As alchemist Abbott tries to turn coal into gold and professor Pyne pushes phonics, our children’s future is being placed in jeopardy.
A recent report from chief scientist Ian Chubb stated that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations required science, technology, engineering or mathematics skills and knowledge yet there has been a continuing decline in the percentage of year 12 science and maths students over the past two decades.
In 2012 there were 30,800 more students in year 12 than in 1992 but 8000 fewer physics students, 4000 fewer chemistry students and 12,000 fewer biology students than two decades previously. The percentage of students studying advanced and intermediate maths also declined over a similar period.
There is also a significant gender imbalance with boys far more likely to choose maths and science subjects than girls. (Male over-representation in Physics: 28%, Advanced maths: 16%, Intermediate maths: 7.3%, Chemistry: 3.8%)
This has very worrying implications for society.
“People who have a background in science beyond year 10 are more likely to persist in trying to understand issues like climate change, GM crops and coal seam gas than someone who thinks, ‘It’s all too hard, I’m just going to go with what someone else says’,” Dr Lyons, an associate professor of science education at Queensland University of Technology, said.
While Christopher Pyne focuses on phonics and rewriting history, more enlightened minds, those with actual expertise in the area of education, are calling for science and maths specialists in primary schools and better teacher training, support and resources.
John Kennedy, the head of science at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney, said engaging teachers helped spark a child’s interest in science at a young age and helped retain older students in their final school years.
“It’s not that [students] find the sciences or the maths hard,” said Mr Kennedy.
“If the teacher is engaging, wanting to work with the [student], then the [student] wanted to study it the next year,” he said.
Research has found engaging children in science before the age of 11 to 14 was critical to their long-term interest in the subject.
Since 2004, the Australian Academy of Science has run Primary Connections, a primary school science and literacy program that has helped improve teacher quality and been used in 73 per cent of Australian schools.
Primary Connections is based on an inquiry-orientated teaching and learning model. Students use their prior knowledge and literacies to develop explanations for their hands-on experiences of scientific phenomena. Students have opportunities to represent and re-represent their developing understanding. They are engaged actively in the learning process. Students develop investigations skills and an understanding of the nature of science.
Teaching and learning progresses through five phases: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate.
Each unit begins with a lesson that mentally engages students with an activity or question. It captures their interest, provides an opportunity for them to express what they know about the concept or skill being developed, and helps them to make connections between what they know and the new ideas.
Students carry out hands-on activities in which they can explore the concept or skill. They grapple with the problem or phenomenon and describe it in their own words. This phase allows students to acquire a common set of experiences that they can use to help each other make sense of the new concept or skill.
Only after students have explored the concept or skill does the teacher provide the concepts and terms used by the students to develop explanations for the phenomenon they have experienced. The significant aspect of this phase is that explanation follows experience.
This phase provides opportunities for students to apply what they have learned to new situations and so develop a deeper understanding of the concept or greater use of the skill. It is important for students to discuss and compare their ideas with each other during this phase.
The final phase provides an opportunity for students to review and reflect on their own learning and new understanding and skills. It is also when students provide evidence for changes to their understanding, beliefs and skills.
Unfortunately, our Education Minister prefers the Direct Instruction approach.
- DI focuses on teacher control of lesson pacing and content and does not encourage the engagement with student cultural resources, background knowledge and community context.
- It deskills teachers by routinizing their work and downplaying their professional capacity to vary instructional pace and curriculum content depending on the student cohort and context.
- It works through strict tracking of student progress and ability grouping, which research shows can severely disadvantage some students.
- Finally, it places the teacher and child in a rigid relationship where the teacher is always the one with the power and knowledge with limited allowance or recognition of individual and cultural difference. This relationship is not conducive to local adaptation of lessons or content to accommodate community, cultural or individual differences, creativity and innovation in teaching and learning.
Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has been given tens of millions in government funding to implement Direct Instruction in Cape York communities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not been successful despite all the funding, with only 25 per cent of the Aurukun youth of high school age attending school. Many are sent off to boarding school but leave at the first opportunity.
“The communities of Aurukun and Hope Vale report a significant number of disengaged youth of high school age who have returned to community but have not engaged in an education option. These youth participate in dysfunctional behaviour and feel disengaged from mainstream society and also from their own communities.”
When we combine this didactic approach with the demise of the Gonski reforms, the attack on TAFEs, huge cuts in funding for research and scientific bodies, and the proposed deregulation of university fees, Abbott’s mantra of “Jobs and Growth” is hard to take seriously.
And what sort of an example are they setting when this government ignores all science, all fact-based evidence, to remove a carbon price, put a ban on wind turbines, and advocate more coal-burning.
Instead of anticipating the skills needed for the future, Abbott would rather issue 457 visas than train Australians. Instead of investing in research by the CSIRO and universities, he would rather give money to big pharma. Instead of needs-based funding for education, he would rather fund elite private schools. Instead of funding TAFEs he would rather give accreditation to dubious private colleges.
With a Prime Minister who is a puppet for his donors, an environment minister who measures his success by how many coal mines he can fast track, and an education minister who prefers ‘chalk and talk’, the fate of our children is in the hands of Luddites.