Science and The New Zealand Curriculum
Science is a compulsory learning area of The New Zealand Curriculum. The curriculum states that students should experience learning during their time at school from Year 1 to Year 10 in all four context strands: the Living World, the Material World, the Physical World, and Planet Earth and Beyond. The extent to which any one of these is covered is at the school’s discretion.
The Nature of Science strand is compulsory for all students up to Year 10 and provides an integrating framework for the other strands. It has four aspects:
- understanding about science
- investigating in science
- communicating in science
- participating and contributing.
This compulsory strand emphasises the importance of scientific processes in helping students understand the way scientific knowledge is developed and how science relates to their lives and the everyday context of wider society. Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century highlights how the Nature of Science strand is central to the positive outcomes of teaching science. These outcomes include:
- preparing students for a career using science
- building students’ science literacy to enable informed participation in science related debates and issues as contributing citizens
- developing students’ skills in scientific thinking and their knowledge of science as part of their intellectual enculturation.
ERO’s 2004 Report on Science Teaching
The Quality of Teaching in Years 4 and 8 Science, June 2004 was the first of a series of ERO evaluations examining the quality of teaching for specific learning areas and skills, in alignment with the Ministry of Education’s National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP). The 2004 report identified aspects of good practice in science teaching and learning evident in schools at that time. During the evaluation ERO observed lessons and specifically focused on:
- student engagement and achievement
- teacher pedagogical knowledge and application
- learning and behavioural expectations
- classroom management
- use of appropriate resources and technologies
- assessment of student achievement.
In 2004 ERO looked at general good practice teaching rather than investigating more specialised science teaching strategies and opportunities for scientific investigation.
It found that 48 percent of schools had effective practice in these aspects of science teaching and in a further 40 percent practice was adequate. A strong correlation between effective practice and recent participation in professional development was evident. Accessing the expertise of science advisors was the most common form of professional development in science at that time.
In 2004 ERO identified that science was commonly taught as part of an integrated approach and on occasions this compromised the extent to which clear learning outcomes for science were identified. The report noted that teachers seemed to be more comfortable with non-science learning areas such as literacy. A lack of confidence in teaching science was a factor in classrooms where science lessons were less effective.
ERO’s 2004 report also noted that in many schools science assessment practices required development. A lack of science self review was evident and only a small number of boards received information about science achievement. The report identified the need for improvement in teaching the integrating strands of the science curriculum.
ERO’s 2010 Good Practice Report
In 2010, ERO’s report Science in Years 5 to 8: Capable and Competent Teaching was in part a response to the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) findings. NEMP identified a small drop in Years 4 and 8 students’ scientific knowledge and understanding between 2003 and 2007. The 2007 NEMP science assessment also found that Year 8 students were significantly less engaged in science than in previous years.
The focus of ERO’s 2010 report, Science in Years 5 to 8: Capable and Competent Teaching, was to provide models of good practice, as evident in the 13 schools reviewed. ERO evaluated each school’s approach to science education based on the set of good practice indicators. These included:
- high quality planning, including strategies for identifying and responding to students’ prior knowledge, and for teaching them the significant scientific concepts
- flexible approaches that take advantage of students’ curiosity and are able to meet their diverse needs
- an emphasis on the quality of student’s thinking, or conceptual development
- high quality investigations, reflection and discussions that help students develop their understanding of scientific knowledge and processes
- engaging practical activities that allow students to investigate their own ideas as well as those of others. These activities are collaborative, relevant, and draw on local contexts as well as students’ interests.
- the use of literacy strategies to support scientific learning and, in some cases, to provide additional context for reinforcing literacy skills
- the careful integration of numeracy and literacy teaching so science activities are not lost
- teachers’ sensitivity to students’ religious and cultural backgrounds
- links to careers that directly or indirectly use scientific understanding
- high quality assessment and feedback that lets students know how they are achieving in science, informed classroom teaching and learning, and are used as the basis of meaningful reports to the board and parents.
The 2010 ERO report identified that schools faced some significant challenges in providing high quality science teaching and learning. These included:
- teachers’ lack of confidence and ability to consistently teach science well
- the quality of pre-service science education for teachers
- the need to develop teaching that consistently improves students’ scientific understanding and thinking
- the assessment and reporting of science achievement
- school access to high quality professional development in science.
Most schools in the 2010 ERO report were at the beginning stages in developing their science programmes. Many staff reported that science had, in recent years, been less of a school priority. They pointed to the emphasis placed on numeracy, literacy, inquiry learning, assessment and information communication technologies (ICT) initiatives as having impacted on the quality and quantity of science taught.
Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century
Since ERO’s 2010 report, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor has released a report, Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century, April 2011. It stresses the need for a population that is better educated in science as a necessary prerequisite to having an economy based on knowledge and innovation. The report acknowledges teachers’ efforts and successes to date, while recognising the need for more effective pre-service science education, and the need for ongoing professional learning and development and support for primary teachers to develop their understanding and pedagogical practice in science.
The report argues that The New Zealand Curriculum  requires from schools a focus on “scientific literacy to enable understanding of the Nature of Science and its relationship to society, rather than a focus that is heavily weighted in content knowledge”. It acknowledges that schools are still at the beginning phase of making the necessary changes to implement this focus. The report states that The New Zealand Curriculum “has had very little effect on the way science is taught in schools.”
Science and literacy and numeracy
In recent years, schools have been expected to focus on literacy and numeracy learning. The National Administration Guidelines require each board, through the principal and staff, to develop and implement teaching and learning programmes that give priority to student achievement in literacy and numeracy, especially in Years 1 to 8. The introduction of the National Standards for achievement in reading, writing and mathematics in 2010 further underlined the importance of students achieving well in literacy and numeracy so they can have success with all areas of the curriculum.
Literacy and numeracy skills are essential for students to develop their abilities in science. A strong grasp of reading, writing and mathematics gives them the necessary skills to comprehend scientific text, diagrams and data and report their own investigations.
The ‘communicating in science’ aspect of the Nature of Science strand provides an explicit link between literacy and science learning. It states that at curriculum levels 3 and 4 students should:
- begin to use a range of scientific symbols, conventions and vocabulary
- engage with a range of science texts and begin to question the purposes for which these texts are constructed.
The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor’s report acknowledges this focus on literacy and numeracy learning and sees that science “as well as being an important subject in its own right, offers a context in which this can occur”. 
Science and inquiry learning
An inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning in primary schools has become increasingly common in recent years. The approach integrates a range of curriculum areas including, but not exclusively, literacy and numeracy and is in part an attempt to provide authentic contexts for learning. It reflects a focus on developing students’ thinking skills. It is an approach that reflects aspects of The New Zealand Curriculum, which encourage teachers to explore links between the learning areas. The Key Competencies identify the need for students to “actively seek, use and create knowledge” to “ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions” and “make plans and manage projects”.
The inquiry-based approach is intended to enable students to explore areas that interest them. The approach draws on a wide range of student skills and competencies. The inquiry starts with a ‘big question’. Students explore, develop further questions, research information and carry out wide-ranging investigations. They gather and analyse information, generate solutions and sometimes take action. Knowledge is not compartmentalised and contexts may come from a range of curriculum learning areas, with social studies and science being most favoured in this approach along with health, the arts and technologies that are included to a lesser extent.