Want to kill creativity in the sciences? Check out the new HSC Syllabus for Chemistry – it’s addition of ‘important and completely relevant content knowledge’ and back to basics approach is going a long way to achieving that goal. I’ve never been comforted by the phrase back to basics in education.
Let’s step into the Way-Back-When Machine: it’s going to hurtle us back to a time when we all walked 6 miles to school in the snow – barefoot mind you. We’re on our way to The-Good-Old-Days.
1999: we’re partying and generally having a sick one – although not to the extent that I’m sure Prince would have wanted but we were just turning 18 so we were only getting started down that road. I was sitting my final year of high school – in NSW, Australia that is the Higher School Certificate – and as I look around each period I note that I’m sitting in full classrooms. Loads of other students in their lemon yellow polo shirts (Polo style, not the brand). But now we walk into my Chemistry & Physics classes (not Biology – we were led to believe that was the easy science). They look different than the others.
The first thing you notice is that they are smaller. Smaller than the other subjects by quite a bit. That’s fine though, Science is a subject area that has always been sold as one of the harder and more academic subjects. While I think it couldn’t be further from the truth (for example, PDHPE do significant biology and I would argue much more useful biology if you had any interest in the human sciences) that is the way they are seen – and still are today. The other thing you notice is that the classes skew very heavily towards the half of the population in possession of a Y chromosome. This was in spite of the fact that my Chemistry teacher, Leah Mowatt (and the greatest teacher I’d ever had) was a young female teacher who was both inspiring and engaging.
The pre-2001 syllabus for those studying was a brutal affair as I remember it. That’s fine – we sort of knew what we were getting into. But what made it bearable was I had excellent teachers in both of those senior sciences who whenever we griped and complained could answer the question “But why do I want to know this?” The answer, by the way, was never “it’s going to be on the test”.
I was encouraged to learn about how the chemistry worked in a broader context and because of that it stuck with me. This was not something that happened in Physics at all. I still loved both of those subjects (although not equally at all) but I was always going to. What did happen was an attrition that you don’t tend to see in some other subjects and once Year 12 started it kicked into overdrive.
Jump forward a couple of years and we hear talk of the ‘feminised curriculum’, which I dispute as nonsense anyway. At best this was a marketing term utilised to sell to teachers that the hard sciences could now be undertaken by the fairer sex. While I’m on my soapbox, I can see that this was even necessary. I still know teachers today who talk about how Biology is more suited to girls – although they’re ageing out of the system mostly. By the way, the more young women moving into science the better. Science is enough of a sausage fest as it is.
What was done in the curriculum is context was added. That context that made my HSC Chemistry experience so worthwhile. We have prominent people in the sciences now talking about how students aren’t turning up to university with the requisite understanding to be scientists. So teach them. That’s your job. Of course, they aren’t turning up at 18 fully formed and ready to roll in the lab. Sorry to say, I was the generation who had the curriculum from the ‘good old days’ and we weren’t ready either. In fact, what I couldn’t do that really hurt my studies was write a proper long response. My literacy wasn’t up to scratch. The HSC Science syllabus didn’t allow for it. It was too crammed – something I now understand as a teacher in my 10th year of teaching.
Still, teachers are obsessed with content knowledge because that’s what is forced upon us. The older syllabus was much denser. So many older concepts have been added back in and not much if any has been taken away. That which was taken away were the things that gave context.
In short who cares about coordinate covalent bonds. Well, I do. But why should you aside from the fact that it explains why Ozone is able to form in the upper atmosphere and protect all life on Earth? Who cares about the equilibrium that exists between dissolved carbon dioxide and gaseous carbon dioxide? Well, I do. But why should you aside from the fact that it is an equilibrium that is dependent on temperature and that the hotter it gets the more carbon dioxide leaves solution and the more that leaves solution the hotter the atmosphere gets and then more leaves solution and … this equation ends in a horrible feedback loop that is pretty scary.
On top of this, what students will really miss out on are the skills. The communication skills. The research skills. Hell, even the experimental design skills. If you think it is core content knowledge that makes you a valuable scientist then you are absolutely wrong. The key is creativity and the ability to ask a great question.
I was a scientist. I worked for CSIRO. You know what I wasn’t allowed to rely on? It was the core content knowledge. That had to be looked up. I had to check my work. You can’t rely on memory. Here’s the thing – if you’re working at the pointy end of science then you’re destroying that old content knowledge anyway (hopefully).
My last concern (not really but we’ve hit a thousand words and most people have given up – I’ll stamp my feet in frustration later on for sure) is the elitism that comes with a ‘harder’ curriculum. I don’t think my function as a Chemistry teacher is to turn out great chemists of the future. I believe my function as a Chemistry teacher is to turn out young women and men who are able to ask questions that can be tested. That are able to investigate claims when made to them – and not in a lab but in their everyday lives. If some go off to become scientists then sick as; they’ll have some skills that they can build upon.
If I’m wrong, let me know – maybe I’ll even argue back.