Can Science teachers really just ‘skip’ the content?

Short Story

  • For students to learn there is a socio-emotional requirement to create engagement and challenge misconceptions in science.
  • In recent times, constructivist methods have been provided as a panacea to the complex issue of student disengagement in STEM. The false dichotomy between ‘didactic teaching methods’ and ‘constructivist methods’ is misleading. Learning is iterative: to have an interest in something you have to have some experience or understanding of it, and to understand something you have to have an interest in it.
  • The Australian Curriculum in its current form is limiting, with far too many ‘content’ dot points to race through each school year. The new curriculum will look to replace these with what are called big concepts or ideas that students can engage with deeply.
  • An effective STEM pedagogical approach to teaching has to be relevant, aspirational, problem- or context-based and involves deep engagement in discipline-specific knowledge and skills.

Long Story

‘The enemy of our future prosperity is complacency. Past investments in skills development have underpinned our strong economy and enviable lifestyle, which in turn have diminished our sense of urgency’ (Finkel 2018, p.3).

Students are increasingly opting out of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in Australian Schools, with broadly decreasing achievement trends in these subjects (Finkel 2018, p.23). It may seem odd to begin a discussion about effective pedagogies in STEM teaching with a quote by Australia’s former Chief Scientist linking low achievement in this area with a critique of Australian culture and attitudes, and it is. However, pedagogies that teachers employ in the classroom only form one part of a greater ‘learning system’ which is failing to evolve with our understanding of ‘the science of learning’ (Darling-Hammond et al. 2019, p.1).

The two main objectives of teaching science, according to the Australian Curriculum, are: ‘to develop the scientific knowledge, understandings and skills to make informed decisions about local, national and global issues and to participate, if they so wish, in science-related careers’ (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2021). There is a growing acceptance amongst teachers that the former objective, scientific literacy, is a more important aim of science than preparing students to work in STEM-related fields (Dawson, Venville & Donovan 2019, p.43). This is despite the fact that occupations currently requiring STEM skills is outstripping overall employment growth (Innovation and Science Australia 2017, p.22). There has also been a shift in recent years towards the teaching of ‘21st Century Skills’ through an inquiry-based pedagogy, potentially at the expense of mastery of content-specific knowledge (NSW Government 2021, p.4).  

Is it ethical to teach STEM subjects with any less than expectations that students will strive to contribute to innovations and industries which protect and conserve Earth?

‘21st Century Skills’

‘In science, student learning includes scientific understandings, processes, skills, attitudes, and values… unfortunately, though, knowledge acquisition remains a focus in secondary science’ (Dawson, Venville & Donovan 2019, p.141).

Is it unfortunate? Really? In my experience as a STEM professional, the fundamentals are the foundation not only for confidence in my ability to contribute to discussion in the scientific community and creatively apply my knowledge to new problems but has also been a key driver in my passionate pursuit of understanding. In December 2015 the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016-2026 was released, promoting the dual importance of foundational skills in STEM as well as the development of ‘21st Century Skills’ (‘National School STEM Education Strategy’ 2015). ‘21st Century Skills’ also called enterprise skills is a term which applies to general capabilities and skills, including communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and personal attributes (Finkel 2018, p.16). The dual emphasis of providing a deep knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts as well as the focused development of these sometimes termed ‘soft skills’ has been described as a tension which is not easily accommodated for in the rigid scope of the Syllabus in the Australian Curriculum in its current form (Masters 2020, p.xii). Many Academics espouse the transition to an inquiry-based approach to teaching, with ‘less emphasis on memorizing the names of scientific terms and more emphasis on learning broad concepts that can be applied to new situations’(Dawson, Venville & Donovan 2019, p.107).

Discipline-specific content knowledge has erroneously been associated with ‘job-specific skills’. With research revealing that today’s 15-year-olds are unlikely to have traditional, linear careers in one discipline, potentially having up to ’17 different jobs over 5 careers in their lifetime’  (‘The New Work Smarts: Thriving in the New World Order’ 2017, p.3) perhaps, one can understand the association of ‘content knowledge’ with antiquity. The reality, however, is discipline knowledge and specialty skills are still the hallmark of a STEM professional (Finkel 2018, p.6).

