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’’.

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