Context vs. Content?

I sure hear a lot about science education in New Zealand, and I don’t know why. The latest is some upset about the New Zealand science curriculum. I also don’t understand why.

Science teachers are shocked that an advance version of the draft school science curriculum contains no mention of physics, chemistry or biology.

The so-called “fast draft” said science would be taught through five contexts – the Earth system, biodiversity, food, energy and water, infectious diseases and “at the cutting edge”.

It was sent to just a few teachers for their feedback ahead of its release for consultation next month, but some were so worried by the content they leaked it to their peers.

Teachers who had seen the document told RNZ they had grave concerns about it. It was embarrassing, and would lead to “appalling” declines in student achievement, they said.

One said the focus on four specific topics was likely to leave pupils bored with science by the time they reached secondary school.

But another teacher told RNZ the document presented a “massive challenge” to teachers and the critics were over-reacting.

“It’s the difference from what’s existed before and the lack of content is what’s scaring people. It’s fear of the unknown,” he said.

Okay. I contrast that with the Minnesota public school curriculum, which delineates the big three science subjects of physics, chemistry, and biology — there’s a year dedicated to each of those, a very traditional approach. But obviously, that’s too broad to be practical, and we also have a more detailed breakdown of what specifically needs to be taught within each.

The NZ schools would provide a different framework. Instead of the traditional topical breakdown, it’s centered around broader themes and questions. Is that bad? The real test is in the details of implementation. They could also have science standards that are identical to Minnesotas, for instance, but placed within an interdisciplinary program (that’s what I see in those five contexts, which are all interrelated and overlapping with physics, chemistry, and biology). It sounds like it would be hard to do well, especially in comparison to well-established curricula, but the devil is in the details, and I’m not seeing any details anywhere, as is unsurprising if this is just a leaked draft.

I guess I’m interested in the fact that three of their five categories (biodiversity, food, energy and water, and infectious diseases) are so solidly built around biology, but at the same time they’re going to have to introduce a strong background in chemistry and physics to do them well. I also feel like you can’t teach those biological aspects without any general biochemistry, and there’s no biochem explicitly spelled out in the overview. It’s got to be there somewhere in the implementation details.

Also, I would object to “at the cutting edge” as far too vague. How do you teach that? What’s the point of discussing deep details if you don’t have the basic foundation?


  1. cartomancer says

    Hang on, doesn’t the fifth sentence “One said the focus on four specific topics was likely to leave pupils bored with science by the time they reached secondary school” suggest that this is a PRIMARY SCHOOL science curriculum? I don’t know about anyone else, but that seems entirely sufficient for broad areas to teach 5-11 year olds.

  2. says

    Yeah, that’s what mystifies me about this ‘controversy’. It’s breadth vs depth, and sometimes you need to provide the breadth first.

  3. numerobis says

    It’s likely to be scary to the teachers who went through an education degree trying desperately not to learn how to think. The types of teachers who bored me to tears no matter what they taught (and who annoyed my parents who were teaching the upcoming flock of them).

  4. Dunc says

    One said the focus on four specific topics was likely to leave pupils bored with science by the time they reached secondary school force them to rewrite the lesson plans they’ve been using unchanged for the last 20 years.

    Perhaps that’s uncharitable of me, but I have my suspicions…

    Also, it’s not like the traditional “big 3” approach doesn’t leave the majority of students “bored with science by the time they reach secondary school”…

  5. trevorn says

    Interesting to see you pick this up after seeing Coyne do the same. Unfortunately(despite Coyne claiming to be left-leaning) all his sources on this are from the NZ equivalent of OAN: old, white, conspiracist-central-casting. Your source (Radio NZ) at least has a semblance of objectivity.
    So far as I know (and I’m not a teacher, just a local with an interest in education), there is no intention to eliminate biology, chemistry and physics as separate subjects in senior years of high school (16 & 17 year-olds). What we’re looking at here is how “general science” is taught in younger age groups (5-12).
    I have to laugh when some old biddy complains that focusing on four topics will leave pupils bored, when their preferred solution focuses on three topics instead.

    Just for comparison, the current Science curriculum contains the following areas of science (the curriculum document calls them “strands”): The Nature of Science, The Living World, The Planet Earth and Beyond, The Material World, The Physical World. So there’s a reasonable overlap of three of those areas with biology, chemistry and physics.

  6. mordred says

    @4 Reminds me of a relative trying to talk me into going into teaching when I went through a difficult phase at University.
    He claimed that, when teaching subjects like math or physics, you only got a bit of work in the early years, then you got each years lesson plan and a collection of test questions ready to grab and you can manage the rest of your career with a minimum of work.
    I suppose this says a lot about his teaching style. I’m glad I had some better teachers.
    Now that he’s retired it’s obvious he successfully taught himself not to think over the years, I hope his former pupils are doing better.

  7. says

    Yeah, I see nothing boring in the format, and it has the potential to be pretty engaging to students. There’s always a trade-off between hammering in the basics, that they’ll use forever, and throwing a wider net to get more students motivated to stick with the science.

