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She’ll be right, mate – is the Aussie attitude incompatible with science?

Sure, life’s a beach, but education broadens your horizons. Stoofstraat

It seems the popular Aussie cultural outlook is not compatible with the rigorous nature of science. In fact, it would seem “tall poppies” need to be taller, and that “no worries” is actually a worry, because she (science) might not be right after all!

Many high-level documents, such as Ian Dobson’s report in 2007 to the Australian Council of Deans of Science, lament the less-than-satisfactory science aptitude of Australian school teachers and students.

Science scores for the Programme for International Student Assessment show Australian students struggling to maintain their present ranking while being overtaken by their peers in other OECD countries including Japan, New Zealand and Canada, just to name a few.

In a 2007 review of science education in Australia, the most recent of its kind, Russell Tytler stated that the underlying reason for poor scientific literacy is the significant shortage of qualified and suitably-trained science teachers in Australian schools.

He highlighted the need to re-imagine science education in order to engage students for the sake of Australia’s future.

Together, the findings of these reports paint a gloomy picture in terms of the scientific capabilities of future Australians. No-one could argue the pivotal role teachers play in providing engaging science education to students.

But qualified and professionally competent teachers alone are insufficient to address this challenge – which I believe is one of the most, if not the greatest, challenge confronting Australia.

Everything to gain

Australia, as a culture, should recognise the importance of education, including science education, if it’s to move alongside other so-called “knowledge economies” internationally.

According to the Powering Ideas budget paper, Australia as a competing economy needs to face social, economic and environmental challenges mediated by global change.

Consultation documents earlier this year from the Inspiring Australia initiative argue strong links between the constituent parts of the national innovation system are crucial to maintaining and improving Australia’s current economic climate.

This can only be achieved through greater scientific and technological contribution to innovation from all groups in Australian society. Australians, sooner rather than later, need to engage rigorously and effectively with scientific research and technological developments.

A dodgy mindset

I believe many young Australians’ attitude to education – in particular science education – is questionable. The 2009 ABS Social Trends state that: “For Year 8, a significantly lower proportion of Australian students had a positive attitude towards maths and science than was the case, on average, internationally”.

One international comparative study documenting the Relevance of Science Education found that Australian school students dislike science – a view further confirmed by a Victorian study in which high school teachers reported more than three quarters of their students were openly unenthusiastic about science.

Young Australians’ dislike for science is further evidenced by the declining numbers opting to study science at high school and fewer still who go on to study science at university level, as reported in the most current study of its kind, the 2001 Status and Quality of Teaching and Learning of Science in Australian Schools.

Could it be that the popular Aussie cultural outlook is a mismatch for the demanding nature of science? I have selected two popular Australian ideologies to, perhaps, offer some insight to this statement.

  • Tall poppies need to be cut down. This popular ideology, entrenched in Australian society, implies those who strive to stand apart need to be brought down a peg or two.

Unfortunately, this ideology does not complement the process of scientific achievement, which essentially calls for distinction both on the part of scientists and their findings.

In essence, a new scientific discovery is a paradigm shift, because it changes the way things will be done, and sometimes the way we think about the world. The scientists who make such discoveries have to think outside the conventional mindset.

It’s not possible to expect someone to excel in science and not to stand out. Therein lays the conflict, as I see it, between scientific achievement and the popular Australian mindset.

Cutting down tall poppies encourages mediocrity.

  • No worries … she’ll be right, mate. This popular expression is used by Australians to emphasise a laidback attitude to life.

In fact, “no worries, she’ll be right” is used to characterise Australians internationally (even extra-terrestrially).

I remember as a young child watching the TV series Space: 1999, in which Moonbase Alpha was experiencing one of its many calamities. Nick Tate, who played the role of Alan Carter, chief pilot, explained to an alien that he was not unduly distressed by the problems they were experiencing because he came “from a place on Earth known as Australia”.

Science, however, means serious business, at least in the context of developed economies competing to stay ahead of each other in the face of global change. Science demands dedication in those who engage in it and rigour in its processes.

It’s simply not possible to be laidback and engage fully; nor is it possible to reap the full benefits of science by hoping a given problem will simply go away.

Whether Australia aims to achieve scientific excellence comparable to other developed nations (as summarised in the Expert Working Group Report to Develop and Evidence Base for Science Engagement in Australia) or its intention is mediocre participation with science on a daily basis, these are questions the country needs to address.

If the vote is for a more proactive approach to scientific literacy, Australia will need to decide how much of its popular cultural ideology, which essentially forms its national identity, should change.

Most importantly, this would mean revising the popular cultural attitude towards education in general. If these and similar actions are possible, “she’ll be right, mate”.

What do you think? Is an Aussie attitude incompatible with science? Leave your comments below.

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