The Ministry of Ignorance strikes again

Dr Michael Johnston
Opinion Piece
29 June, 2023

New Zealand has produced some impressive scientists during its short history. Ernest Rutherford, dubbed ‘the father of nuclear physics’, must surely be foremost among them. But there are many others – Alan MacDiarmid, William Pickering and Ingrid Visser, to name a few.

Writing in the New Zealand Herald last week, Dr Andrew Rogers, Head of Chemistry at St Peter’s College, argued that “science education in New Zealand is in decline.” He’s right to be concerned. As Dr Rogers pointed out, New Zealand has fallen substantially in PISA science since testing began in 2006.

The Ministry of Education has recently produced a draft of the ‘refreshed’ curriculum for school science. But calling this document a science curriculum is far too generous. It is a blueprint for accelerating the decline of science in New Zealand.

Central concepts in physics are absent. There is no mention of gravity, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, mass or motion. Chemistry is likewise missing in action. There is nothing about atomic structure, the periodic table of the elements, compounds or molecular bonding.

These are key concepts for any student wanting to study the physical sciences or engineering at university. The universities will have to prepare themselves to teach science from scratch. If the Ministry gets its way, our schools will no longer be doing it.

What, you might be wondering, does the draft curriculum cover?

It seems that everything in science, from early primary school through to Year 13, will be taught through just four contexts: climate change, biodiversity, the food-energy-water nexus, and infectious diseases.

These are all important topics, but they do not comprise the general science education that is our young people’s birthright. In fact, to understand these things with any degree of sophistication, a solid understanding of basic science concepts and theories is required.  

No doubt Ministry officials think that young people will find these topics attractive. They may be right. But if they are not systematically taught the basic theoretical content upon which study of these matters depends, they will never understand them. Initial attraction will turn to frustration. The likelihood of our best and brightest finding their places on the shoulders of giants like Rutherford and MacDiarmid will be diminished.

School students may well get the idea that these topics are all there is to science. They will encounter them again and again, year after year. There are so many wonderful, intensely fascinating concepts to encounter in the physical sciences – atomic theory, Newtonian mechanics, optics and many more. But, learning under the ‘refreshed’ curriculum, young New Zealanders won’t even know these things exist, much less understand them.

Just as disturbing as what is absent from the new science curriculum, is that the curriculum writers don’t appear even to know what science is. The document reads as if it was written by bureaucrats, not scientists. It opens with a ‘purpose statement’, outlining three overarching things that students are supposed to learn.

The first reads, “science is developed by people being curious about, observing and investigating the natural world.” That is true – curiosity is an important attribute of scientists. Observation and investigation are key elements of scientific methods. But these are not the things that make science unique as an approach to understanding the universe.

What makes science unique is its highly refined, methodical, approach to investigation, linked to the logic of theory testing. The experimental method is preeminent in this regard. But ‘experiment’ is another word that is absent from the Ministry’s new science curriculum.

Next, the curriculum tells us, students will “develop place-based knowledge of the natural world and experience of the local area in which they live.” Once again, the curriculum developers badly miss the mark.

One of the beautiful things about science is that it takes us beyond the local. It takes us to the distant past of the universe, to the infinitesimal and the unimaginably massive. It gives us understanding of highly counterintuitive and breathtakingly strange phenomena. It entices us to tackle audacious questions. What is life? How did the universe begin? How does the human brain work? These are not ‘place-based’ questions, but universal ones.

The third overarching aim of the science curriculum is to exhort students to “bring knowledge from the past for acting now and in the immediate future.” It is hard to know what that means. It is exactly the kind of specious platitude that litters the mission statements of our public agencies. Whatever it may mean, though, it has nothing much to do with science.

In Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four there were four Ministries – Love, Peace, Plenty, and Truth – which respectively promulgated hate, war, scarcity and propaganda. Our Ministry of Education, which seems determined to promulgate ignorance, would be right at home amongst them.

This new science curriculum is still in draft. It is not yet a public document. It was made available to me by a source to whom the Ministry had sent it for feedback. I asked the Ministry if there is any more recent version. An official responded that there is not, but that a new draft will be available for public consultation in August.

We can only hope that, when the new science curriculum is finally published, it is much improved. There is more chance of that if parents and teachers let the Ministry know that they would like the physical sciences still to be taught in our schools. But it is disturbing that the Ministry has produced a ‘science curriculum’ so bereft of essential aspects of science, even in draft.

The Ministry is setting us up to become a scientific backwater. What would Ernest Rutherford say?

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