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Searching for scientific Mozarts: get em' while they’re young

MATHS AND SCIENCE EDUCATION: We’ve asked our authors about the state of maths and science education in Australia and its future direction. In this instalment, Jennifer Donovan, Carole Haeusler and Ian…

We’re shortchanging our students by waiting to introduce the big scientific ideas until high school. Young mozart image from

MATHS AND SCIENCE EDUCATION: We’ve asked our authors about the state of maths and science education in Australia and its future direction. In this instalment, Jennifer Donovan, Carole Haeusler and Ian Stewart explain why it’s important to introduce young children to big ideas.

To make a better society and economy, Australia needs a scientifically literate populace capable of making informed decisions.

But traditionally, teaching the “big ideas” in science only appears in the later years of high school. In the new Australian Curriculum: Science, the first mention of “atoms” is in Year 9, when most students are already 14 years old.

It’s how we’ve taught science for decades and yet it coincides with a declining interest in learning science. The number of secondary students who continue with the study of science, particularly the physical sciences, into the final years of high school and university is dropping fast.

Year 12 science participation 1991-2007 Ainley et al, 2008, p18

Yet research by Australian academics Russell Tytler and Jonathan Osborne shows that students are highly interested in science at ten years of age and form their career aspirations by around age 13 or 14. By the time they’re taught science in high school, it’s already too late.

Young children display uninhibited curiosity that has an affinity with the scientific method and philosophy itself. Further research suggests that ages five to ten are years of heightened brain plasticity, during which the acquisition of science’s big ideas could be perfectly timed.

Mozart was famously immersed in a musical culture and practice from early childhood – often cited as a key factor towards his genius. Language acquisition, too, seems to find success in early childhood intervention and an impressive linguistic fluency is one of its benefits. In fact, it’s hard to tell apart students who learn a foreign language early from native speakers.

Science is, in many ways, a foreign language. However, it does not remain foreign for long. Children of today are surrounded by the mass media, and encounter words and concepts about these complex ideas in science at an early age. Even in The Simpsons, the words “atoms” and “atomic” are regularly mentioned. After all, Homer works in a nuclear power plant and the local football team is called The Springfield Atoms.

Research also suggests that Year 4 children can grasp atomic theory. While other research shows that, without formal teaching, primary school children are capable of understanding more about genes and DNA than we imagined but mostly they’re picking up their ideas from TV crime shows.

It’s clear then that children are capable and already learning from the world around them. But if we do not “add the science” to these encounters, children are likely to develop misunderstandings. Research has shown that countries whose students achieve highly on international standardised science tests have spiral curricula based on fundamental concepts of science. Concepts are revisited and progressively developed each year, providing students with the best opportunity to develop conceptual understandings.

Spiral curricula are supported by a body of research that shows that cognitive development occurs in a continuous way rather than in stages. Yet our new curriculum has been shown to have gaps, sometimes of two or three years, in the treatment of some key concepts. Instead, it has a series of content-oriented topics to be covered year by year.

The way these topics connect to the key concepts is not always immediately obvious to experienced science educators, let alone to teachers new to the classroom. This system is also unable to take into consideration student readiness – some will be ready earlier and others perhaps later. Both groups are disadvantaged by a lock-step approach. Students are likely to have either forgotten prerequisite material or developed alternative nonscientific conceptions during the gaps.

It’s not that all big ideas need to be introduced early but the curriculum does need to be sufficiently flexible for teachers to address questions and ideas as they come up. When children ask about genes and DNA for example, or talk about what they have seen on crime shows, teachers should be able to take the time to establish concepts without worrying that they aren’t covering the set content.

We need to smash the ceiling that has been holding our children back and daringly focus on the big ideas of science in primary school. Only then will we build the intellectual capital needed to develop scientifically literate citizens as well as more scientists to drive Australia’s future.

Let’s nurture our future scientific Mozarts as soon as we can.

This article is co-authored by Ian Stuart, coordinator for the Atomic Theory program in primary schools and former high school teacher.

This is the third part of our series Maths and Science Education.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    Very clearly articulated, and spot on. It depresses me to see how our children, while becoming extremely competent at using modern communication and other technology, are completely ignorant of the science that underlies that technology. (And some of these kids grow up in families who are creationists! How could they possibly fail to see the contradiction?) There is a big difference, though, between encouraging a broad understanding of the principles of basic sciences (and their history, which…

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  2. Charlotte Pezaro

    PhD Candidate (Science Education) at The University of Queensland

    It is very true that young children are curious and easy to engage with science. It is important that we have primary school teachers who are also curious and willing to engage with scientific ideas and investigations, who are scientifically literate and enthusiastic about teaching science. Many of our primary teaching graduates hold these characteristics.

    There has been some strong research into young children learning sophisticated and abstract concepts, including atomic theory. Joseph Novak's…

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  3. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email

    Excellent article!

