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A question of culture

Jan Brooks
Policy and program officer for Science, Department of Education and Children’s Services, South Australia

This article 'A question of culture' first appeared on page 23 in EQ Australia Issue One, Autumn 2008, 'Let's teach maths and science'. EQ Australia is a quarterly magazine published by Curriculum Corporation.


Many teachers can describe in great detail the culture of teaching and learning in their schools. But what is that culture and how does it impact on the science education outcomes for our young people, especially in our primary schools?

For the purposes of this article I am using a definition of the culture of science education to be the behaviours, customs and beliefs about science education that drive the teaching and learning of science in a school or broader community, or those that are developed as a consequence of the curriculum structures and pedagogies of a school.

Much has been said and written about a reduction in students’ enthusiasm, engagement and achievement in science in the transition from the primary to secondary years and in many articles and reports the crowded curriculum, outdated curriculum content, and the pedagogies and knowledge of primary teachers have been cited as significant in this downturn.

I will examine some of the cultures that I have observed in primary science education and ask questions about their impact on educational outcomes for the young people in our schools.

Literacy and numeracy

A common attitude among teachers and leaders in primary schools is that literacy and numeracy are the things that count. National testing has made very public the requirements for schools to be seen to support literacy and numeracy outcomes, and indeed principals have won and lost positions based on their school’s literacy and numeracy results. In schools where these areas are seen as paramount to other learning, including science, the culture may be one where what is measurable is what is important and other areas are unimportant or someone else’s business.

Science as a focus area

The 2007 Australian Primary Principals’ Association Charter on Primary Schooling indicated that science is core learning. Many jurisdictions have also indicated that science is a key focus area for primary schools. The reaction from school principals has been mixed. Some have embraced the opportunity to expand and deepen the learning opportunities for science for their teachers and students. Some have cited the crowded curriculum as an issue preventing exploration of science curriculum within their sites. And others have been angry that they are expected to stretch resources, already strained by the need for literacy and numeracy support, to cover another learning area, especially in schools where very little science has been taught in the past and foundational work will be needed to support change. Thus the culture of a school may be one of positive embrace of science, status quo or down right rejection of science.

Parents’ view of what is important

Parents’ views range from the belief that science education in primary schools is of paramount importance, to believing that science should be taught in secondary schools and that it should be the acquisition of reams of facts – perhaps a reflection of their own science education. Parents’ views are powerful drivers of school culture through school councils, participation in classroom activities and other formal and informal interactions with teachers and school leaders. Any teacher, site leader or jurisdiction officer seeking to change the way science is taught and learned in primary schools will need to pay attention to the views of the extended community and work with parents in particular to foster the very best science education outcomes for our young people.

Non-instruction time

Non-instruction time is a right for all teachers in our schools. Some schools seek to support learning in this time through scheduling specialist instruction in subjects such as music, languages, physical education and science. The advantages for science education are that students tend to be taught by teachers who are passionate about science, and may have specialist facilities and training in science. For some students this will be their only exposure to science. But questions about the depth of learning enabled in perhaps 45 minutes a week and the non-involvement of other teachers in reinforcing the learning in science could be asked. And what happens when the specialist teacher moves to another location or retires? Aren’t remaining staff deskilled in their ability to support learning in science? Will those specialist facilities and equipment be quietly locked away and the science room converted to an alternative use. I have seen this happen in quite a few schools. The culture of science education in these schools could be described as non-mainstream and someone else’s responsibility.

Timetabling – school structures

When asking quite a few teachers when they taught science during the week the answer has often been that it is scheduled in the afternoons, when students are restless, and that it will entertain them, and that it might be dropped from the program if other imperatives arise. A common culture in school timetabling structures is that literacy and numeracy tend to be taught in the mornings and other subject areas, perhaps deemed to be less important, are taught in afternoons. The ‘Primary Connections: Linking Science with Literacy’ program has brought science into the mornings in quite a number of primary schools through its integrated approach to primary science education.

Teachers’ knowledge

During a recent conversation about primary science education, a classroom teacher commented that the majority of teachers in our primary schools have an arts or humanities background. Low confidence in teaching science through teachers’ perceptions of their lack of knowledge in the subject is often cited as a reason not to teach science. Perhaps a culture in which it is regarded as being acceptable to learn with students rather than know all facts and skills before them may support higher participation by both teachers and young people in scientific investigations through an inquiry approach.

Events

There are many organisations, both government-funded and private, which offer science events for schools. These organisations offer high quality science experiences, which engage young people, promote career pathways and highlight the importance of science in everyday life. But if the culture of a school is one that uses these occasional events as a major, or often the only, science experience for students, is this promoting science as an entertainment? In schools where the culture is to program events as an integral part of a science learning program the benefit will be multi-fold.

There seems to be little research about the culture of science education. Is this because it is difficult to quantify and therefore to measure? How could researchers know if a program has improved the culture of science education? How is it possible to know that cultural change has improved learning outcomes for young people?

Many providers of professional learning, policy makers and researchers indicate that professional learning is most effective when it is based around site contexts and needs. Perhaps the culture of teaching and learning in a school needs to be taken into account in effective professional learning programs for teachers.

The culture of primary science education is complex and multifaceted. But in all of the examples cited it is the driving force behind the quality of the science experiences offered to our young people.

Key Learning Areas

Science

Subject Headings

Primary education
Science teaching
School culture
Curriculum planning