Towards a smarter nation – the role of science education and science literacy

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up shots of documents clipped together and stack on top of each other, on a workers desk.

Increasingly it is accepted that democratic governments must better incorporate the use of research derived evidence into policy formation. Many challenges that societies face require an understanding of the uses and limits of technologies and of how science can better inform our choices. There are inevitably complex trade-offs in balancing the many conflicting demands for further economic growth, social equity, better standards of living and environmental sustainability and protection. This trend goes hand in hand with the recognition that it is important to promote science literacy across all sectors of the population so that informed citizens can participate in these difficult discussions. Increasing science literacy in turn increases the demand for evidence-informed decision making and the consequent demand from within policy circles for access to relevant data and analysis to build a body of evidence that can be used to strengthen public policy.

One promising example of creating and applying such a body of policy-relevant evidence is the recently released national assessment of the very foundation of science literacy – the New Zealand Science Curriculum. The fact that the lens of evidence-informed-policy is being directed on the science curriculum itself is especially satisfying. Indeed, it would seem inconceivable to do anything other than employ robust research to help improve our knowledge and techniques for teaching students about science and the scientific method. Too often rhetoric has got in the way of understanding what works in education and what is cause for concern.

In my earlier report entitled Looking ahead: Science Education for the 21st century I summarised an extensive consultation and my conclusions as to some issues and opportunities in both primary and secondary science education and suggested the need to consider as separate issues education for science literacy and education for pre-professional science education.

The recently released results of the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) represent part of the response to my report and a refreshing effort to understand the situation. While some of the results of that study may (and should) cause some concern and require action, I am encouraged and impressed by the quality of research that went into producing this knowledge, which both provies data to support earlier conclusions and helps direct where action is needed.

The NMSSA provides essential insights into the key gaps and obstacles of the current New Zealand Science Curriculum and its delivery. For instance, we see for the first time an approach of harmonised scaling between the age levels against the current curriculum. This technique reveals that the bulk of students in Year 4 have achieved a ‘developed’ understanding of the science knowledge and communication standards expected of them. At year 8, however, the majority of students have not achieved the level of understanding expected for their age and stage.

What changes between years 4 and 8 such that the higher achievement trajectory seen in younger years does not carry through to the early teens? It is not an issue restricted to New Zealand and it has been the topic of a number of discussions with my counterparts elsewhere. My earlier report suggested this may relate in part to teacher skills and yesterday the government announced additional funding for science teacher development and to boost learning resources. My report also suggested the importance of ensuring topical relevance (in the minds of the student) but as I discuss below it also relfects a deeper contextual issue within society which makes the issue of science literacy more urgent. It is a credit to the study design of the NMSSA that we can now begin to answer such a question and build more responsive curriculum resources to address it.

The utility of the NMSSA study is that it combines data on achievement levels with survey and questionnaire data that gets at the learning context for both teachers and students. It helps elucidate the multiple and interconnected factors associated with science achievement, including student attitudes toward science, teacher confidence, access to engaging and relevant learning opportunities and the role of families and whānau in promoting learning and providing additional science information. In short this assessment method appears more robust, dependable and context sensitive than anything used in the past.

But more than this, I believe that the assessment results should also be seen as an opportunity and an invitation; they are an invitation to give closer consideration to the learning factors that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. The most significant of these perhaps, is the role that parents play in building and enacting what can be called ‘science capital’ in families. As their children’s first and most influential mentors, parents are responsible for the everyday ways that science is valued (or not) in a household, and how these are explicitly or implicitly imparted to children. Current research undertaken at King’s College London on science aspirations in children is beginning to point to some of these factors and the STEM education world should be watching. (I thank Richard Meylan of the RSNZ for bringing this recent work to my attention).

I expect that initiatives like Citizen Science, which can engage both parents and students, will increasingly be viewed as multi-purpose strategies; helping at once to lift science literacy where it is lacking while also enhancing the science capital of families regardless of whether it is well established or just starting to take hold.

Such initiatives, combined with a more robust understanding of how the science curriculum is developed, delivered and received, are especially important for a small nation like New Zealand. These issues were raised by the National Science Challenges Panel earlier this year, and yesterday the Ministers of Education and of Science and Innovation announced the response to the Panel’s Science and Society Challenge. The Government has committed to both developing STEM education and broader science literacy, and I am to chair an advisory group to assist in the development of a strategic plan in both these areas.

We urgently need to better develop the skills base and the innovation drivers that will grow and strengthen a 21st century knowledge-based economy, while advancing our society and sustaining our environment. We are not alone in this quest. At a recent meeting of a group of small advanced nations which I co-chair, a clear theme is to strengthen the STEM pipeline, lift achievement scores and encourage students toward a career in science (despite the reality that – or perhaps because – their future job may not even have been invented yet). We have the capacity to overcome our geography by placing more focus on exporting our knowledge and, increasingly, our knowledge-based value-added and ‘weightless’ products. The national conversation is indeed changing.

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