Science curriculum needs to do more to engage primary school students

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A new report around science literacy in primary school shows that while most students appear to be interested in learning new things in science – which includes learning about science and doing science-based activities – many students do not relate science to their own lives.

The 2015 NAP science literacy report is based on sample assessments of Year 6 students. The test happens every three years, and in 2015 the test went from paper-based to online.

The results show that the understandings and inquiry skills of students have not changed since 2006, revealing a stagnation consistent with our performance history in the large international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests.

Just over half of Australian students reached the “proficient” standard, which refers to what is expected by students at that year level.

Despite rhetoric from governments at all levels about their commitment to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education, this stagnation could reflect the relatively low levels of funding for education in Australia.

Redefining science literacy

To improve the teaching and learning of science in primary schools, we need to re-consider what we mean by “science literacy”.

The idea of “science literacy” has pervaded thinking about the purposes of school science since the 1990s. It reflects concerns that school science should prepare citizens generally to engage with science as well as prepare them for science-related careers.

According to the latest NAP report, science literacy refers to a student’s capacity to master the literacy practices of science, which enable them to conduct investigations, collect and interpret data, critique claims, and make informed decisions.

This focus on students learning to understand and interpret science was a significant departure from previous thinking about the purposes of science, which focused much more on recall and interpretation of science concepts.

However, this version of science literacy still focuses on the knowledge and processes of science, rather than its human side or wider context.

Teaching students to think critically

Research over the last two decades tells us we need for us to go beyond a focus on knowledge and skills and attend to values and attitudes/dispositions in teaching science. This includes focusing on building students’ identity in relation to thinking scientifically.

Students are not engaged with their learning unless it matters to them, and they need to be active generators rather than absorbers of science questions, processes and ideas.

Ways to make science more engaging

What is the use of science knowledge if you are never inclined to use it once you leave the reward systems of schooling?

For example, we have worked with primary teachers on an approach that asks students to actively generate drawings, models, or digital animations to respond to questions.

Teachers report that this leads to more engaged students and longer, higher-level class discussion of ideas and deeper understandings.

The NAP reports that students are interested in science. We need to build on this interest to create science programs that engage our students in scientific thinking and working in ways that build their capacity to critically and creatively reason.

This is the challenge for 21st century schooling – to create agile and flexible problem solvers prepared to engage with a world that demands high level skills and innovative thinking.

We need an expanded version of thinking scientifically to include the active engagement of students in using the tools of science to reason and understand.

Some primary schools are already doing this

This sense of the wider context of science is apparent in many primary schools we have worked with.

Some schools are involved with major investigative projects, for instance into the local environment. Many are involved with scientists as partners, who provide role models and insight into what it is to think and work scientifically.

REMSTEP is a major program investigating how to represent scientists’ and mathematicians’ practices in school curricula.

Much of the impetus for the current advocacy of STEM as an interdisciplinary approach comes from a push to engage students in problem solving in authentic contexts, including engineering design and digital technology.

These approaches are also evident in the “Little scientists” initiative.

The Australian Academy of Science initiative “Primary Connections” is now pervasive in primary schools, and we suspect it has been influential in increasing the amount of science taught in schools.

However, research into schools’ use of the program has indicated that while teachers are committed to the explore part of its inquiry model, they often truncate the central literacy aspects of explaining science.

There is a need in primary schools for a cadre of enthusiastic teachers of science who can support teachers to engage with students’ critical and creative thinking. This is the rationale for the Victorian Department of Education Primary Mathematics and Science Specialist initiative.

Assessment tools need to catch up

Can this expanded version of science literacy we are advocating be reliably assessed?

With current advances in online assessment there exists the possibility of much more interactive forms of assessment activity that go beyond what the NAP was able to put in place for 2015.

For instance, the latest PISA assessment included many items where students could interactively build and interpret investigation.

PISA has also developed assessment in collaborative reasoning to support collaborative skills for problem solving.

If we are to ensure the longer-term success of science education in schools, we need to find ways of harnessing it to engage students’ critical and creative reasoning in ways that go beyond current conceptions of science literacy.