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ScienceWise - Sep/Oct 2008

High marks at high cost?

Article Illustration
Sean Perera

Do syllabus pressures get in the way of good teaching?

The chilling tale of the sinking of the Titanic, the physics of Olympic swimming, or a brief interlude to critique Pirates of the Caribbean are among devices teachers might use to lift a junior high school lesson on the physics of buoyancy.

However, many school teachers faced with heavy science syllabi, large class sizes, inadequate teaching and laboratory resources, and pressure to get exam scores up, are perhaps not getting as many opportunities as they would like to communicate classroom science in this way, says ANU postgraduate student Sean Perera from the Centre for Public Awareness of Science (CPAS). He fears that the upshot could be an exodus of students from science.

"Recent studies show that students in secondary school are losing interest in science. Fewer are opting to study science for the HSC and later at university."

The problem, expected to have big economic and social ramifications, has been blamed on the impression lower secondary school students get of science.

"The problem is not in primary school," says Perera, a microbiologist who did his undergraduate studies in India and his Masters degree in Sri Lanka. "Students are given the freedom to play around and experiment, but as soon as they start secondary school, they are not allowed to learn science that way. Science becomes textbook oriented and exam focused, and they don't like it anymore."

Many schools are forced to adopt the old-fashioned transmission method of instruction, he says. "To cover the extensive syllabus, the teacher has to stand in front of the class and just recite information."

A lesson on buoyancy would typically focus on an illustration of Archimedes' Principle with a force vector diagram, lifted from a textbook, explaining why a lump of wood might float rather than sink.

Although the transmission method is efficient in getting exam scores up, it makes it difficult for teachers to do what they do best; expose students to the excitement of scientific discovery - an experience that would motivate many to stay with science.

"The biggest problem is time limitation," says Perera. "Teachers are encouraged to reach for results, or outcomes. If schools are not producing enough students with high marks in science who go on to study science at university, it becomes difficult for principals to justify expenditure on science," he says. However, high marks could carry longer-term costs.

"There is a strong need for students to learn science in an inquiry based way," Perera says. "Many teachers like to teach through inquiry and exploration, but they don't have the luxury of time or the resources."

Perera is investigating ways to stem the tide. He is evaluating the impact of science communication training in professional development courses run by CPAS for science teachers. The workshops are held around Australia and overseas, including in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. They focus on topics covered in the Years 7-10 curricula.
His results so far suggest that teachers buoyed by effective ways to communicate science are more adventurous in their teaching methods, coming up with their own creative ways, such as engaging examples and demonstrations, to get the science and the scientific method across.

"If they are structured well and have effective ways of communicating science, these workshops could empower teachers to teach science in more exciting ways," says Perera.

Teachers in Sri Lanka, for example, adapted a demonstration on the chemistry of fats and detergents by substituting coconut milk for cow's milk, he says. "The teachers became confident enough to play around with the science."

He wants to see schools reduce their reliance on textbooks and teaching guides, and give their students more practical experience. A good teacher is far more than a walking encyclopedia, he or she has the power to inspire youngsters to become all they can be.

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