March 18th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: AUSTRALIAN EXPORTS: Why we need a single desk for wheat

EDITORIAL: Net foreign debt soars towards $500 billion!

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Talentless, faction-torn Labor on the skids

TAXATION REFORM: Governments not facing the important issues

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Australian Democrats, Greens move to restrict religion

SCHOOLS: Science teaching turned upside-down

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The future-eaters / Still more Turkish delight / Paul the train-wrecker is back

POLITICAL IDEAS: The new dark ages that are already upon us

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: Perils of banishing religion from society

CULTURE: Hollywood, religion and C.S. Lewis

RUSSIA: Russia's population implosion

OPINION: AMA and RANZCOG taken to task over RU-486

Attorney-General's 'grave concerns' over national security breach (letter)

Labor's Kevin Rudd on abortion drug (letter)

Anti-life politicians 'a useless commodity' (letter)

Capitalism raises living standards (letter)

BOOKS: SOCIAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT: An Introduction, by C.J. Barrow

BOOKS: Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day 1918, by Joseph E. Persico

Books promotion page

Science teaching turned upside-down

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, March 18, 2006
Australian secondary students are being taught that scientific knowledge is not objective, but is constructed from a class, gender or cultural perspective, writes Kevin Donnelly.

Last year, a group representing Australia's leading scientific bodies signed an open letter arguing intelligent design is unscientific and should not be taught alongside the theory of evolution.

The scientists argued that whereas evolution can be tested, teaching science students that a supernatural being was responsible for creation "would be a mockery of Australian science teaching and throw open the door of science classes to similarly unscientific world views - be they astrology, spoon-bending, the flat-earth cosmology or alien abductions".

Out the window

Unfortunately, for those who oppose ID by arguing that science should only deal with what can be proved or disproved in a rational way, by being tested and open to the rigours of scientific explanation, the horse has already bolted. The reality, as a result of Australia's adoption of outcomes-based education, which includes such fads as whole language, where children are taught to look and guess, and fuzzy maths, where memorising tables and mental arithmetic go out the window, is that Australia's science curriculum is already unscientific.

One of the defining characteristics of outcomes-based education is that learning is no longer based on the traditional disciplines associated with an academic curriculum and the belief that knowledge is impartial and objective. Now, for example, the time available to teach geology may be reduced to accommodate teaching about the environmental damage that mining can cause, a different concern unrelated to basic science knowledge. Applications of science can be given priority over that basic knowledge.

Tertiary academics in subjects such as physics and chemistry lament the way first-year courses have been watered down over time and that school science is more about sociology than teaching the structure of the discipline.

Even Geoff Masters, head of the Australian Council for Educational Research and a strong supporter of experiments such as outcomes-based education, accepts that Australia's approach to curriculum is far from perfect. "During the 1990s, considerable effort went into reform of the curricula for the primary and middle years of schooling, resulting in new state curriculum and standards frameworks," he says. "It is not clear that these efforts have improved levels of mathematics and science performance in Australian primary schools."

As noted by the South Australian academic Tony Gibbons in his book On Reflection, much of Australia's school curriculum adopts a relativistic view where science, instead of being based on an objective view of reality, is considered subjective and culturally determined.

The South Australian curriculum states: "Viewing experiences, ideas and phenomena through the lenses of diverse cultural sciences provide a breadth and depth of understanding that is not possible from any one cultural perspective. Every culture has its own ways of thinking and its own worldviews to inform its science. Western science is the most dominant form of science but it is only one form among the sciences of the world."

The Northern Territory science curriculum adopts a similar approach; described as a "social-constructivist perspective" and one where "science as a way of knowing is constructed in a socio-cultural context".

While the more traditional view of science is based on the belief that there are some absolutes that can be empirically tested - water boils at a certain temperature, the air we breathe is constituted a particular way - the West Australian curriculum also argues that our understanding of the world is subjective and culturally determined: "People from different backgrounds and cultures have different ways of experiencing and interpreting their environment, so there is a diversity of world views associated with science and scientific knowledge which should be welcomed, valued and respected.

"They [students] appreciate that when they make observations, they do so from their own point of view and way of thinking. They recognise that aspects of scientific knowledge are constructed from a particular gender or cultural perspective."

"Dead white European males"

Those familiar with the culture wars in the US, where new-age, politically-correct academics argue that Galileo, Newton and Einstein are simply dead white European males and there is nothing superior or privileged about Western civilisation, will be familiar with the argument.

As noted by Gibbons: "The implication is that Western science is a limited social construction and that other cultural sciences can make up for the limitations of Western science."

In addition to arguing that science is culturally determined, Australia's curriculum embodies a postmodern, constructivist view of knowledge. Constructivism places the student centre-stage by arguing that learners construct their own learning and that more formal, explicit methods of teaching are unwarranted.

Constructivists also suggest that learning is subjective as there is no external reality and each one of us constructs our own intensely personal and idiosyncratic view of the world. The result? Learning is defined as engaging and entertaining students and process takes precedence over content.

On reading state and territory science curriculum, it is also obvious that Australia's approach is based more on teaching politically-correct ideas and values than giving students a rigorous and objective grounding in science as a subject.

Whether Tasmania, the Northern Territory, Queensland or South Australia, science as a subject disappears in favour of so-called essential learnings such as: personal futures, social responsibility, world futures and the inner, the creative and the collaborative learner.

Beginning with the national science statements and profiles, developed during the mid-1990s, and continuing with current curriculum documents, teachers are urged to make science more girl-friendly, environmentally sensitive, contemporary and activity-based.

The combination of ignoring the central importance of Western science, by arguing that it is culturally relative and simply one view of science among many, and defining science by what is politically correct has led to a dumbed-down curriculum.

Scientifically illiterate

As a result, not only are boys disadvantaged, as science activities and tests are now more a measure of literacy skills, in which girls do better, but many teachers and academics argue that standards have fallen and that students are scientifically illiterate.

John Ridd, a retired Queensland secondary schoolteacher, whose PhD thesis examined maths teaching at the secondary level, argues: "Syllabi for both maths and science up to year 10 are long on fashionable educational theory, short on content and are pitched at a low academic level."

Further evidence of low standards is the performance of Australian students in the 1994 and 2002 Trends in International Maths and Science Study. While Australian students always perform above the international average, they are consistently outperformed by countries such as the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Of greater concern is that at the Year Four level, based on a comparison of the 1994 and the 2002 results, Australia's performance remained static and many countries we once outperformed are now above us. Unlike Singapore, where 25 per cent of Year Four students achieved at the advanced level, there is a related concern that only 9 per cent of Australian students achieved at the same level.

Debates about intelligent design and its place in the curriculum are important. Of greater significance is the broader question of how science is taught, or not taught, in our schools and the question of standards.

  • Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Strategies and author of Why Our Schools are Failing.

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