My submission to the consultation on the draft Australian Curriculum for science
The current version of the Australian Curriculum: Science is deeply flawed and a review of its structure is therefore welcome. However, the draft F-10 Australian Curriculum: Science is worse than the current version.
The current F-10 Australian Curriculum: Science
The current science curriculum envisages science as consisting of three strands: Science Understanding, Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills.
Science Understanding is what is commonly accepted as scientific knowledge and in the Australian Curriculum, this is unambitious, thin and vague.
Science as a Human Endeavour initially appears to be about the history and philosophy of science – a subject well known at university but perhaps a little eccentric in a F-10 context. Its ‘content descriptions’ are extremely broad, such as the following example from Year 9:
“considering how the idea of elements has developed over time as knowledge of the nature of matter has improved.”
It is difficult to see how students could begin to successfully tackle such a question without a great deal of prior scientific knowledge. In other words, Science as a Human Endeavour cannot be a parallel strand to Scientific Understanding but sits in a hierarchy where content knowledge must come first. At younger year levels, the descriptors are trivial and meaningless, perhaps as a result of being challenging for curriculum writers to generate, with examples including, “recognising that observation is an important part of exploring and investigating the things and places around us” (Foundation Year).
Science Inquiry Skills are part of a venerable tradition addressing the epistemology of science i.e. the way that new scientific knowledge is generated. As such, this strand is potentially valuable, although not as substantial in scope as science content knowledge. There are two obvious objectives to develop in such a strand:
1. Teaching students about the scientific method such as:
The process of hypothesizing, testing against empirical data and developing a theory.
The concept of a ‘fair test’ where only one factor is varied at a time (a concept that should be adhered to more often by education researchers)
The idea that correlation is not causation
2. Specific practical techniques that prepare students for later investigative work such as:
How to safely light and control a Bunsen burner
How to safely heat liquid in a boiling tube
How to construct series and parallel circuits and use meters to measure current and voltage
How to sample vegetation with a quadrat
However, while the current Science Inquiry Skills strand deals with the scientific method, it barely touches on practical techniques. Moreover, the curriculum implies that concepts about the scientific method should be developed through the process of conducting scientific investigations.
Research suggests that explicit teaching ensures a greater proportion of students learn concepts such as the need for a fair test in comparison to students who conduct their own investigations. In addition, students who do manage to learn these concepts by conducting their own investigations are no better at applying them to new contexts than students who have been explicitly taught (Klahr & Nigam, 2004). This is consistent with a large body of research evidence that demonstrates that explicit teaching is superior to students figuring out concepts for themselves (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). Scientific knowledge is the product of centuries of human endeavour that often produces counter-intuitive results and so it is perhaps not surprising that expert instruction is superior to novices attempting to recapitulate these discoveries for themselves.
The Science Inquiry Skills strand of the current curriculum assumes that students should behave as if they were professional scientists, with an emphasis on developing supposed skills such as ‘Questioning and predicting’ and ‘Planning and conducting’. These are not properly termed ‘skills’ because no such generic, trainable skills exist (Tricot & Sweller, 2014). Instead, this confuses the process of learning a field of knowledge with the practices of a professional who has already developed expertise in that field. It confuses the epistemology of science – the way scientists obtain new scientific knowledge – with pedagogy – the best way to teach this knowledge to novices (Kirschner, 2009).
A useful analogy may be that used by Richard Feynman in a 1974 Commencement address at Caltech:
“In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.”
Mimicking the behaviours of trained scientists without all of the other knowledge, skills and understandings that underpin these behaviours is like making a bamboo antenna and expecting the planes to land.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In the 2015 PISA assessments, there was a focus on science achievement and the OECD decided to examine the relationship between science achievement and learning science through inquiry-based approaches.
Students participating in the PISA assessments were asked to report on how often the following happened in their science lessons:
Students are given opportunities to explain their ideas;
Students spend time in the laboratory doing practical experiments;
Students are required to argue about science questions;
Students are asked to draw conclusions from an experiment they have conducted;
The teacher explains how a science idea can be applied to a number of different phenomena;
Students are allowed to design their own experiments;
There is a class debate about investigations;
The teacher clearly explains the relevance of science concepts to our lives;
Students are asked to do an investigation to test ideas.
The OECD (2016) found that, “Perhaps surprisingly, in no education system do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to enquiry-based instruction (when they are encouraged to experiment and engage in hands-on activities) score higher in science. After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, in 56 countries and economies, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is associated with lower scores in science.”
This finding has since been confirmed by peer-reviewed research (Oliver, McConney, & Woods-McConney, 2019; Jerrim, Oliver, & Sims, 2020). At the very least, we should be open to the prospect that any increase in emphasis on scientific inquiry in the Australian Curriculum could lead to a decrease in performance on PISA science.
