The draft Australian science curriculum is even worse than mathematics one

Should we launch an inquiry?


I have recently been somewhat preoccupied with the draft Australian mathematics curriculum. This is probably correct in terms of priorities. Although I have a science background, I recognise that mathematics is of even greater importance.

However, we should not let the drafters of the science curriculum off the hook. If anything, it is even worse than the maths draft.

The current science curriculum is, to be frank, not a great starting point. As with the mathematics curriculum, it is broken down into separate strands. However, unlike the maths curriculum, only one of these strands could be described as actual science content - the ‘Science Understanding’ strand. This is where you will find vaguely scientific content statements such as, “Solids, liquids and gases have different observable properties and behave in different ways.”

The other two strands are ‘Science as a Human Endeavour’ and ‘Science Inquiry Skills’. Science as a Human Endeavour is silly, vague and appears to be an attempt to turn science into one of the humanities. We have vacuous statements such as, “Science knowledge helps people to understand the effect of their actions.”

The Science Inquiry Skills strand is typical of the content you see in curriculum documents of this kind about planning experiments and conducting investigations. There are statements like, “With guidance, identify questions in familiar contexts that can be investigated scientifically and make predictions based on prior knowledge.”

I don’t have a problem with teaching students some experimental techniques and procedures. I think that conducting experiments is a right-of-passage that differentiates science from other subjects and may spark vocational interest. And I don’t think any scientific education is complete without an understanding of the scientific method. However, the implication that novice science students can, with guidance, plan and undertake their own meaningful investigations goes far beyond this and confuses the the way that experts practice their profession with a desirable teaching method.

At worst, we have a cargo-cult version of scientific investigation where we assume that by simply imitating what trained scientists do, students will become scientists themselves.

One thing we can be sure of is that learning science through scientific inquiry, as opposed to learning about scientific enquiry, is not very effective. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the fact that full scientific investigations overload working memory unless there is plenty to draw upon from long-term memory. The number of possibilities facing a novice conducting an investigation are vast - for the mathematicians among you, they represent a combinatorial explosion and are well outside the limits of working memory to process. Experts are never faced with such a multitude of options because long-term memory guides them towards the one or two that may be fruitful.

It is therefore perhaps inevitable that there is a strong correlation in PISA data between any increase in inquiry-style learning in science classrooms and a decrease in PISA science results. The researchers at PISA must not be familiar with the argument about the ineffectiveness of inquiry because they found this correlation surprising:

“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.”

And this correlation has been confirmed by more robust, peer-reviewed analyses of the data (here and here).

So far, I have been critical of the science component of the current Australian Curriculum. So, what of the draft?

Well, the draft retains the three strands of the current version, including an entire Science Inquiry strand (although ‘skills’ has been dropped from the name). However, the authors seem to be worried that this is not enough inquiry:

“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.”

More inquiry! No, even more! No, we need yet more, please!

The evidence suggests that if we adopt this curriculum and schools take it seriously then we will perform worse in PISA science.

Just like the mathematics draft, the science draft has decided to promote a particular teaching style. Moreover, it has decided to promote a less effective teaching style. Even though I am an advocate of explicit teaching, I don’t think curriculum documents should be in the business of promoting any teaching style. They should be a list of the concepts we want students to learn. That is all.

I have not yet combed through all of these ‘explore’ and ‘investigate’ statements, but here are a couple from Year 4 so that you get the picture:

“investigate how forces can be exerted by one object on another and how frictional, gravitational and magnetic forces can affect the motion of objects.”

“investigate how physical weathering, erosion and deposition cause slow or rapid change to Earth’s surface and the factors that can impact erosion in local environments”

And here is a statement from the strange and perhaps uniquely Australian beast of ‘Science as a Human Endeavour’:

“investigate how scientists use data and evidence to develop explanations, and how scientists share scientific knowledge.”

That sounds unbelievably boring.

Each of these content descriptions has a number of elaborations that suggest further investigative activities.

So, what is going on? Why would anyone who knows the evidence take an inquiry-heavy science curriculum and make it even more inquiry-heavy?

I guess the answer is that the people drafting this curriculum don’t know the evidence.