May 2003 Talk

Primary Science Education – a Cause for Concern?

From the address by CHRIS KRISHNA-PILLAY, Manager, CSIRO Education Victoria, to The Australian Skeptics (Victorian Branch) Public Meeting, held Wednesday 21th May 2003 8pm at the Barton Room, Whitehorse Inn Hotel, 5 Burwood Road, Hawthorn. Transcribed by James Gerrand.

The question is; should we be concerned about primary science? The answer is: yes. Why are people so worried? There are three main reasons.

The first is that science is ever changing so we need primary education to adapt to the changes. Currently there are weaknesses in the system, both in the content and in the way we educate.

Secondly, primary science is the seeding point for our science based technological society. You have the opportunity to make people care about science and technology, its process and why they matter. If you can’t make people care then you are relying on luck. Chris considers he was lucky to have ended up caring about science. The only thing that happened to him as a child that influenced him towards science was that his father was very attracted to science being an engineer – not that he directed Chris towards it, it was something Chris picked up, bit by bit. There was very little in his primary schooling that attracted him to science. He knows many people had the same lack.

Thirdly we need to be a scientifically literate society, one in which people are literate enough to question and understand and care without necessarily being part of the process of science.

Chris strained his brain to remember four experiences at his Sunbury primary school that had scientific content. He loves to talk about the magnets story because it was well meaning but failed utterly as science teaching. His teacher in Grade 1 brought in a box of magnets and gave each pupil a magnet. She asked her pupils to walk around the room and see what the magnet would stick to. This was a tremendous idea for a six year old because a bar magnet is weird and cool. Chris quickly found, like many of the kids, that his magnet stuck to metal things. But when he tried it on the metal window frame it fell off. So he asked the teacher why it did not stick. Her reply was “There must be something wrong with the magnet.” Chris was at university before anybody gave him the information that the window frame was probably aluminium and so non-magnetic.

A second item was a “click/click rolly” thing that measured distance. Chris measured the basketball court and the oval. This was a hoot although Chris doesn’t remember getting much content from it. But it did give a number, it showed that that was longer than that.

Number three was when Chris was asked to draw an animal. He drew a tapir (he can’t remember why). His teacher (a very good and open-minded one) asked what it was. Chris replied it was a tapir – a cross between a horse and a pig and they live in South America. The teacher replied “Are you sure they are real?” This was another well-meaning teacher who had the opportunity to embrace some science content but didn’t.

Number four was about crickets, one of Chris’ strongest memories of a scientific experiment. It was not to do with school. When Chris now visits schools he is often asked by kids “When did you start doing science?” It is a tough question because what they usually mean is “When did you start becoming a scientist?” Probably the correct answer, if not useful to the kids, was when Chris obtained his science degree. What Chris usually tells them is that firstly you don’t need to be paid to be a scientist. Secondly his first scientific experiment was when his sister and Chris were discussing whether crickets could swim. They devised an experiment in which they collected a number of crickets found in their house, divided them into large and small ones, (possibly different species), and dropped them into a bird bath in groups of three or four. Some swam in circles, some were very fast; the conclusion was that all the crickets could swim, some better than others. This is Chris’ first memory of analysing a situation, devising some kind of test, and evaluating the results – a scientific experiment.

Since Chris’ childhood things have changed. He has spent ten years taking science programs to students all over the state, from half an hour quick fun demonstrations at the start to later a couple of hours of fairly intensive needs or materials engineering workshops with teacher training as well. When he started this, Chris had in his first two years a milk crate which carried his demonstration material. It was always a hotch-potch of fun demonstrations to perhaps a hundred or so students; there was no real design, no narrative, no scientific content. Since then everything has changed. One major change is the development of the National Curriculum Profile, an attempt by the Federal and State Education Departments to define the type of content that should be taught to Australian students, and when it should be taught.

Each of the States has developed their approach to this. Victoria has its CSF – Curriculum Standards Framework. It is very useful, particularly if you know very little about teaching science. It tells you at what year level you are to teach what and how you are meant to do it. If you a terribly imaginative, well-versed and confident science teacher it can be very restrictive. But it has led to a massive improvement in primary and secondary teaching. Particularly it has forced teachers in primary schools to teach science. So if a school where nobody has got any science training or interest, the CSF still has to be done. The problem is that the number of science trained primary teachers is very low. There are now a lot of primary teachers who are better at teaching CSF. There are teachers who are desperate for someone to help them teach to the primary CSF and so they welcome people like Chris to come to their school to make them comfortable in teaching to the CSF.

