The State of Junior Science
Education requires constant reflection, in light of the changing demands of the
technological, sociocultural, economic, and political climate; and science education is no
exception. When compulsory education was introduced in Australia a little over a century ago,
people had not yet flown aeroplanes, women did not vote, and there were no talking films.
Since then, as we moved through the vocational education of the masses during the industrial
era and into the information age, our society has experienced massive changes in lifestyle,
employment, communication, the way we handle our finances, science, technology,
understanding of how people learn, and so on. The stereotypical family in which father went to
work while mother stayed at home and did home duties now represents less than one quarter
of the population. A number of school-aged children in Australia are employing digital
technology to earn in excess of $100 000 per annum. It is perhaps rather amazing, then, that
the processes of junior science education, and even schooling in general (Middleton & Hill,
1996), appear to have remained remarkably static.
All is not rosy in junior science education. Overall, there is evidence that the interest and
enjoyment of Australian students in being involved in science activities is decreasing as they
move from upper primary to junior secondary school (Adams, Doig, & Rosier, 1991; Baird,
Gunstone, Penna, Fensham, & White, 1990; Rosier & Banks, 1990; Speering & Rennie,
1996). A similar decline in students' interest in being involved in science has been reported in
the United States (Barrington & Hendricks, 1988; Hofstein & Welch, 1984; Piburn & Baker,
1993; Yager & Yager, 1985). Reasons for this decline include the growing abstraction,
complexity, and difficulty in understanding science, a decline in both academic and social
student-student and student-teacher interactions, increasing uncomfortableness with open-
ended activities as opposed to achieving a single correct result, and disenchantment with the
teaching strategies used in secondary science classrooms (Piburn & Baker, 1993; Speering and
Further, there is a need in Australia for more people to be involved in science (Australian
Science and Technology Council, 1991; Willis, 1990; Wright, 1993), and the interest and
enjoyment of students in being involved in science activities is an important factor in
determining their further participation in science (Fensham, Corrigan, & Malcolm, 1989;
Hofstein, Maoz, & Rishpon, 1990; Rennie & Parker, 1991). There is also a need to improve
both the perception of the broader community about scientists and the broader community’s
understanding and appreciation of the role science plays in society (Cribb, 1991a, 1991b,
1991c; Department of Industry, Science & Tourism (DIST), 1996; Kahle, 1989), although
there is evidence that young people are increasingly appreciating the role of science and
technology in Australia’s future (DIST, 1996; Woolcott Research Pty Limited, 1995), with
television appearing to be playing a significant role in this trend (Lowe, 1993; Woolcott
Research Pty Limited, 1995). According to Layton, Jenkins, Macgill, and Davey (cited in
Aikenhead, 1998), traditional science education does not normally enhance an adults
understanding of his/her everyday world of science-related problems, social issues, or practical
decisions. Negative perceptions about scientists and about the role of science in society are
likely to curtail the further participation of students in science (Harvey, 1995; Purbrick, 1997;
Rosenthal, 1993) and may be a detrimental influence on, for example, the future of students
when they take their role as voting citizens of our nation. In this paper, I share my
deliberations about the desirable nature of Junior Science education.
Let me begin by attempting to dispel what I consider to be some myths in science
Myth 1: The role of Junior Science is to provide preparation for the senior sciences.
I have no qualms about a student who has not studied Junior Science enrolling in a senior
science. The traditional pre-requisite for Senior Chemistry and Senior Physics, for example, is
relevant mathematics. Further, only about one half of Year 10 students in Queensland, for
example, proceed to a senior science (any senior science, including Agricultural Science, Earth
Science, Marine Studies, and Multi-Strand Science) the following year. Teaching Junior
Science as preparation for senior science could alienate nearly one half the population; they
will never study a senior science.
There is no evidence that such preparation is necessary for students who do proceed to a
senior science. Indeed, to the contrary, Sadler and Tai (1997) found no strong relationship
between grades in college physics and taking physics in high school, and exposed the
methodological flaws in previous studies which attempted to conclude otherwise. There has
also been wide discrepancy reported between the skills and knowledge considered by
secondary teachers to be important for success in college science courses and college science
instructors’ views about what is important (Yager, 1986).
Certainly, a rigorous academic Junior Science course could accelerate some students
through their science education. However, in the typical Australian context, such a course
would simultaneously, and needlessly, discourage many more students. What is more, in the
American context, the attitudes reported as important by college science instructors are
significantly more developed in students emerging from science/technology/science (STS)
courses than more traditional, discipline-structured courses (Kirkpatrick & Yager, cited in
Caution is also appropriate if using Junior Science as a selection process for the senior
sciences. Not only is it not a pre-requisite, but, as Woolnough (1995) showed, intending
biologists, chemists, engineers, and physicists differ in what influences and motivates them. It
is therefore difficult to visualise the role of a composite assessment for Junior Science in senior
science selection procedures. Used for selection purposes in the worst possible way,
assessment in Junior Science could be designed to ensure that a large group of students fail! It
is hoped that this practice is no longer occurring.