  8. StevoR says

    FWIW, most of my love for science came from reading & watching Science Fiction… I did have some good teachers, luckily but I also was always a huge bookworm hiding in the library at lunchtimes and reading constantly and the highlight of my day being seeing usually SF cartoons like StarBlazers, Mysterious Cities of Gold, Battle of the Planets and also series like Dr Who, Star Trek, Babylon 5 & Sliders. Of course I wasn’t and still aren’t typical (whatever that is) so.. anyhow.

  9. wzrd1 says

    Just fearmongering over an alleged change to update the curriculum. Fearmongering is easy, they’ll scare quote a lot of nothingburger non-content, give precisely zero specifics and indeed, cannot identify any specifics if challenged.
    All based upon the fairly common fear: New = Bad.
    Of course, I remember back when I was in school and the big nothing of The New Math scare monster, complete with commies under every crevice causing The New Math.
    All it really was was actual education in mathematics, rather than rote memorization.
    All triggered by the orbit of Sputnik, but obviously we don’t need all that fancy math stuff to shoot rockets up. Just point up and magic will make them work! Said by absolutely no artillery officer in human history.

    For some, even moving back to the stone age would be far too advanced for their comfort.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    You know, while I hate the Chinese communist party dictatorship, it would be useful if they put a Sputnik-scale scare into the US political elite. Even the most regressive conservatives know semi-literate serfs are of little use in a high-tech arms race.

  11. wzrd1 says

    Indeed! The closest is some trepidation over the PRC starting to field a blue water navy. That’s a bit too old hat for them and the PRC space program isn’t quite fully up to speed.
    But, they are making up for lost time! Maybe a lunar “colony” might alarm the elites a bit.

    Or maybe convince them that there really are flying saucers up there, with a veritable fleet of flying cups…

  12. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Re The New Math

    Being married to a new teacher that is teaching this has given me a different perspective of Common Core math. We both hate it. She’s going through grad school new teacher prep, and I’m reading a lot of the same stuff she is, and I’m reading the example lesson plans and such that she is, and reading the State common core standards that she is. We both really don’t like it.

    I think part of my problem is that too many primary and secondary school teachers (in America) are not comfortable with math, and no matter what you do to the curriculum, they’re going to suck at teaching it because they don’t understand it themselves.

    My problem with common core math is I think the example lesson plans are backwards. In the example lesson plans, they spend days and days teaching elementary school students “what is multiplication” with various imprecise visual approaches before defining the standard algorithm, which is a mistake IMO. The authors of common core want to help students find out the tricks and become a deeper thinker of math, but I think they’re going about that incorrectly. I think you have to have a solid grasp of the standard algorithm before you can benefit from all of the tricks, which means that they have the content reversed. What ends up happening, especially with teachers that are already poor in math, is that the students rote-memorize these various approaches to solving problems without any deep understanding.

    Also regarding “The New Math”, I’ve read literature from some of the people promoting it, and it does scare the shit out of me. One of the groups pushing Common Core math in California actually has written material that says that current mathematical education is racist and colonialistic because it emphasizes correct and wrong answers, and emphasizes that there is only one correct answer, which is a sign of white colonialism. I wish I was making this shit up, but I’m not. Thankfully, it seems like this particular strain of shit was shut down early in the standards-making process in California.

    On a broader topic, I’ve been reading a bunch of critical race theory. As we all know, they’re not teaching critical race theory to primary or secondary school students, but they are teaching it to prospective teachers in grad school so they can apply its “lessons” in the classroom. It’s pretty interesting stuff.

    I have been less than happy with how the dogmas of Paulo Freire have overtaken (most) teacher preparation programs in the country. It’s made me slightly more sympathetic to right-wing assholes and idiots who say that there is something wrong with education in the country. A lot of Freire’s ideas are good, taken in the correct context, with the correct amounts, but when taken to extreme as it is today, it leads to absurd conclusions like “it’s never the student’s fault and never the parents’ fault and differing cultures have nothing to do with student academic achievement”, which leads to this perverse situation where everyone blames the teacher, and also partially leads to horrendously bad laws like “no child left behind” when we do need to leave some students behind or else every student gets left behind.

    For example, even suggesting that it might be partially the student’s fault or the parents’ fault is an automatic failing mark on the EdTPA, a test used in most states for prospective teachers. This is explicitly written in the grading rubric.

    I’m also aghast at what passes as academic papers in the pedagogy press that is guiding our education. We’re talking about nationwide policy changes being made based on teacher self-assessment of their practices in their own classroom without a control group, with sample sizes measured in the dozen. The authors of these papers are teachers with a strong self motivation to be correct about their own personal pet “theories”, writing about their own experience in their classroom, and they don’t have any kind of proper scientific rigour, and based on one or two papers like this, we’re changing instruction in the classroom, and sometimes to results that I think most of us would consider to be absurd. Again, some of the papers that I’m reading are good, but some are just awful.

    And before you think I’m a provocateur for the status quo, I’m not. I’m for real change that would actually matter. For starters, primary and secondary school funding should come from the state, distributed equally/fairly per student, with bans on additional funding from the county, city, private donations, including bake sales. It’s perverse how schools are funded by the city, which drives people to seek out the cities with the best school districts, which raise housing prices because having a good school district is one of the most important parts about buying a home for parents / prospective parents, which is further compounded by racial red-lining.

    I feel pretty strongly about this, seeing it first-hand and second-hand.

  13. wzrd1 says

    I’m glad you replied. I mentioned the New Math thing, as I remember the controversy over it and was actually taught it. That very education helped many grow into the current and previous generation of programmers that have developed our software today and directly due to that change in how math was taught.
    How can one comprehend data arrays without comprehending sets and subsets, for a singular example?
    But, we have two problems with education. It’s politically lead and driven, which is a problem when discussing educational methods and curriculum, as let’s face it, the least qualified people to drive such things are most politicians.
    And on the educator side, we do have some phenomenally lousy research, with insufficient peer review savaging shoddy works. That’s not only in education, as anyone who subscribes to Retraction Watch can attest to.
    Then, due in significant part, funding and educator wage issues, we see school systems attempting to dilute educational requirements for teachers, which can only make things far worse. For then, we’d get “educators” that remain underpaid, uneducated in educational disabilities and worse, incapable of recognizing learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, instead blaming the student, rather than recognizing a problem that can be resolved.
    I was fortunate, as my dyslexia was identified and a plan that largely was home drilling based helped me compensate well. My dyscalculia, never identified, despite having obvious difficulties with basic multiplication and division, while algebra, trigonometry and calculus remained simple.
    And I’m of an age that remembers looking up logarithm tables, then we were allowed scientific calculators. I also remember how to use a slide rule. I can still work the slide rule, but it’d take me a bit to remember how to use log tables again.
    And I remember when No Child Left Behind became the legal standard, but alas, had long been the de facto standard anyway. Shall I mention the class that was available in my school, “Movie English”? They simply expanded what was being done for the better sports team members to a larger body of students and later, made if official codified law.
    I also recall fascinating antics made by schools to secure additional funding, such as holding fire drills during standardized testing and students actually being instructed to mark random answers, “since you don’t have time to read all of the questions and think about it”. I had both on tape, which was kindly provided to the US Department of Education for investigation.

    I also remember someone I was conducting business with bragging about running for the school board, on a platform of lowering school taxes – in one of those desirable school districts. Indeed, the very district that I had graduated from. A district that, when I attended school, had quality microscopes for biology lab classes, electron microscopes that were donated and even an observatory that was donated. By the time my children attended that same school district, all of those were gone and chemistry class used M&M’s in a jar as “chemicals”. That turned her first two years of college into remedial education.
    Oh, a whisper campaign was started on that prospective Tea Party school board candidate, she fared poorly in the election. Something about her own admissions on tape. Thank goodness for single party consent states!

    We need proper, evidence based standards and curricula. We need proper funding. We need to utterly discard populism in any form of leadership, as leadership isn’t a prettiness contest, it’s about actually leading effectively.
    And we need to address severally, educator, student and family needs. Many parents are going to remain ineffective coaches on quadratic equations, don’t know a bacteria from a virus and their grasp of history and social studies is nebulous at best, absent more commonly.
    And regardless of passing a student along, not every child is going to be capable of becoming an attorney, surgeon, chemist or rocket scientist. That isn’t abandoning anyone, it’s recognizing the vast spectrum of human ability and the limitations inherent in such a wide variety being normal in any group.
    And that rocket scientist isn’t worth a dime without an army of technicians and machinists making those rockets, instructed by clever engineers plans derived from what the scientist suggested.
    We’ll figure out what to do with the spherical cows later on.

  14. sophiab says

    Yeah, this could be done well or terribly. the main risk, I would say, is when the same topic is covered superficially repeatedly (back in my day history seemed to be focussed around Anzac day and Waitangi day – very importantand should be gone over a few times, definitely – and would be the same, very shallow info. At twelve I finally had a teacher who taught this stuff somewhat well, thankfully).

    But, I can definitely see how much of what I remember learning in primarily school could easily be covered under that without shoehorning topics unnecessarily. You can put in water and nitrogen cycles, plate tectonics & volcanoes, various ecosystems (make a poster on the rainforest!), viruses and bacteria.

    I really don’t remember much pure physics/chem being taught directly. A bit of vinegar and baking soda. One time we studied soaps, that was fun/messy, some was eaten. A little bit of periodic table. Physics? The solar system. Something about atoms (we split the atom! Is something all kiwis know and is one phrase I would gladly purge from the English language).

    The other thing to keep in mind is nz curricula are very flexible and school/teacher directed. This is obviously both a plus and minus, but in this case I think the extent of this change will be fairly limited.