Enterprise skills are important skills, which can be developed in any discipline at school including English and Humanities (Finkel 2018, p.13).

There has undoubtedly been a sharp decline in the measured ability of students to apply knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science to practical situations and problems over the last two decades (Masters 2020, p.10). This, however, may have more to do with the types of problems encountered in class rather than how the problems are presented, with real-world problems proving far more interesting and engaging. The notion that you can’t think deeply about things you don’t care about is supported by developments in the science of learning (Immordino-Yang, Darling-Hammond & Krone 2019; Darling-Hammond et al. 2019).

The Socio-Cultural Theory of Learning Science

‘Humans have far fewer genes… than many simpler organisms… Our amazing intellectual potential appears to derive partly from the evolutionary loss of genetic information… and that information deficit makes possible (and in fact necessary) our unparalleled proclivity for socially mediated learning’ (Immordino-Yang, Darling-Hammond & Krone 2019, p.187).

The science of learning development (SoLD) is a framework within broader developmental system theories which purports an epigenetic view of development, focusing on the relationship between individuals (genetics) and their environment (relationships, and cultural and contextual influences) as illustrated in Figure 1, and has broad implications for school and classroom practices (Darling-Hammond et al. 2019, p.1). Research has shown that brain development is an experience-dependent process, experience is a ‘stressor’ activating neural pathways and strengthening connectivity of brain structures (Cantor et al. 2019, p.5). For the brain to make meaning of an experience, it draws from a template of prior social, emotional and cognitive experiences. If the experience does not challenge those templates, it is simply filed away. If, however, the brain encounters an atypical or unpredictable experience it must respond in order to resolve the ‘cognitive disequilibrium’ (Kibler 2011).

This is a good point to pause and connect recent advances in the science of learning described here to Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Theory of Learning (Vygotsky 1962) (only a cool 60 years of separation between theory and verification, no biggie Lev). Theoretical sociocultural perspectives view learning science as a process of participation rather than acquisition and is underpinned by the constructivist observations of Piaget, who argued that individual’s progressively adapt cognitive schemes to the physical environment and on the internalisation of a person’s actions on objects in the world (Piaget 1936).

In science teaching we refer to cognitive schemes as conceptions, and a disequilibrium or conflict between internal templates and external experiences ‘the prevailing scientific view’ as alternative conceptions (Dawson, Venville & Donovan 2019, p.36). Research has demonstrated that students do not come into science classrooms as empty vessels waiting to be filled (Freire 1972), they bring with them ‘Funds of Knowledge’ (Moll et al. 2009) from other important spheres of their life especially their communities, cultures and families. Alternative conceptions are important and need to be probed and understood by the teacher so that they can be strategically challenged (i.e. atypical experience for brain) and built upon during carefully planned teaching (Dawson, Venville & Donovan 2019, p.38). This is referred to as the conceptual change view of learning.

Constructivism appears as a bit of a catchphrase widely used in the academic paradigm of ‘teaching science’. Traditional methods of teacher-directed strategies take the form of explicit teaching, didactic questioning and lectures and includes processes of scaffolding and modelling (Churchill et al. 2018, p.42). In the science classroom, direct-instruction is often contrasted with student-centered inquiry-based approaches to teaching. In practice, this looks like the teacher providing physical experiences, peer discussion and promoting thought and reflection of the learner, instead of the guided delivery of content (Driver et al. 1994). ‘Recipe-style’ practical activities are seen as inferior to inquiry-based investigations which gives ‘the experience of thinking and working like a scientist’ (Dawson, Venville & Donovan 2019, p.127).

In the real world, science is a community of learners and so I agree that the science classroom should reflect this. However, the suggestion that the adoption of a socio-cultural understanding of learning in a classroom must be at the expense of content knowledge is misguided. A scientific community is first and foremost a community of experts who are passionate about their field of science.

