Teachers fear students will miss out on physics and chemistry learning under the proposed new science curriculum. Photo / 123RF
Teachers at all levels fear the draft new science curriculum will turn out “ill-informed students” who will be totally unprepared for tertiary study and be seen as a “laughing stock” by overseas universities.
A leaked copy of the proposed school science curriculum makes no mention of physics, chemistry of biology and instead says science would be taught through four contexts – the Earth system, biodiversity, food, energy and water, and infectious diseases.
St Cuthbert’s College head of science Tom Curtis said he was “super concerned” about what was proposed because the draft was “almost absent” of physics and chemistry content.
“I think a lot of physics and chemistry might disappear,” he said. “It is really New Zealand-centric – based around flora and fauna and ecosystems.
“That stuff does need to be taught, but at what cost?”
Curtis said there was a lack of theory and learning outcomes present in the draft so it would be difficult for teachers to know exactly what students should be learning each year.
“I think we will just be turning out ill-informed students. Overseas they will just be a laughing stock.”
He was also concerned that basing science around four concepts all through primary and secondary schooling would result in curriculum fatigue and see students become bored and disengaged with science.
Victoria University dean of engineering Dale Carnegie said he was already “deeply concerned” about the decline of science and maths in secondary school but feared this could make the situation worse.
“Throughout the country, we are seeing a decline in tertiary enrolments in these subjects, and in engineering, we have to teach material in our first year that history was taught in our secondary schools – but no longer. Indeed, much of our first year is ‘remedial’ in the sense that a decade ago, we didn’t need to do it,” he said.
“I can accept a context-driven approach to teaching chemistry, physics and mathematics. However, if the criticisms of the curriculum are correct, and that there is no specific focus on chemistry or physics fundamentals, then this would actively prohibit success in tertiary engineering and the physical sciences.
“These fundamentals must be in place for our students to be able to solve the difficult problems, and even to evaluate the results coming out of the AI platforms such as ChatGPT – which we know can be biased and, at times, actually wrong.”
However, some thought the changes had merit as long as teachers had the training and support to implement them properly.
NZ Association of Scientists co-president Dr Lucy Stewart Barnard said showing students how the fundamental sciences apply to the four themes seemed like a great idea.
“The concerns I’ve been hearing have been more around, you know, how that will actually end up being applied, you know, at the school level, whether people get support,” she said.
“I have a lot of personal friends who are science teachers and I know they’ve put a lot of time and effort into presenting fundamental concepts through things like this because they feel that actually gets through to the students in a really helpful way.
“In some ways, from the conversations I’ve had with them, it’s exciting that it’s been taken up at the curriculum level but it does require very engaged teachers who want to get those fundamental concepts through and teachers that obviously have specialised in the areas.”
One of the curriculum writers, director of the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research at the University of Waikato Cathy Buntting, said physics and chemistry would “absolutely” be taught.
“But they will be teaching the chemistry and the physics that you need to engage with – the big issues of our time – and in order to engage with the excitement of science and the possibilities that science offers,” she said.
“What we are pushing towards with the current fast draft is more of a holistic approach to how the different science concepts interact with each other rather than a purist, siloed approach.”
New Zealand Initiative senior fellow Michael Johnston hit back at the idea that the draft curriculum will focus on “teaching the chemistry and the physics that you need to engage with – the big issues of our time”, as suggested by Buntting.
He said the core sciences needed to be taught systematically rather than in an “as-needs” basis.
“If you take one example, you want to teach kids about climate change. In order to understand that they have to understand how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the atmospheric pressure. That requires some knowledge of mechanics and certainly a good knowledge of molecular structure and atomic theory.
“There’s no good just saying, ‘oh, we need to know about carbon dioxide now’ so we need to know that is one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. What are atoms?”
“There’s a whole systematic layer of knowledge that needs to be there to support proper understanding of these big topics. And all of them entail a whole lot of different core theories and science to understand them properly.”
He said the same issue was true of all four of the contexts proposed.
Johnston also echoed the concern that it would be a struggle for non-specialised teachers to properly teach science through the proposed method.
“There are a lot of schools that don’t have specialist science teachers across all the different sciences. Sometimes they struggle to get a science teacher at all and you might have somebody who’s a PE teacher or a geography teacher teaching science.
“They need a lot more guidance about what they need to teach and certainly they’re not going to get it from this document.”