Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The National Science Curriculum: Not Yet!

By Professor John Rice

The draft science curriculum scores a “fail, more work needed” from the Deans of Science.

The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has been developing a national K–12 curriculum for more than 18 months. It is currently discussing a draft of a K–10 science curriculum with state and territory education authorities.

This is a radically new curriculum based on the ideas of a framing paper that advocated a curriculum aimed at science for the general citizen rather than specialist discipline training. It proposes to ground the acquisition of scientific concepts in contemporary issues that engage students. The Australian Council of Deans of Science (ACDS), representing Australia’s university science faculties, endorsed this approach.

Perhaps to the surprise of some, the ACDS does not demand a focus on university science and discipline specialists. Most students aren’t going to be card-carrying scientists of any persuasion. The ACDS thinks that science will be far better served if more of the public understand it well and can recognise its significance for their lives.

A public that values science will provide more policymakers who are better informed about science, as well as students who take it seriously rather than treat it as a stepping stone to law and medicine.

Sadly the current K–10 draft fails to achieve the goals set for it. Neither contemporary interest drivers nor science concepts are coherently presented. In trying to set a new direction, the curriculum train seems to have come off the rails.

The first half, which explains the overall organisation of the curriculum, hardly talks about science as scientists would understand it – about ideas of how the natural world works. It does advance “unifying” ideas, such as observation, order, change and questioning.

While these are indeed a common mindset among scientists they hardly unify science. They don’t say what are the major scientific ideas that students will learn, like biodiversity, planetary history and processes, the atomic structure of matter or the nature of motion. Science isn’t just a process of inquiry, it’s a set of understandings about the natural world.

Where the K–10 curriculum does try to put forward organisers of scientific ideas they are deeply suspect. Energy is a prime example. The curriculum’s main pronouncement on it says that “energy is the basis of all activity across systems”. Earlier cultures invoke a deity in this role, and the status given to energy here is mystical rather than scientific.

The curriculum then mistakenly describes the law of conservation of energy as a guiding principle rather than a scientific law.

In seeking to move science beyond a narrow emphasis on technicalities, the framing paper proposed the three streams of Science Understanding, Science Inquiry Skills and Science as Human Endeavour. The curriculum separates them, and then undermines them by having no principles to guide the symbiosis that is essential to them.

The weak emphasis on the organisation of science knowledge and the split into separate strands has produced a fragmented curriculum of topics that are vaguely described and loosely connected. It doesn’t paint a picture of what science is or what it means. It doesn’t give adequate signals as to the scope and depth of the topics treated, nor of how complex ideas such as energy or planetary processes are to be built up over time.

Some choose to take comfort in the idea that good teachers will know how to interpret the K–10 draft. The ACDS believes that the curriculum should be overt, not hidden like this, and should be for all teachers just as it is meant to be for all students.

This raises the giant sleeper, as yet unaddressed, of the huge amount of staff development that will be required for teachers to be able to use a curriculum like this.

The ACDS is urging ACARA and the Federal Minister to take a breath. With time all these issues can be fixed. Australia should have a national science curriculum, but it should be one that it can be proud of.

Professor John Rice is Executive Director of the Australian Council of Deans of Science (www.acds.edu.au).