Secondary science teachers have been complaining that many of their intake have received no science education at their primary schools: their 13 year olds don’t care, they don’t know. Many primary school principals know now that when they are designing their staff, they will need somebody to be the science co-ordinator who will have had some science training, in the same way they have a PE teacher, an Arts teacher.

Chris’ conclusion is that primary science teaching has definitely improved but there is a long road ahead. A WA federal education group has produced a report comparing what would be the ideal primary science education with the present reality. The found that regular primary science classes were not widespread – a very obvious conclusion said Chris because ten years ago when he giving his science teaching demonstration at a school, the teachers there would say “Now, I can teach the science bit.” This happens very rarely now. Chris has found that where there were regular science classes, they were relevant and hands-on and good quality.

Things can get strange at secondary school. Relevance goes out the window. Their quality can be not very good. Their rigid curriculum can adversely impact on many new entrants from primary school. The kids who had experienced no or very little science continue their don’t-care attitude to science, end up at best being disinterested and at worst resentful of the rigid science workload. More tragically, for many of those who had spent a number of primary years having a great time with their science, something has gone wrong. It is still called science but they resent having to do the set tasks and nothing else.

The other report on concern with primary science teaching by ASTE had ten recommendations. There are a few basic areas that need to be addressed – teacher training, level of support for science teaching and teaching conditions. As regards teacher training they recommend special development of those present teachers who lack the science training to
teach the CSF. The best approach Chris has found is to sit down with such teachers with a whiteboard and a piece of paper and use their brains to design a science unit, say on magnetism. It is remarkable how well they can do that. Most of the information they already have; it is just the confidence to put it in a form that is useful, they lack. Primary teachers need to have more options to do more training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Such courses should give accreditation to provide worth and recognition to science teaching.

Another ASTE recommendation is internship. You get a fresh-out teacher you give him/her a half-load teaching load and a mentor or two for the other half. They walk around the school seeing what is going on They have more time to plan, to analyse, and less time to freak out. Teaching is hard work and scary work.

ASTE’s recommendation for financial support to primary schools to implement science teaching is massively important. However it should not be a one off but regularly to meet the continuing needs. Presently some schools find it difficult to find the money, say at $4 per pupil, to have CSIRO Education workshop their school.

Better recognition of science teaching as a profession is another important ASTE recommendation. In the past teachers were regarded as professionals, similar to doctors, lawyers, etc and given comparable salaries. This is no longer the case. That is why there is a shortage of teachers, particularly with science and mathematics qualifications.

Examples of changes in science that have great impact are photonics in physics and DNA in biology. Whilst their recognition is in the higher secondary curriculum, many primary students have already some knowledge of such developments and there is no reason why such subjects cannot be discussed at the primary level.

Results of teacher teaching research need to be applied to current practice in the same way results of medical research, say better drugs, are readily applied.

A current weakness is the lack of science teacher training throughout their career. This is due to the lack of money in schools to do this.

Relief time for science teachers is needed to allow them to design and set up demonstrations and experiments. Teachers currently either do them in their evenings or weekends or they don’t do them.

Finally the case for primary science is partly because of the early need to learn science basics but most importantly because the instinct of learning about what is around you begins from the very moment you are born. If you reward people for their natural interest, their curiosity, they will want to do more. This is a world about which we can learn a whole lot by using this scientific process.

There is not enough teaching of scientific process in the Victorian CSF. Scientific process allows you to use your imagination. All the great scientists have had this. That is where Einstein, Newton, Florey, among others, came from. They put their imagining into the framework of scientific process.

Q. Our society is very dependent on science and technology. Business people when they have a problem will go about solving it in a scientific way. Yet we see presently in the political scene, like this war on terrorism, there is no person reported as seeking the basis of this terrorism, seeking why are there suicide bombers?

A. It is tragic that science is regarded as a separate discipline. It is not generally regarded as the way of analysing or problem solving. If the community accepted science was the way to solve our problems, including political ones, it would take a lot more to convince people that “Yes, let’s go and bomb a country” is the way to go..

Q. Is there a process whereby a retired scientist can be employed by a school?

A. There is no formal way but I know of people who have ended up doing that. Most schools would be glad to have one. It would be a great resource. My advice would be to go to a school where a relative attends or a local school. Payment should not be expected.

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