Long-standing debates about the purpose and focus of a school science curriculum have resurfaced this week as New Zealand is refreshing its approach to science education.
Some responses to an early draft of a proposed science curriculum warned it would “minimalise science”. But an updated curriculum for today’s world presents an opportunity to engage all students in science through contexts that matter.
As we witness record-breaking temperatures on land and in the ocean, “forever chemicals” contaminating drinking water in the US, and food and energy systems under strain globally, it is clear science literacy is not just about “learning the basics”.
Teaching science should instead be about developing systems thinking and agency, or “the ability to recognise and take action within complex systems”. Meaningful and robust science education is increasingly important for all students, not just those who want to become scientists.
Students must learn to critically evaluate and apply scientific knowledge, alongside other forms of knowledge, to make informed decisions and act on issues that matter.
Curriculum change is necessary
Decades of research have shown that school science that focuses predominantly on decontextualised scientific facts and theories has not supported student learning. This approach has ill-prepared students to engage competently or critically with science and has failed to expand participation in science careers or degree programmes.
Enrolments in traditional science programmes at New Zealand universities are declining. Fewer 15-year-old New Zealanders see the value of science compared to international peers.
As former chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman pointed out in 2011, New Zealand needs radical changes to the science curriculum to better prepare students for the complex issues of our time.
A 2022 background report to the New Zealand curriculum refresh reinforced this perspective. It highlighted how science education needs to prepare students for a world characterised by increasing disinformation campaigns and growing environmental and other science-related social concerns.
What needs to change
The current New Zealand curriculum states the purpose of science education is to ensure students “can participate as critical, informed, and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role”.
But as a recent report issued by the Education Review Office revealed, New Zealand is far from achieving this goal. Students’ awareness of environmental problems has declined since 2006. A recent poll showed New Zealanders don’t understand how to act on climate change.
Faced with interrelated changes in the environment, science itself is changing. It is becoming more interdisciplinary. We see new fields emerging at the intersection of physics, chemistry and biology.
Scientists are increasingly working alongside Māori and other Indigenous leaders, drawing from multiple knowledge systems to collaborate on complex science-related problems. A science curriculum for today’s world must be interdisciplinary and reflect these changes. Students need to be able to see connections between traditional disciplines.
Teaching science in context
Research shows that students learn fundamental science concepts better when they are contextualised within real-world problems and issues. A contextualised curriculum also creates space for other valid knowledge systems such as mātauranga Māori and Indigenous knowledge.
Such an approach supports learning in multilingual science classrooms, which is particularly important given the growing diversity in New Zealand schools.
A science curriculum focused on contemporary issues will not only help prepare all students to engage more competently with science, but it can also inspire more students to consider science-related career paths they might not have otherwise.
Curriculum wars in science are not new. Debates over the goals and content of a science curriculum are not uncommon, and meaningful curriculum change that disrupts the status quo is difficult.
It requires a bold vision but must also be buttressed by extensive support for teachers. Some non-Māori science teachers are keen to make the change but have expressed concerns about lacking skills; for example, how to teach mātauranga Māori.
Teachers are currently not well prepared to teach science in the context of the critical issues of our time, such as climate change. Teacher education and professional development will need to be “turbo-charged” with robust and sustained investments.
However, the goal of curriculum reform is to lay out a bold vision for education, which then drives and catalyses the required resourcing.
Fortunately, there are schools and kura in New Zealand currently leading the way. We can look to them to see what is possible and be inspired by all that science education can be.
· Sara Tolbert is Associate Professor of Science and Environmental Education at University of Canterbury