Science in schools: can we choose a better future?

Getting the mix right: we need to take a closer look at the future of science education. Science education image from www.shutterstock.com

Every now and then we manufacture a crisis in Australian school science.

People write reports. These recommend change, including curriculum change, and point out the ways in which current patterns of school science education fail.

We start by thinking differently about school science, what is taught, how it is taught and what learning about science at school should mean. We imagine better ways of doing things. Then we lose our way and end by doing school science much as we always have.

We now have a new science curriculum, a bright new document outlining science learning and teaching for the next generation. The question arises: how might our latest attempt at a science curriculum fare?

To answer this question, it’s worth looking into the future to model what might happen next in science education.

The following are four future scenarios for science education which are not meant to be predictions but tools to progress and resist stagnation.

Compliance scenario

In this scenario, the new curriculum improves school science through standardisation, surveillance and control. Support for professional development and school science within states is reduced because the work of curriculum development has been done centrally.

Prescriptive resources are produced with activity sequences which classes follow. There is a national curriculum but some states introduce a syllabus. This restricts variations in schools within these states and prevents efficient sharing of resources across state boundaries.

High-stakes national tests, based primarily on the easy-to-assess Science Understanding strand, are used as indicators of state, territory and national science achievement. Results are published and ranking tables appear in the media. The science curriculum becomes narrowly focussed on the acquisition of readily testable science information.

Student engagement decreases and disenchantment with science increases but a small population of devoted science students thrive. Senior science becomes entrenched as a field for the elite but fewer students study senior science. National capability needs are met by a few, very able graduates from science degrees who pursue careers in science.

Trusting scenario

The national curriculum provides a framework for consistency in science education across all states and territories. Students learn about the same key concepts and big science ideas within relevant contexts.

There is an equal emphasis on Science as Inquiry, Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Understanding, which are integrated. Science proves attractive and engaging for many students. The shared curriculum across states promotes the sharing of science pedagogy.

There is no net increase in support for science curriculum implementation but it is targeted at professional learning and provision of nationally applicable resources. National testing reflects the aims of the national curriculum, providing data on achievement as well as science dispositions. This data is used for diagnostic purposes to enhance science teaching and learning.

A renewed interest in science in years K-10 leads to high participation in science in the senior years. In turn, university science degrees attract more students with a vast range of interest and abilities. Some of these students pursue a variety of career paths as researchers, in industry and education.

The short term future probably lies somewhere in between these but in a slightly more distant future things may change when the next crisis in science education achievement demands that we improve our international competitiveness.

Competitive edge scenario

The new curriculum prescribes a list of science knowledge all students must acquire. The government produces tests that assign students to advanced or general science streams each year.

Within these streams, students complete diagnostic tests during small lesson sequences on science concepts. Responses are used to assign students to appropriate lesson sequences. All lessons and testing are completed online.

Online activities exploit avatars in virtual worlds and reward systems derived from gaming. Engagement with science increases. Teachers monitor progress and only meet students when they stall or to invest in our talented students. Most practicals are replaced by virtual demonstrations and video.

Students work in small teams on research projects assigned by teachers. Face-to-face attendance at school is limited to coaching sessions, social interactions, practical skill development and lab-work.

Teacher professional development is limited and focussed on monitoring learning and targeting direct instruction. Students enter university science courses when testing indicates achievement of specified standards. Private coaching in science thrives. The gap in achievement between high and low socio-economic background students is large compared to international benchmarks.

Anarchy scenario

In this scenario, a new curriculum becomes a short accessible analysis of what we want to achieve through school science. No state syllabuses or curriculums are produced. Discipline subjects (except mathematics) are eliminated in schools.

Schools move from age-based to topic-based streams with students choosing and building a timetable from multi-disciplinary units (mixes of history, science, English economics, geography, art, well-being etc.). Topics vary across schools.

A repository for teachers to share their school-based programs, teaching ideas and activities is established with incentives to encourage contributions. In schools, teams of teachers with discipline expertise (including science) design and support learning. Learning is driven by student questions that are explored. Learning is anarchical in its exploitation of web-based resources.

National testing is replaced by schools publishing reports on student learning and student learning portfolios. National surveys gather evidence of student engagement with science. School league tables based on science engagement scores are published.

Topics are ranked according to student interest scores. Senior science is framed around students collaboratively investigating problems, questions and issues. Students share the knowledge produced and get feedback through online networks. They present their work publically and encourage community responses.

Entry into university science is based on school recommendation informed by moderation of student portfolios. The gap in achievement between high and low socio-economic background students is the largest in the OECD.

What do we want?

None of these proposed scenarios are universally good or bad. They are intended to promote thinking about how the conditions might be manipulated to achieve a better future that does not, by default, replicate the past.

Education is a fundamentally conservative act as each generation seeks to pass on to the next what it needs to know and do. In a world where we no longer can know what we need for a creative and productive future, science education cannot play it safe. It is counter-intuitive but a conservative approach to science education is risky. As a recipe for success, it may deliver failure.

We need to actively seek out the best future for science education. And in the end, that future starts now.