Five challenges for science in Australian primary schools
4 June 2015
Science education has been in the spotlight after federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne recently proposed to make science and maths education compulsory through to year 12.
While this is welcome news, such a proposal needs to include long-term plans for improving the status of science in primary schools and ensuring teachers have the requisite support. Here we outline some of the challenges faced as the new science curriculum is implemented across the country.
1. The Australian curriculum is not a 'national curriculum'
Many people in education are somewhat bemused that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority's Australian Curriculum is not national.
Every state and territory is implementing the curriculum in their own way. This is most noticeable in NSW. Primary school teachers have to follow the NSW syllabus, which combines an additional "technology" component along with science.
2. Primary Connections: one size does not fit all
Primary Connections is a program developed to support the teaching of the Australian science curriculum. It has been overtly promoted and endorsed by the Australian Academy of Science plus the science panel on Q&A in 2014, which included Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, Professor Suzanne Cory and Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt. Schmidt even used some of his Nobel Prize money to support it.
Primary Connections does provide a wealth of ideas, activities, background knowledge and safety considerations. However, it also has several issues.
While Primary Connections is free to all schools via the online platform Scootle, many schools are still spending money to get it via the Primary Connections website, to which the Australian Academy of Science website points all those interested.
Primary Connections is essentially just a bunch of PDFs, which is a long way from an inspiring instructive for teachers to get kids interested in science.
Many schools are also implementing Primary Connections in its entirety, which might not be consistent with their state or territory requirements. This will not allow for a personalised journey into scientific inquiry.
In some states, relying solely on Primary Connections would make a school non-compliant with the requirements of the state syllabus. For example, Primary Connections does not cater for the technology knowledge and skills in the NSW syllabus.
3. Science is a high-anxiety, low-confidence subject for many primary teachers
As a primary school teacher once told us, "primary teachers are expert generalists". Most lack the training and experience to teach science, and a deep understanding of the subject and experimentation. Many feel under-confident in science.
The declines in science participation are longstanding and will have fed into the teaching profession. So, increasingly, teachers will not have studied science at upper secondary school or university. Only around 50 percent of teachers teaching science in 2013 had received training in teaching methods for science.
There are also issues in secondary schools. One in five teachers in science classes teaches out of their area of specialisation.
The introduction of the new curriculum adds to the challenges teachers face. It may lead some to cling onto any resource they find - even if it does not cover all of the curriculum needs.
4. Time demands on primary schools
When primary teachers face disruptions due to impromptu assemblies, excursions (reported as causing serious disruption in Australian schools in particular) and extra-curricular activities, they have to choose what to chop from their teaching. This has been demonstrated to impact most on subjects that the teachers themselves are least comfortable with. This is traditionally mathematics, where teachers are under-confident and often have limited content knowledge.
While mathematics is assessed in NAPLAN, there is currently no comprehensive national assessment of science. Thus, despite (or perhaps because of) the new emphasis on science, science is at risk of being the new sacrificial lamb of choice.
NSW mandates that six-10 percent of curriculum time is spent on science in primary schools - that's 1.5 to 2.5 hours a week. There is substantial variation in the time devoted to science across states and schools. Many schools are operating on only one hour a week, which could easily become 45 minutes when you factor in "pack-up time" at the end of the day and other interruptions.
5. Specialist teachers an unlikely dream
Ian Chubb recently wrote about aspiring to something magnificent with science in Australia. He said: "Every primary school ought to have a science teacher with continually updated knowledge."
This is a noble dream. However, it also raises several issues.
First, there are enough problems recruiting specialist science teachers into secondary, let alone primary schools. And what happens to those students already in school during the hiatus to train up specialist primary science teachers?
Second, in a large primary school, only one science specialist would not be enough. They would not be able to get to every class for the recommended curriculum time. Teaching science, as with any subject, is the responsibility of all primary teachers. With science being somewhat neglected historically in pre-service training, how are we going to train up all of the incumbents?
There are some wonderful primary teachers out there who openly admit they need help with teaching science. However, national, state and school structures currently conspire to make this more difficult and less enjoyable than it should be.
To benefit the national economy, we need to raise the profile of science and develop a long-term plan to nurture it in schools and industry. Educational attainment in science is linked to national economic growth and competitiveness. These high stakes prompted the UK Royal Society to develop a 20-year plan and a follow-up UK government strategy.
Here, Australia's Chief Scientist has outlined the need for such planning. Central to this is the need to support teachers in schools, because, in the words of Ian Chubb: "... every child needs to love science to thrive."
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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