    On those occasions when I've looked at the Australian Science Curriculum I've been depressed by the one size fits all meniality of it. My impression is that it is much too prescriptive and lacking in vision. It might be a good program for teachers with little scientific ability in that it ensures a broad coverage and gives detailed direction but it also has the effect of clipping the wings of our best science teachers. By being overly prescritpitve it removes excitment and autonomy from teachers and is effectivley is a vote of no confidance. Why would any science graduate consider turning to teaching if this is the sort of thing they have to put up with?

    The example above, that the notion of atoms isn't taught to our kids under the curriculum until they are 14 yo is a stunning idiocy.

  4. Isabelle Skinner

    Professor of Rural and Regional Nursing at University of Tasmania

    Thanks for the interesting article. Science is a way of thinking and primary school aged children are well able to think logically. I think the biggest challenge for teachers is to give enough time to a subject to make learning meaningful. There is so little time for children to become immersed in a particular subject. Mozart did little else than play music, it was the immersion and the time spent learning his craft and perfecting his skills that led to greatness. No school is set up to immerse kids in science, we have sports academies, music, art, performing arts etc but not science academies.

    Perhaps as a society we don't value science as much as we say we do.

  5. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    "Science is, in many ways, a foreign language." More of a sub-dialect, a genre, a jargon - so is accounting or finance. Mathematics is more fundamentally a language than "science" as such. Mathematics then provides a large part of the language of the tools of science. If we are talking about reaching every child, teachers, particularly primary teachers and principals will point to an already overcrowded (and, yes, linear) curriculum and ask: "Where is the time?" "Do we drop literacy (prerequisite), numeracy (prerequisite) or, say, history, maybe the ANZACs?" On the other hand, many primary schools also run G&T (gifted and Talented) programs, some using the Jason science resources, and this may be where one might best hope to find our budding scientific Mozarts and, with the support of actual scientists and tertiary science students, these programs and resources might make a difference.

  6. Craig Watkins

    logged in via Facebook

    Firstly we need to distinguish between the scientific Mozart's (Einstein successors etc) and what is good for the mainstream. Both are important.

    As a nation I suspect we are only just waking up to how dreadfully we have been doing in science, maths, and innovation. I don't believe we yet fully appreciate the dire situation we find ourselves in. I have three decades of concerning anecdotes to relate, but not much in the way of success stories to point out. A few good things are/have been happening…

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  7. John Barker
    John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

    While agreeing with the authors' basic tenet (that students would benefit from earlier exposure to science), I cannot agree with their 'Mozart' metaphor and its connotations.

    First, it is doubtful that early exposure to music made Mozart a genius- it made him a musical genius. Certainly, early exposure can enhance proficiency (it can also deter proficiency if associated with negative feelings), but it won't make a genius out of a child with average abilities. Geniuses can be nurtured, but they…

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    1. Greg Young

      Program Director

      In reply to John Barker

      John I agree with your point about the need for a scientific rank-and-file. These are the people, after all, who will have to execute and implement the ideas that the rare geniuses conceive.

      But even more important is a scientifically-literate general populace. When so many of the political debates facing us - climate change, defense, population, genetics, major engineering projects, etc - require an understanding of basic scientific principles, there is a need for even the people outside of scientific fields to be able to ingest some scientific information and draw sensible conclusions. Far too often, highly dubious policies hold sway because too many people are unable or unwilling to do this.

    2. Ian Stuart

      Invited User

      In reply to John Barker

      John, your response is well articulated. But I think you are responding only to the article's "headline" from which you have concluded that we are targeting just potential future geniuses. A full reading shows that our proposal targets the broad cohort of student. In fact, mostly so.

      Your objection to the Mozart metaphor seems to be that that we educators are in danger of leading students to believe that science is only for "geniuses", and that this is disheartening to those of "average abilities…

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  8. Jennifer Donovan

    Lecturer in Education at University of Southern Queensland

    Firstly, thanks for all the comments, great to see this has sparked a good conversation. I thought I'd reply in one email.

    Paul - I agree entirely on the need for career paths for scientists, in fact, that was the opening sentence of our first draft. We need to nurture the scientists we have and those coming through, and I know that our Chief Scientist is passionate about finding ways to do that better.

    Charlotte - yes we are aware of Novak's work, but thank you very much for raising that…

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    1. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email

      In reply to Jennifer Donovan

      Oh!!! Hi Jenny. Didn't click with me that it was the Jenny from Perth of a decade ago, thanks again for this excellent article - keep up the good work.

      Your musical influence steered my thinking and teaching in that regard quite a bit. Not to forget that your sunday get togethers were plain fun. Nice to also intersect on this forum. I've been thinking about this sort of thing quite a bit recently because of my former position as a science education officer. I'm glad I didn't find any fault.