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Post date: Friday, 8 July 2016

What makes for a successful science learner?

In the first of our new blog, Thinking about science education, Ally Bull considers the place of science in a future-focused school curriculum. Ally is a former senior researcher at NZCER and now consultant, with deep knowledge and expertise in science education, future-focused learning and professional learning for teachers.

I’m hoping to start a conversation about the place of science in a future-focused school curriculum. I am putting my developing ideas out into the public arena before I have had time to refine them – to see what happens. For me one of the best things about being a researcher is having rich conversations with colleagues where we bounce ideas off each other. I’m hoping to expand the group of people I can have these conversations with.

The conversations I like most are those where we ask questions that are more about exploring things we are curious about rather than seeking solutions. One of the things I am really curious about is how school science might prepare students to thrive in complex, uncertain times. Will doing more of what we have always done be enough or could it be time to re-think the role of science in the curriculum? What might school science look like if it really did contribute to “building creativity, innovation and increased critical science literacy?” Do we even need science in the curriculum? What might we gain and what might we lose if we dropped science off the list of essential learning areas?

Over the last couple of years I have done quite a lot of work with teachers around primary science. I have run workshops, written resources, given presentations at conferences, and “delivered” professional learning and development in schools. In much of this work I am positioned as “an expert” who comes along to give information that will then be picked up and used (or perhaps not) by teachers. These sorts of interactions rarely result in the type of curious questions and thinking together that nudge us all towards seeing things differently. To me much of the learning that occurs is “informational” rather than “transformational” – it’s about adding new bits of information to existing mental models, rather than expanding our mental models. There’s more of a focus on what to do next week rather than on why we do what we do and how it might be different.

Teachers often tell me there isn’t the time in their over- busy lives to stand back and take time to think about the big picture. (Each time I go into a school staff room and see the term planner packed with events I am vividly reminded of this reality – and I feel a sense of exhaustion just reading the plan!) However, the more time I spend in this space, the more convinced I am that any tool, resource, or idea is only as good as the mindset of the person using it. If we really want to transform science education then we have to make time to think together – with people who are different from ourselves. Sometimes it’s necessary to provide some distance from the present just so you can see what you are swimming in.

In this first blog I encourage you to think about science in the school context as you experience it. What, in your opinion, is necessary for students to succeed in science? To get you thinking I am starting with the responses of some young people to this same question. They  are in their mid twenties, currently working in science-related fields and have been part of Competent Learners, NZCER’s longitudinal study, since they were very young children. They all went to different schools.

If you are enthusiastic about science you can be successful. It takes time and effort and you have to be enthusiastic to put in the time and effort. Anyone who puts the time and effort into it could succeed. I’m not an A student but I don’t think it mattered at the end of the day. 

Science is a more academic subject than some – you need to concentrate and study a lot. There’s a lot to remember – you have to work hard. You can really struggle with a concept and then someone says something or it is explained in a certain way and then everything just falls into place. Asking questions – and perseverance are important.

The teacher making it relevant is important. Students just need to be interested. I don’t think you need to be particularly smart – just interest really. At secondary school if people thought they were dumb they thought they couldn’t do science or maths.

To succeed in science you have to study, to listen, just to get through.

A lot of people feel like they don’t have a shot at it. A lot of people aren’t good at it immediately so they decide they won’t be able to do it. They give up. With perseverance more people could do it– you just have to keep going at it. If you spend 4 or 5 years at anything you are going to be OK at it. You don’t have to be able to do it immediately to be a reasonable scientist.

These responses seem to be saying that science at school is a lot of hard work and is really only for some students. When I think about these responses I’m reminded of what Jonathan Osborne in Science Education for the Twenty First Century called the foundational fallacy.

“This is the fallacy that because scientific knowledge itself is difficult and hard won, learning and understanding science requires a similar process where the student's knowledge and understanding are assembled brick by brick, or fact by fact. As a consequence only those that reach the end ever get to comprehend the wonder and beauty of the edifice that has been constructed.”

 I wonder whether science education that is thought about like this can also build innovation, creativity and critical scientific literacy – an explicit focus of  Nation of Curious Minds. Certainly one of the young people interviewed didn’t think there was much connection between school science and creativity and innovation.

I didn’t do anything innovative in school science - just followed what the teachers told us. 

What might we need to do differently? In my next blog I will be inviting a discussion around the role of certainty/ uncertainty in school science.

Ally Bull


I absolutely think being interested and engaged is really important for students to succeed. I also thing science being relevant is important. Plus community involvement / engagement - if their parents don't have a high opinion / interest in of school science how will their kids? However that's not the whole story - I see plenty of kids enthusiastic about science at primary level that lose that enthusiasm as they get older. And the kinds of science they are enthusiastic about are necessarily representative of real world science in action. As teachers we have to 'sell' science to them and the skills of science not just the whizz bang aspects. Enthusiastic science teachers also have to help their colleagues understand what to teach their students. There isn't one thing that will determine if students will be successful or not - it relies on lots of different sectors working together.

I've read the blog with interest and feel this is the critical passage and offers the most challenge to Primary Science : "To me much of the learning that occurs is “informational” rather than “transformational” – it’s about adding new bits of information to existing mental models, rather than expanding our mental models".

I think you have hit the nail on the head, changing or modifying mindset is the key to transforming science education. Traditionally science has been taught around adopting more of knowledge based approach with the focus on science knowledge rather that the skills and scientific processes of being a scientist. If we are to reignite the wonder of science amongst teachers we need to supporting them in understanding more about how science can be explicitly used as a lens for learning across the curriculum ,it doesn't always need to be another area to teach.Students come to school already having lots of ideas and thinking about their world it is up to us as teachers to continue this wonderment ,not quash it by taking away opportunities to think and wonder and filling their buckets with too much knowledge. That is why I love the nature of science strand, such an undervalued strand . Our students need much more talking,observing, engaging and investigating in science and then they will have developed some of the skills to help them learn and use new scientific knowledge purposefully .

I think we (most science teachers) approach teaching science the wrong way around, and it is highlighted by the comment by the last student in the blog..."we just followed what the teachers told us". We need to think of teaching science with the Golden Circles Simon Sinek models We need to start with Why we teach science, then How. What we teach comes last. The most important part of Sinek's model is that every teacher of science in this country needs to be able to clearly articulate why learning science is a good idea and why they teach it. For me, I like the way that science can provide explanations for phenomena that happen in the world and it provides me with a framework with which I can gather information to help solve questions and that when I follow that framework, it gives me certainty about that information. The reason why I want to learn science (because we are always learning science, even when we also teach it) because I can add it to information I already know, and it enriches my understandings. I can still have wonder and amazement without knowing all the parts to a science phenomena that is a mystery to me. The reason I teach science is because it is a career in which I can be a scientist and I love sharing that excitement with my students.

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