Challenging complacency

 ‘Among the many things now known about learning is the crucial importance of emotional engagement. People are capable of remarkable levels of knowledge, expertise and accomplishment in areas of personal interest. Learning comes easily when it is driven by curiosity and passion. When motivated by personal goals, a search for answers, or something or someone they love, people are prepared to devote thousands of hours over many years to focused, purposeful learning’ (Masters 2020, p.6).

Research into human learning continues to demonstrate the importance of emotional engagement in learning (Immordino-Yang, Darling-Hammond & Krone 2019), in making connections between what they are learning and the real world (Finkel 2018) and in igniting curiosity which is the antithesis to persistent misconceptions.

Figure 1 The Science of Learning Development (SoLD) as outlined in a recent synthesis of findings (Darling-Hammond et al. 2019).

The recent NSW Curriculum Review (Masters 2020) highlighted many impedances to student achievement. The review supports the notion that improving student achievement, engagement, wellbeing and learner agency depends less on the individual pedagogical approach of teachers and more on the constraints of the broader curriculum which currently does not allow for the holistic development of the whole child (Figure 1).

Pedagogical aspects determined to be of value in the review includes:

  • Flexibility in the curriculum, not only of what is taught but when, how long and the form and timing of summative tests. A more flexible curriculum allows teachers to better differentiate and respond to individual learning needs (Masters 2020, p.xii). The review found that in each year of school, the most advanced ten per cent of students are at least five to six years ahead of the least advanced ten per cent of students, and this appears to be unchanged across the years of school (Masters 2020, p.6). Once a student falls behind, they tend to stay behind.
  • A curriculum which focusses on deep learning of core concepts and is less crowded with ‘dot-points’ of content to cover, which effectively counters learning for ‘memorisation’ and ‘regurgitation’ (NSW Government 2021, p.11).
  • Teachers are the single biggest influence on student achievement (Churchill et al. 2018, p.7) and to improve student outcomes in science they require a high degree of expertise and confidence in their discipline, maintaining that knowledge through discipline-specific professional development (Finkel 2018, p.35).
  • Students should be encouraged to take challenging subjects in mathematics and science. Currently given universities do not have prerequisites for university entry even for high-level scientific disciplines, students are increasingly not taking these advanced subjects to maximise their ATAR scores. This is counter-productive to preparation for further study and work, especially in a subject such as mathematics (Finkel 2018, p.7).

The why

Talking about ‘what problems do you want to solve?’ and ‘how can I be part of this, what skills do I need and what is the pathway?’ is more appealing and relevant than simply talking about STEM related careers (Finkel 2018, p.8).

If you do not have any concept of why you are learning something or where the effort you put into attaining knowledge may lead, it is no wonder that you may experience apathy and complacency in your learning. It is important in the science classroom that teachers engage in conversations and integrate into the curriculum the solving of real-world problems with students (Finkel 2018, p.9). Students are experiencing real and significant anxiety about issues in the world including environmental sustainability, technology (terrorism, addiction, etc.) and global poverty and food shortages, and the alteration of traditional values and sense of self, which is literally ‘transforming young people’s identities’ (Verlie 2019).

By taking a real-world problem-based pedagogical approach to teaching, teachers can help students see the relevance of their learning and motivate them to pursue careers where they can make a difference which will have a positive effect on their wellbeing and development of an identity as passionate and capable change-makers in the world. STEM partnerships between industry or community and schools can assist in providing these real-world problems to be solved through STEM skills (Finkel 2018).

Whilst is clear is that it is that it is not the memorization of large amounts of discordant facts that is important for students in our fast-evolving and increasingly complex world, this does not mean that students can skip algebra and organic chemistry to simply practice ‘communicating’ under the guise of ‘science inquiry skills’. A combination of deep content-based learning and relevant, potentially industry-based guided-inquiry is, in my opinion, the most effective pedagogical approach to teaching STEM subjects in Australian Schools.


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