Science and The New Zealand Curriculum

Science helps us know about the world and beyond. It represents what is understood about the universe through methodical observation and investigation. The New Zealand Curriculum states that science:

… is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modelling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding, and explanations. Scientific progress comes from logical, systematic work and from creative insight, built on a foundation of respect for evidence. [2]

Science is also a compulsory learning area of The New Zealand Curriculum. As set out in the National Administration Guidelines, New Zealand schools are required to develop and implement teaching and learning programmes:

(a) to provide all students in years 1-10 with opportunities to achieve for success in all the essential learning and skill areas of the New Zealand curriculum [3]

This evaluation focuses on capable and competent science teaching in Years 5 to 8. The fieldwork for this report was undertaken during Terms 2 and 3 of 2009. During this time New Zealand schools were preparing to fully implement The New Zealand Curriculum in 2010, which replaces Science in the New Zealand Curriculum, published in 1995. Hence for this period of ERO’s evaluation, two national science curriculum statements were in use. It is important to point out that these documents have a similar structure. They are both divided into eight achievement levels. They also have four context strands based on the Living World, the Material World, the Physical World, and Planet Earth and Beyond. While there are some differences in how the context objectives are set out in each of these documents, they reflect similar concepts.

The main differences between Science in the New Zealand Curriculum and The New Zealand Curriculum are in the integrating strands. These are included in both documents to help teachers to give students ongoing and consistent messages about how science operates. The integrating strands in Science in the New Zealand Curriculum are ‘Making Sense of the Nature of Science and its Relationship to Technology’ and ‘Developing Scientific Skills and Attitudes.’

In The New Zealand Curriculum, the integrating strands have been incorporated into a broader-based Nature of Science strand. This strand has four aspects:

  • Understanding about Science;
  • Investigating in Science;
  • Communicating in Science; and
  • Participating and Contributing.

The Nature of Science strand emphasises the importance of scientific processes or, more simply, how science is carried out. It emphasises investigations and communication in science. This strand helps students understand the way scientific knowledge is developed and how science relates to their lives and the everyday context of wider society.

Studying science

There are many reasons why science is an important area for study. The New Zealand Curriculum says that it is important to study science because:

Science is able to inform problem solving and decision making in many areas of life. Many of the major challenges and opportunities that confront our world need to be approached from a scientific perspective, taking into account social and ethical considerations. [4]

Science gives individual students a way of understanding their world. For primary school students it can provide a meaningful way to develop their understanding of how things work and, in some cases, how they might be improved. Science also provides a way to foster creativity, problem-solving and a love of learning.

Science is central to many of the issues facing New Zealand citizens and the wider global community. In recent years concerns such as climate change, genetic modification, pandemics, vaccinations, sustainability and bio-security have been discussed extensively in the media and the community. The public discussion of such issues is vastly improved when we have a good understanding of the relevant scientific concepts.

Science underpins many jobs in the modern economy. While a variety of research careers can be undertaken by scientists, there are also many other jobs that require some level of scientific knowledge. For instance an understanding of scientific ideas is required for work in fields such as communications technology, building, construction, sport, fishing, forestry, farming, childcare, health services and manufacturing. As this list implies, an understanding of scientific knowledge and processes is a common feature of employment in the 21st century.

Student achievement and engagement in science

New Zealand’s National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) has found, overall, little change in the performance of primary school students in science from 1995 to 2007. However, NEMP reported a small drop in the level of scientific knowledge and understanding of Years 4 and 8 students between its 2003 and 2007 assessments. Year 4 students were found to have a two percent drop from 2003 to 2007 while Year 8 students had a one percent drop.

More significantly, the 2007 NEMP identified declining levels of engagement in science by primary-aged students. The lower levels of engagement suggest that increasing numbers of students are less inclined towards taking science as a subject at secondary school and as a possible career option.

Science data from 2006/07 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study(TIMSS) are broadly consistent with the NEMP findings. In the 2006/07 TIMSS study New Zealand maintained its ranking 22nd out of 37 developed countries.

New Zealand’s Year 5 students expressed positive attitudes toward science with eight out of 10 students indicating that they would like to do more science in school. In comparison with other countries, New Zealand students were not as positive about science as many of their international counterparts.

Seeing yourself in science

In 2008 the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) prepared a report for the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Ministry of Research Science and Technology (MoRST) on science teaching in upper primary school (Years 5 to 8).

Seeing yourself in science draws on the NEMP data, an Australian-based literature review of science education [5] and NZCER’s own research. This report is especially relevant to ERO’s evaluation of science teaching in Years 5 to 8. For example:

  • the middle years of schooling, from Years 7 to 10, are when the largest drop-off occurs in student ‘curiosity’;
  • evidence suggests that students form strong ideas about their possible careers in upper primary school, which is earlier than previously thought. This emphasises the importance of engaging students in science before they reach secondary school; and
  • engaging students in science is considered more difficult in the 21st century due to the development of certain ‘late modern’ tendencies in youth culture. These include more interest by young people in activities which support self-realisation, creativity, working with people and supporting the environment.

For upper primary science teaching the NZCER report suggests that the focus be on engaging students with interesting science activities and building up the sense of achievement in students. It also suggests giving students access to a variety of science and technology career examples and information so that they build important vocational and identity links with science-based jobs.

The quality of teaching in Years 4 and 8: Science (2004)

In 2004 ERO published a report on the quality of teaching in science at Years 4 and Year 8. This study was the first in 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).

ERO evaluated the quality of teaching in science in 233 schools and found the following key areas of good performance:

  • most science learning programmes had good links to Science in the New Zealand Curriculum;
  • students were highly engaged in science learning that was based on group work and hands-on activities;
  • some schools had effectively integrated local and community resources into science learning programmes;
  • teachers used a wide variety of contexts to gather science achievement information; and
  • in some cases parents and whānau were given regular opportunities to be involved in science learning programmes.

The following were also identified as areas for improvement:

  • consistent coverage of the two integrating strands of Science in the New Zealand Curriculum in science learning programmes. [6]
  • the linking of professional development priorities for science teaching to performance appraisals or teachers’ own reflection on their confidence and knowledge to teach science;
  • the gathering of assessment on skills, attitudes and scientific understanding rather than on task completion;
  • assessment information used to inform future learning programmes; and
  • the identification of school-wide learning expectations and outcomes for science.