Myth 2: Junior Science marks the beginning of training for professional scientists.
It is postgraduate studies that prepare professional scientists, although senior sciences can
begin the apprenticeship. Even many graduate students never proceed to becoming a scientist,
moving instead to areas such as journalism, business, teaching, sales, law, and management. If
students want to keep their science-based options open, they are well advised to study both
chemistry and physics during their senior years, but only about 11% of Queensland students
(about 3 students in a class of 28) fit this description. A similar scenario appears likely in other
States and Territories (Dekkers, de Laeter, & Malone, 1986). Presenting Junior Science as a
watered-down academic science course just doesn’t make sense; even our future professional
scientists don’t need such. Who would ever design a school music program, for example, on
the assumption that all students intend to become professional musicians? Fensham (1995) put
it well when, in expressing dismay at how the National Curriculum in England and Wales
showed disregard for the Royal Society’s great vision of Science for Everybody, he concluded
that “every school child in England and Wales will be sacrificed on the altars of the academic
sciences” (p. 28).
Why, then, should all Junior Science students know Ohm’s law or be able to use a bunsen
burner? Anyone purchasing a gas camping appliance can obtain a quick lesson about how to
operate it from store personnel! One can have a nutritious diet without knowing the difference
between protein and carbohydrate and without being able to conduct a chemical test for
starch. It may be valuable that a cellular biologist be able to name the parts of a cell, but why
should every junior science student be asked to memorise this information? One can learn
much basic cellular biology without doing it. This perhaps demonstrates another reason for
declining interest in science among young people, as expressed by Williams (1992) when
reporting a study of public attitudes to science:Students believed that the standard of Australian science was simply lower than anywhere else in the world . . . . How could our youngsters get it so terribly wrong? . . . This appeared to some extent a reflection of their learning process, studying what they saw as outdated and irrelevant issues. (p. 18)Myth 3: Practical work per se is a good thing.
The implication that a large amount of practical work in a science course directly implies
something about the high quality of the course has long irritated me. On the contrary, research
concludes that much practical work is unproductive and contributes little to students’ learning
of, or about, science (Berry, Mulhall, Gunstone, & Loughran, 1999; Clackson & Wright,
1992; Goodrum, 1987; Hodson, 1990; Tasker, 1981). Practical work can often be as
monotonous a diet of activities as swimming routine laps of a pool or practising musical
instruments; and science can be more interesting than this. Hands-on experiences are, of
course, a valuable part of a science course, but they need to be implemented with much care
rather than on the basis that liberal doses of practical work, any practical work, is a good
Myth 4: Students won’t learn unless they are assessed via formal, traditional examinations.
Primary and postgraduate students learn without formal, common, end-of-term (or
whenever) examinations. Imagine the reaction of teachers if funding for their attendance at
conferences was dependent on satisfactory performance on a formal end-of-conference written
test prepared by the conference organisers, on the premiss that without such a test they
wouldn’t learn! Ninety-six percent of what makes a person good on the job is attributable to
factors that do not show up on cognitive ability tests (Wigdor & Garner, 1982).
Is it being too cruel to suggest that much testing in secondary schools represents a display
of teacher power aimed at forcing students to learn things that they don’t really need to learn
anyway? I invite readers to add further myths of their own.
Why Study Junior Science?
What, then, could be a rationale for Junior Science being a desirable element of junior
curricula? Let me suggest four reasons.
Science plays a key role in how we think and, as such, our social and political progress. A
- Science is an important part of our culture and wisdom. Consider, for example, the influence of atomic and evolutionary theory on our thinking, our artistic works, our political movements, and our language. What an impact Galileo’s concept of a heliocentric planetary system made in religious circles (and on himself!).
- Junior Science can allow students to experience “working scientifically,” to appreciate science as a way of knowing, and to see what science has to offer, thus providing a basis upon which students might choose to continue to participate in science.
- Science can help students better appreciate and enjoy the world in which we live.
- Science can help students better participate in social and political choices and better cope with everyday life.
Junior Science program for all students should reflect this rationale.
Desirable Features of a Junior Science Program
A secondary education should comprise a four-pronged curriculum: self-esteem and
personal development, lifeskills training, learning how to learn and how to think, and building
specific academic, physical, and artistic abilities (Dryden & Vos, 1997). In light of the
foregoing discussion, how might Junior Science contribute to such a curriculum? I suggest
that the learning experiences in a Junior Science program:
In the next paper in this series, I will describe an approach to learning which was designed
- be based on constructivist principles, but with aspects of the transmission,metacognitive, and sociocultural models of learning also included. If any one model was a panacea, then surely we would all be using it, with all students, all of the time. I think all learning models have something useful to offer and that advantage should be made of this. A constructivist approach appears to occupy a very satisfactory “middle-ground” position on a continuum between teacher-directed learning and discovery learning, both of which have been shown to fail to guarantee meaningful learning (Bell, 1993; Kerns, 1989; Novak, 1978). What better, though, than a short lecture, to transmit some social knowledge.
