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JOHN RAINE: The Laws of Science Haven’t Changed

Those of us who were at secondary school in the 1960’s were a fortunate generation. Back then, English grammar was still taught, and we had emerged from primary school able to spell and do mental arithmetic. Many of us were taught a foreign language that became useful in our later lives. Those in science streams beyond Year 9 received a solid grounding in basic sciences. Some even completed Year 13 strongly enough grounded in the sciences to enter Year 2 at university.

Immutable laws of science, mostly developed during the 17th to 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Laws of Thermodynamics and heat transfer, and those relating to electricity and electrical circuits are still as valid today as when they were discovered and proven. They are just science, not “Western” science, they complement observed knowledge and studies of the natural world that date back millennia, and they sit separately from matters of spiritual or cultural belief. Newton’s Laws are indifferent to the Treaty of Waitangi, and no science curriculum should be conflated with cultural learning objectives related to the Treaty, as seems to be the objective of both the Ministry of Education and MBIE through their moves to establish parity between matauranga Māori and world science. Neither should be politicised thus but should simply be respected in their own context, separately and where they overlap.

The draft Curriculum Refresh has received justified heat in the media over the past week. Advocates for the new curriculum either do not understand or have lost sight of the need for mathematics and the sciences to be taught as an integrated body of principles and knowledge that then underpins contextual studies.

The draft curriculum states that science would be taught through five contexts – the Earth system, biodiversity, food, energy and water, infectious diseases and “at the cutting edge”. Cathy Buntting, director of the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research at the University of Waikato, and one of the developers of the curriculum explained to RNZ that “… they will be teaching the chemistry and the physics that you need to engage with – the big issues of our time – and in order to engage with the excitement of science and the possibilities that science offers……… What we are pushing towards with the current fast draft is more of a holistic approach to how the different science concepts interact with each other rather than a purist, siloed approach.”

Dr Buntting has an MSc in Biochemistry but seems to have overlooked the fact that in order to study, do research, or take employment in the important five areas above (energy should in fact be seen as separate from water), students need to be kitted out with an integrated platform of knowledge in physics, chemistry, and biology. In the same way that the NCEA has failed a generation of students since 2003 through allowing mathematics and the sciences to be taught using a smorgasbord topics-of-interest approach, the draft curriculum refresh appears to propose more of the same. Since 2010, AUT (likely other universities, also) has had to offer remedial mathematics and physics classes for students entering Engineering courses. Even with the requisite NCEA credits, students were arriving at university unable to handle basic arithmetic and algebraic operations, and with almost no basic physics.

Do we want to produce another generation of students leaving secondary school with, on average, a poor knowledge of the basics? As it stands, the Draft Curriculum Refresh looks like a high-level conceptual statement for cultural re-engineering in education in New Zealand and is appallingly weak on thinking around solid curriculum content. The proposed curriculum appears to be trying commendably to make science more accessible and interesting, but it will be doing students a disservice to make the learning of a broad base of scientific principles a matter of chance.

My children finished secondary school when the curriculum still enabled New Zealand to stand tall in the OECD rankings. If they were entering the school system today, I would just hope I could afford to send them to an independent school where teaching a sound curriculum is still a priority. If Government persists with the new curriculum, greater inequality will be embedded in our society as privately educated young people move comfortably to more demanding tertiary studies, and those who missed out struggle after secondary school. Let us hope that, either Government drops the ideological agenda behind the curriculum refresh, or this happens through the October election delivering New Zealand a new government.

John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering and held Deputy or Pro Vice Chancellor roles across three New Zealand universities. The views expressed here are those of the writer alone, and not of the universities with which he was formerly affiliated.

This article first appeared on Breaking Views

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