Science in New Zeland Schools

Michael and Christine Fenton

Science and Religion - why there is no conflict...

Research in your school? YES, there is a place for research...

NCEA kills Science? Reading rather than doing Science; NCEA Science errors

What is Science?

As an infant repeatedly pushes a toy from its high chair she observes a pattern - everything falls downward. Though she may not realise it, her mind is attempting to build a model of the universe. As she learns to walk she stumbles and again confirms the model. Then one day she releases a helium balloon at a party and is surprised when the balloon does not drop. Her ideas have been challenged and need to be revised to account for the way the balloon drifts up into the sky...

Sir Karl Popper (1) encourages a similar approach in the search for scientific knowledge. Old or young, male or female, we first must have a clear idea of what scientific knowledge is before any experimentation is possible. Scientific knowledge starts with problems, both theoretical and practical. It is the search for objectively true explanatory theories.

"A theory or a statement is true, if the state of affairs described by the theory corresponds to the facts - to reality."

It is not the search for certainty. To err is human; for even with the greatest care, we can never be quite sure that some errors have not eluded us.

This leads on to trials and experiments and the elimination of errors by criticism. Sir Karl reminds us that any idea may be put forward to explain how the world works as long as it is testable. This is what the post-graduate student finally gets to experience. The elimination of errors by criticism comes by making public your findings and thereby subjecting them to peer review. We do not have to wait until we are certain that we are correct. Others will accept our idea if it has good explaining power. We then hold onto that explanatory theory until we make some observations that demonstrate it is false or we develop another theory with greater explaining power.

It is no surprise then that "Question Everything" has been the motto the Nexus Research Group since it was founded in 1997. Whether it was challenging current theories on evolution or perfecting a procedure to isolate human DNA, the students have always been encouraged to experience first hand what good science is all about. Now expanding the areas of interest, here is a unique opportunity for students to develop the skills required for life-long learning; problem solving, critical thinking, technical skills, communication skills and self-reliance.

Some questions cannot be answered by using a scientific approach. Religious beliefs generally depend on FAITH. Theses beliefs, unlike scientific beliefs, are NOT either accept them or you don't. In this way Science and Religion are not necessarily in conflict. They deal with completely different views of the world around us.

(1) For more information see NZ Science Review Vol. 48 (3-4), 1991 p56-66

Is there a place for research in schools?

Michael writes:

To be honest, when we started in 1997, most Science teachers I worked with or knew did not believe a child could contribute anything useful or original to the Scientific community. It seemed that teachers are the source of all knowledge and it is they who fill the empty heads of their students. Students can not know more than the teacher. Besides, schools are schools, not research labs.

What many of those teachers seemed to forget was that research skills are part of the New Zealand curriculum. The so-called "experiments" carried out in class were really only demonstrations the teacher had designed. And if they had bothered to find out, many students would have politely told them they were desperate to do something more meaningful than the, in their words, "boring" demonstrations and assigments they were forced to do. The reason they were bored is simple; the students have to find out about topics they have no real interest in or answer questions the teacher had asked, not them.

For those of us who are teachers, it isn't always our fault! Often our options are limited by NZQA assessment tasks. Ironically, in contrast to the statements from the Minsitry of Education and NZQA, with the introduction of NCEA our options seem to be even more limited!

Has the NCEA killed experiencing real Science in schools?

I have been a member of the local Science Fair organising committee for many years. With the introduction of the National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) I have seen a significant decline in the time spent doing authentic science in High Schools. Coinciding with the introduction of NCEA in 2002, very few senior students enter projects into the Fair. It appears that for years now many schools do not place much importance in the practical nature of science, and many colleagues blame the crowded curriculum robbing them of time to pursue practical investigations. Atomising knowledge into Achievement Standard chunks of learning means many students never see how knowledge and experiences from ALL subjects contribute to meaningful knowledge that lasts.

The Nexus Research Group model of learning can make up for the deficiencies of foucusing solely on assessment via the NCEA, and with some planning, can compliment existing classwork and assessment tasks. In fact, with the introduction of the new curriculum, this approach is justified further and can permit students to develop many of the key competencies expected.

It was hoped that students would gain a better understanding of the nature of science; that failure is common, that failure is okay and can be learned from, that science involves ideas that can be tested, and that lots of learning can come from a chance to play and investigate the world just for curiosities sake. Authentic learning was the focus for us all.

Rather than "just in case" learning (write a report about this case it is useful one day) the NRG students volunteered to take part in "just in time" learning (pick your own topic, ask your own questions and find the answers if they exist). The students discovered that to really understand a topic they had to learn a little bit about many different but connected disciplines. Through seminars and reports the students became better communicators, better question writers, and could narrow in on one particular question they wanted answered. They also developed patience, persistance, an ability to see relationships (eg, SOLO taxonomy) and higher thinking skills (eg, Bloom's taxonomy, including affective and psychomotor skills). It became a true research group once the students produced University post-graduate style publications and attended science conferences. They had bitten off a small part of a larger problem and became thoroughly knowledgable about it.


  • YES, there is a place for research in schools - it is up to you as the teacher to decide how far you want to go - or should it really be up to the student to decide?
  • YES, "just in time" learning is more meaningful for the student and can meet the requirements of NZQA assessment tasks - the trick is how you merge the two!
  • YES, it is OK for the teacher to say "I don't know" - we forget students can teach themselves; we are really just guides and time managers.
  • YES, there is still a lot of stuff in science and technology we do not know or understand. There is plenty for everyone. Let your students have their own little piece of a puzzle to play with.
  • YES, this type of research will lift their marks across many subject areas, not just Science. We have seen this many times with students of all ages and abilities.
  • YES, anyone of any age or ability can work like this - you just pick a very small piece of a larger problem. The student then has a task suited to their ability and interests. Make them part of a team with one aspect their sole responsibility.
  • YES, if you carry out the work with appropriate resources and equipment you can get your results published. Work with experienceed researchers as mentors for advice.

Find details about Michael and Christines qualifications and experience here...

Written on a research lab wall at Massey University:

He who knows what he knows not is a child; teach him

He who knows not what he knows is asleep; wake him

He who knows not what he knows not is a fool; shun him

He who knows what he knows is wise; listen.

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