The wrong science debate

Professor Gaven Martin writes:

There has been considerable debate around the intersection of NCEA, mātauranga Māori, and science. But it is the wrong debate.

I would like to offer a different perspective, informed by the review of mathematics education I chaired for the Royal Society of New Zealand and Ministry of Education recently.

So he is an expert in area.

Like many of the significant shifts we have seen in education and NCEA over the last few decades, the current debate is underpinned by slogans and little if any evidence.

First, there should be no doubt that our national teaching of science, technology and mathematics (henceforth just “science”) delivers cruel results.

In 2018-19 our 13-year-olds scored their worst-ever results in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (60 countries); and 15-year-olds had their worst-ever Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results in reading, mathematics and science (about 90 countries).

Since 1994 we have gone from 64% of Year Nine students meeting the international benchmark for Maths to just 53%. For Science we have gone from 73% in 2002 to 63% in 2019.

We have been in both relative and absolute decline for more than 20 years. The economic costs to the nation and the impact on individuals of are truly appalling. Read An empirical portrait of New Zealand adults living with low literacy and numeracy skills, by an AUT study group, and then weep – I did.

By the way, the slogan underpinning declining performance in mathematics is “we (NZ) teach knowledge with understanding and they (everyone else) teach rote learning”. Evidently we don’t teach much at all, while other nations give their children life skills.

But surely the worst thing about our current education system is the way it exacerbates – indeed grows – inequity. The relative performance of Māori and Pasifika peoples in science education is a dark stain on our nation, and we simply must address it.

The current slogan for the NCEA changes appears to be, “Many Māori are disengaged from science because they don’t see their culture reflected in it”.

There is no evidence that such a claim has any bearing on education success rates. 

It’s an assertion made with near religious belief. But as the author says, what is the evidence behind it?

It’s about the way our children are tau​ght, and the knowledge and skills teachers bring into the classroom.

The notion that a curriculum change will lift our under performance is farcical. It is about how we teach.

  • Perceived deficits. Frequently, the cultural background of both Māori and Pasifika students is perceived as a deficit within the schooling system. A recent study found that teacher expectations in New Zealand secondary classrooms were lowest for Māori and Pasifika students. Teachers referred to perceived deficits in home backgrounds and attitudes of group of students by stating that Māori and Pasifika students lacked motivation, goals, aspirations and parental support. Studies decades earlier found exactly the same perceptions.
  • The very strong correlation between socio-economic status, and the quality of teaching (and teacher knowledge of the disciplines, along with their own experiences in science – which they usually do not like teaching). Students in higher decile schools (7-10) are three times as likely to get university qualifications than those from lower decile (1-3)
  • Poor preparation for schooling is identified as lack of ability and baked into a child’s education in perpetuity by our teaching methodologies including de facto streaming practices (slogan here is “student centred learning”, as if any teacher could manage teaching a class with 20 different centres – spread across years of the curriculum).

So focusing on these issues is far more likely to improve performance.

Comments (98)

Login to comment or vote

Add a Comment

%d bloggers like this: