Too much ‘rote learning’ in science
A focus on achieving NCEA credits is taking priority over authentic scientific investigation at year 11 level, research by the curriculum leader and senior lecturer in science education at Victoria University shows.
Dr Azra Moeed surveyed all year 11 science teachers in the Wellington region as part of her project. One school, and a year 11 science class within it, were studied in depth.
She says while students enjoy hands-on work and say it helps them grasp science ideas, they often take a surface approach and tend to ‘‘rote learn’’ answers to fulfil assessment requirements.
‘‘ In many schools, teaching, learning and motivation to learn science investigation at year 11 level are being overwhelmed by the requirements of internal assessment.’’
News of her research broke in the same week that Auckland Grammar School sparked controversy with an announcement it will ditch NCEA in year 11 (except for maths and English exams for weaker pupils) in favour of the University of Canterbury’s international exams.
The headmaster of the boys’ college in the upmarket suburb of Epsom, John Morris, has said NCEA discourages top-notch students from excelling.
Geoff Keith, acting manager of secondary outcomes at the Ministry of Education, told us Dr Moeed’s research was carried out prior to 2010, and the issues she’s raised have been addressed.
Dr Moeed graduated last month with a PhD in Education and was a school teacher for 27 years.
Since 2002, practical science investigation has become an assessed component of year 11 science and Dr Moeed’s PhD research analysed the impact it is having in classrooms in the Wellington region.
She says teachers used to take a broad approach when teaching students how to carry out a scientific investigation but are now following a linear process that trains students to pass the NCEA assessment.
She says teachers are using an NCEA template provided for assessment purposes.
‘‘It’s more about learning the steps to follow than knowing why they are following the steps,’’ says Dr Moeed.
‘‘Rather than exploring an openended question students come up with themselves, they are presented with set tasks to prepare for assessment.
‘‘It’s promoting a very narrow view of science investigation. Practical scientific investigations should be about investigating and understanding a problem but are actually focused on how to write the correct answer and get the grades.’’
She says her findings are supported by other research carried out at the University of Waikato and internationally.
In Britain, similar findings have led to changes in the way science investigations are assessed in secondary schools.
Mr Keith says these issues have since been well addressed by leading secondary science teachers in partnership with the Ministry of Education.
New achievement standards aligned to the New Zealand curriculum have been developed and a new science teaching and learning guide was issued in December last year.
‘‘Practical science investigation is a focus in the NCEA Science achievement standards. While content knowledge within the sciences continues to be important, the emphasis of the curriculum is on science as a process. The guide encourages teachers to explore broad approaches that involve more complex processes such as classifying and identifying, patternseeking, exploring, inves- tigating models, fair testing, making things, or developing systems,’’ Mr Keith says.
If there is a focus on just achieving grades, it’s not driven by the educational outcomes sought by the Ministry of Education, or by NZQA requirements, he says.
‘‘ Under Tomorrow’s Schools, individual schools are responsible for making their own decisions about curriculum design.’’
Dr Moeed says from this year, investigation will not be assessed in science but schools can continue to assess investigation in biology, physics or chemistry in Year 11 for NCEA level 1. New 1.1 standards for those three subjects have not been written as yet. She welcomes the new curriculum and its alignment, which she says contain ‘‘ great ideas’’ but says if teachers are not provided with professional development, ‘‘they’re highly unlikely to happen’’.