The draft F-10 Australian Curriculum: Science
Which leads to the draft F-10 Australian Curriculum: Science. The three strands of the current curriculum have been retained, although ‘Science Inquiry Skills’ has been renamed ‘science inquiry’ (ACARA, 2021a). In addition:
“A common verb has been used for all content descriptions in the science understanding and science as a human endeavour strands: across F–2, ‘explore’ has been used; and across Years 3–10, ‘investigate’ has been used. The use of these verbs strengthens alignment with the science inquiry strand, and the content descriptions within science inquiry clearly articulate the expectations associated with ‘exploring’ or ‘investigating’ at each year level…
… Intercultural inquiry skills, essential for conducting science inquiry in the Australian context, have been added, and the core inquiry skills of modelling and argumentation have been strengthened within the content descriptions…
… In the science as a human endeavour strand, content at F–6 has been reframed to ensure that students learn about the nature of science through a focus on how scientists engage in inquiry. This complements the science inquiry strand, in which students develop their own inquiry practices.”
This represents a significant increase in emphasis on inquiry methods. Where is the evidence that trainable skills of ‘modelling and argumentation’ exist? However, perhaps the most significant development is that every content description in the ‘science understanding’ strand now begins with ‘explore’ or ‘investigate’. These verbs clearly promote an inquiry-led approach to learning scientific content, are intended to do so according to ACARA’s own explanation and are at odds with the research evidence.
One example of such a content descriptor includes (ACARA, 2021b):
“investigate the observable properties of solids, liquids and gases and how adding or removing heat energy changes the state of water” (Year 3)
This effectively prescribes that students must learn these concepts through a class investigation. A curriculum should not require certain teaching methods. Methods should be left to teachers and schools to decide. A curriculum should certainly not require the use of inferior teaching methods. Instead, it should specify exactly what students are supposed to know about e.g. the effect of adding or removing heat on the properties of solids, liquids and gases.
In other cases, the insertion of ‘investigate’ is non-sensical and the inevitable result of a blanket decision to shoehorn it in to every content description:
“investigate the relationship between the sun and planets in the solar system and how Earth’s tilt, rotation on its axis and revolution around the sun cause cyclic observable phenomena, including variable day and night length” (Year 5)
The elaborations clarify that such an ‘investigation’ is to be achieved by a combination of role-plays, research and the use of models. It is worth mentioning that this is an area notorious among physics teachers for its capacity to generate misconceptions. What exactly do we want students to know about the relationship between The Sun and Planets? The elaborations add some additional detail, but they are still not sufficiently explicit. The most direct elaboration is probably, “explaining the role of gravity in keeping the planets in orbit around the sun.” And yet it does not specify exactly the role we want Year 5 students to be able to explain. This is significant given the wide variation in depth with which this question could be tackled.
The degradation of clarity that such contrived statements produce is therefore deeply unfortunate. Faced with this lack of clarity, teachers are likely to become more dependent on commercial resources which, in turn, are likely to be prompted by the statements to focus on inquiry-based learning activities.
In contrast to increasing the emphasis on inquiry, the content of the science understanding strand has been further watered-down (ACARA, 2021a):
“The science understanding strand has been the primary focus for reducing content in the Australian Curriculum: Science.”
It is not clear why we would seek to teach students less science and no explanation is offered. Perhaps this relates to the general imperative to ‘declutter’ the curriculum.
The draft curriculum has taken the worst aspects of the current curriculum and amplified them. A curriculum should be a list of what we want students to know, described as precisely and unambiguously as possible, and should not prescribe teaching styles. Not only does the draft prescribe a teaching style, it prescribes one that is known to be less effective – inquiry learning. As a result of prescribing this teaching style, the curriculum lacks clarity around exactly what we want students to know. Finally, almost as an afterthought, the draft has cut the amount of scientific knowledge to be taught.
If adopted, the best-case scenario is that teachers and schools largely ignore this curriculum and perhaps work together to develop something superior. The worst-case scenario is that its adoption will lead to an increase in inquiry learning teaching activities, a decrease in the amount of actual science that is learnt as a result of both the inquiry learning approach and the reduction in content, and a subsequent decline on objective measures of Australian students’ science achievement, such as that provided by PISA.
ACARA (2021a). What has changed and why? Proposed revisions to the Foundation – Year 10 (F 10) Australian Curriculum: Science. Retrieved from https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/media/7122/ac_review_2021_science_whats_changed_and_why.pdf
ACARA (2021b). Science Consultation Curriculum: All elements F-10. Retrieved from https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/media/7142/science_all_elements_f-10.pdf
Feynman, R. P. (1974). Cargo cult science. Caltech Commencement Address. Retrieved from https://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm
Jerrim, J., Oliver, M., & Sims, S. (2020). The relationship between inquiry-based teaching and students’ achievement. New evidence from a longitudinal PISA study in England. Learning and Instruction, 101310.
Kirschner, P. A. (2009). Epistemology or pedagogy, that is the question. In S. Tobias & T. M. Duffy (Eds.), Constructivist instruction: Success or failure? (p. 144–157). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R., E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75–86
Klahr, D., & Nigam, M. (2004). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning. Psychological science, 15(10), 661-667.
OECD (2016). PISA 2015 Results (Volume II). Policies and Practices for Successful Schools. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/publications/pisa-2015-results-volume-ii-9789264267510-en.htm
Oliver, M., McConney, A., & Woods-McConney, A. (2019). The efficacy of Inquiry-Based instruction in science: A comparative analysis of six countries using PISA 2015. Research in Science Education, 1-22.
Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational psychology review, 26(2), 265-283.