to teach are still ongoing.

Dr Carpendale is a former secondary school physics, chemistry and science teacher. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in Teacher Education at Massey University and he also has a ‘critical friend’ role with the Ministry of Education to offer feedback on the refreshed science curriculum. Through his critical friend role, he was sent a copy of the now-leaked confidential draft documents to provide some critique and feedback.

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