Talking Point

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki
Science communicator and author

Catering for natural scientists

Primary teachers tell me that once they get something going with kids it works well but they don’t know what to start with.

Kids are natural scientists. Science is not a bunch of facts like how high Mt Everest is or how deep is the deepest ocean. Science is a dynamic process of trying to understand the universe, which is always changing.

I go to primary schools and the kids are open and will ask anything. Not so at high schools. We need a dedicated science teacher in schools so they know what pathways to take primary kids down, in the same way you need someone who knows how to teach music. Science is about demonstration and you need someone like the Surfing Scientist in every school.

If you can’t achieve that, his website is a good resource. Here’s one to try. Get a flat bowl and fill it with water. Put four different coloured M&Ms in at separate ‘corners’ from each other. As they dissolve watch what happens with the coloured dye. He showed this one to me and I was blown away. Demonstration is best.

In Australia, we are in a phase where education is regarded as an unnecessary and intolerable burden on society rather than as an investment in our future. Until that changes we are not likely to see dedicated science teachers in schools, unless the music teacher goes or the sports program is cut. In Germany degrees are free and in Asia teachers are treated with great respect. Until there is a change in Australia we are not going to do much about getting a dedicated science teacher in primary schools.

Debra Guthrie
Head of Faculty Sciences
St Rita’s College Clayfeld, Queensland

After working in education, in both the private and state systems, I believe that it is important for all students to have the knowledge and skills gained from the study of Science and Mathematics, and it must start at the primary school level. It is important, not just to the individual, but to the nation. A nation that encourages an understanding of scientific issues is a nation that is looking into the future.

It is important for the individual to have an understanding of the world around them and as a civilization, we need to make informed choices in how we care for our world and efficiently utilise its limited resources. As a nation, it is important that we are planning to handle issues of a growing population, coupled with the need for increased productivity and employment opportunities. Hence, we need to ensure that we have the people with the knowledge, creativity and foresight to teach our children, drive research and lead innovation.

Scientific understanding and technological know-how must start in the primary schools and be further encouraged in secondary, guided by teachers who are specifically qualified in the area. Staff being well trained and having a ‘passion’ for science is essential in motivating students.

Sufficient time also needs to be allocated to the science curriculum. However, I do not believe that it should be mandatory to study science subjects past Year 10. Forcing students to study science in the senior years will not increase the numbers of the sort of people needed in science-based positions or continuing into research. We need to support those who want to progress into Science areas by driving funds into programs like STEM and teaching training, and offering better financial assistance to those undertaking research.

Rosa Wilkinson
Principal St Joseph’s School
West Brunswick, Victoria

Last year the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group made a number of recommendations regarding teacher training in Australia. Recommendation 18 of the document Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers stated that “providers equip all primary preservice teachers with at least one subject specialisation, prioritising science, mathematics or a language”.

I agree that primary teachers need to improve their knowledge in the areas of science, maths and language and one effective way would be for them to specialise in a subject when training. However if the aim of this reform is to improve overall student performance in these areas, this strategy alone will not achieve this outcome. Alongside this initiative we need a variety of effective professional learning models in the workplace; this two pronged strategy will build teacher capacity and therefore improve student engagement and outcomes. Extensive professional learning programs conducted in the school, which include regular input from a specialist, an opportunity to trial strategies and peer coaching which includes effective feedback, will produce teachers with greater expertise and confdence in science, mathematics and language.

It is also important to note that the very reason the primary school teacher’s role is a generalist one is because we know that it is crucial for a young child’s learning to develop the skills needed to access, understand and engage with the content of a subject area. While it is important for students to develop strong content knowledge, developing skills is equally, if not at times, more important in the learning process. Therefore in order to fll the knowledge gap which primary teachers may have in particular subject areas, many primary schools already employ specialists to work with both students and teachers. This strategy engages students, but more importantly builds teacher capacity; a strategy which will have greater impact in schools and on students on a long term basis. A specialist science teacher in every primary school – a good idea? R