- be accessible to all students. However, accessible should not be interpreted as trivial, and hence potentially boring and unrewarding for higher achievers. Provision is needed to challenge higher achievers who often thrive on, for example, the mathematical applications of a topic.
- assist students in learning how to learn and ways of thinking. These are key components of autonomous learning, such an important life skill in our society which continues to change and become increasingly information-rich. Eighty percent of the profits in the computer industry come from products that did not exist 2 years ago and less than 50% of first-year university students are school leavers (D. Spender, personal communication, 1997), probably about one half the jobs in 2010 do not exist now (Middleton & Hill, 1996), and it has been predicted that “by the year 2020 the largest employer in the developed world will be ‘self’” (Negroponte, cited in Dryden & Vos, 1997, p. 68). A well-developed mind, a passion to learn, and the ability to put knowledge to work appear to be the keys to the future, as most people will need to become self-acting, self-learning, self-motivated, self-managers.
- allow the majority of, if not all, students to be successful at their own aptitude levels, thus encouraging the self-confidence desirable to promote autonomous learning. Self-esteem is grounded in positive achievement, and further learning and achievement are grounded in self-esteem; it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
- engage students in useful work only. Students would not, for example, be asked to memorise material that has no use except in school. In explaining how traditional schools consistently fail to motivate students to do useless work and, in the process, turn many students off school in general, Glasser (1998) uses an analogy with the traditional army punisnment of digging holes and then filling them in. However, whereas only troublemakers are punished in the army, in schools all students are asked to do useless work and then penalised, in the form of low grades, or whatever, if they baulk. Teachers should explain why work is useful.
- reflect contemporary issues, incorporating content having social meaning, which allows students to be immersed in human, social, real-life, environmental, moral, and/or ethical considerations. Science comes alive with issues like ozone depletion, how to meet Queensland’s electricity needs, cloning, food irradiation, threatened species, the Chernobyl disaster, and the state of our rivers and forests. In this way, the approach incorporates the thrust of the STS movement.
- cater for individual student differences by having a pedagogical approach with sufficient freedom and flexibility to allow students to be motivated towards taking responsibility for their own thinking, learning, and working styles. It is not possible to cater for every student all of the time, but learning can be made easier, and resistance to learning reduced, by catering for each student regularly during a learning sequence. “Teaching” as if every student learns the same way, which is common in secondary schools, can alienate many students. Orville Wright, one of the first two men to fly, was expelled from school because of bad behaviour, William Wordsworth, the poet, was described before his eighth birthday as a “stubborn, wayward and intractable boy” (Armstrong, cited in Dryden & Vos, 1997, p. 398), and Thomas Edison once said: “I remember I used never to be able to get along at school . . . I almost decided that I was a dunce” (Middleton & Hill, 1996).
- provide opportunities for students to strengthen each of their intelligences (linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal or “social,” and intrapersonal or intuitive [Gardner, 1983]), but also allow assessment to reflect their stronger intelligences. Here, intelligence means the ability to solve problems or create products of value within a cultural setting. Secondary science assessment has traditionally focussed on the first two only of the above intelligences, and history is laden with examples of people who have been unfairly characterised as untalented, on the basis of a limited perspective. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor for having a lack of ideas, the sculptor Rodin’s uncle told people Rodin was a blockhead, and F. W. Woolworth’s first employer said he did not have enough sense to wait upon customers. If we insist on viewing the rainbow of intelligence through a narrow-range filter, we run the risk of incorrectly concluding that some students’ minds lack light!
Future successful adults will need to be resourceful, creative, and flexible, and use many of these different intelligences. We presently have, for example, people who combine science with drama and music as they make audiences aware of the impact scientific discoveries are having, or may have, on society. We also want our future scientists to be creative problem solvers, and exceptional scientists are those who look at the same things everyone else looks at, but see something different.
- allow students to experience “working scientifically,” to appreciate science as a way of knowing, and to see what science has to offer, including the nature of science, the nature of scientific evidence, the limitations of science, and risk assessment.
- integrate enquiry with knowledge and understanding, but also require thinking (logical, deductive, and critical, as well as creative and hypothetical), using and applying, feeling and valuing, and an openness of mind to new data.
- include opportunities for cooperative learning, which in itself is portrayed as a goal. This requires practising social skills which include communication, decision-making, leadership, and conflict resolution, all of which are useful in families, at work, and in other community settings. Speaking convincingly and grammatically, a skill traditionally downplayed, and often neglected, in our schools, is the skill that has the highest payoff in the real world (Glasser, 1998).
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