Common themes are evident in the successive evaluations of the teaching and learning of science in Years 4 to 8 since ERO’s 2004 report. Teachers’ lack of confidence in this curriculum area has been apparent in each of the three reports. These evaluations have all noted the need for a greater focus on teaching the integrating strand of the science curriculum, and the inability of many teachers to maintain the integrity of science within an integrated approach. Unsuitable science assessment practices are also a consistent feature.
It is of concern that ERO’s findings indicate that science programmes have not improved since the 2004 ERO science report. The 2007 NEMP science assessment found that Year 8 students were significantly less engaged in science than in previous years. In ERO’s 2012 report only twenty seven percent of schools in the sample were judged to be providing effective or generally effective science programmes for Years 5 to 8 students.
Changes have occurred in the context for science teaching and learning since 2004. The science curriculum was revised as part of the introduction of The New Zealand Curriculum, placing an increased focus on the integrating Nature of Science strand.In 2010 schools were expected to review their science programmes in response to The New Zealand Curriculum. This has not yet occurred in many schools and as a result many leaders and teachers have not grasped the requirements of the current science curriculum.
The teaching of literacy and numeracy for Years 5 to 8 students has gained a higher priority. Many schools have not been to able to balance meeting this priority with the requirement to provide students with high quality opportunities for science learning. In effective primary school science programmes the science learning remains central while students concurrently acquire the specialist language and mathematics skills that support their science learning. In the ineffective programmes the science learning is lost, with learning in a range of other curriculum areas, including literacy and numeracy, taking precedence. Few principals and teachers demonstrated an understanding of how they could integrate the National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics across the curriculum, including into their science programmes.
It is timely for many schools to review the priority they give to science teaching and learning. They should consider what steps they may need to take to build teachers’ confidence in teaching science through developing staff knowledge of effective science pedagogy.
Effective practice in teaching science has been linked to participation in suitable professional learning development in ERO’s successive evaluations of teaching of this curriculum area. However, opportunities for ongoing professional learning development in science have decreased since ERO’s 2004 report with the disbanding of science advisors.
ERO found science ‘champions’, teachers and schools who were providing effective teaching in science. These leaders with a passion for science motivate and support staff to provide students with stimulating and challenging opportunities for learning. Some of these schools have successfully used in-school mentoring or have drawn on community expertise to supplement teacher knowledge. However, in the two thirds of schools where leadership with a strong commitment to science is not apparent less confident teachers often do not have the opportunities for professional learning in this curriculum area.
The lack of confidence and competence in science teaching and learning in Years 5 to 8 indicates the need for greater support for teachers and principals in this area. Teachers’ need well considered pre-service training that effectively prepares them for teaching science. Many require ongoing professional learning development opportunities in science to enable them to confidently teach science as discrete lessons within an integrated approach. This is essential to raise the quality of science teaching and learning and consequently students’ science literacy and understanding.
Students have the right to participate in science programmes that build on an innate excitement about discovering the world around them. These programmes should have a clear focus on allowing them to explore this world through the use of hands on, scientific, investigative processes. Students should learn through contexts that acknowledge their unique social and cultural experiences and interests. They should be supported to use well developed, thinking and questioning skills and be confident to make predictions, which they then test. Students should be able to describe their findings confidently, using appropriate scientific language. Such learning will equip them to be participants in the science-related decisions that society must take and successfully participate in a society that is increasingly based on knowledge and innovation.
Education Review Office (2004) The Quality of Teaching in Years 4 and 8 Science