Editorial: It kind of is rocket science

21:29, Sep 23 2013

Schools dropping science as a compulsory year 11 subject are taking the wimp-out option. A seriously bad one: less a small mis-step for schools than a really big stumble for society.

If, as they complain, the step up from year 10 is just too great and the level of success too small, then the better answer is... anybody?...

(Yes, thank you Gluckman, but let's not see the same old hands...)

Bridge the gap. That's right. Improve the curriculum. Maybe at year 11 itself, or maybe the years leading up to it.

In any case the problem here is not that science is just so intrinsically gosh-darned hard, or that kids nowadays are knuckleheads incapable of learning it.

It's that a recalibration is needed.


Here's where the waving hand of the prime minister's chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman should be acknowledged. He says schools that give up on science when faced with struggling pupils are not doing them justice.

Nobody should content themselves with the conclusion that the smarter kids, or those with scientific inclinations, will opt for science anyway, so making it an elective year 11 subject is no biggie.

Yes, biggie. Because the rewards of sound education in science aren't limited to the benefits derived by our future scientists, or even directly from their work.

What's at stake here goes beyond our nationwide capacity to look to our own upcoming scientists to play their part in the sort of knowledge economy we all need.

Anyone who contends that a basic knowledge of science is less-than-essential nowadays is seriously astray. If anything, a fair grasp of science it's a greater life-skill now than ever it was.

This goes further than people being able to follow climate change, genetic modification and fluoridation issues, or even to derive merriment from the occasional letter to these pages denying evolution.

It's also about teaching our teenagers the ability to experiment intelligently and to learn from it. Problem solving.

In some ways, it's even about protecting one of the most important attributes of youth. New Zealand's Nobel-winning Alan MacDiarmid put it this way: we must respect the childish question. He implored us to teach our children to question relentlessly and to learn from failure.

The way to the frontiers of knowledge was to retain that essential, uncomplicated childlike wonder: "Ask simple, not complicated, childlike questions and work, work, work,work, work..."

That's where his quote ends. He didn't add anything along the lines: "unless it all gets a bit hard."

That's not to say its such a good thing if fat tears of frustration are falling down mid-teen cheeks. The warning from the Secondary Principals' Association of increasing numbers of schools making year 11 science an elective subject should lead to action and it's fitting that the Ministry of Education has set up an advisory group to consider this issue.

It's not about dumbing down the curriculum. It's about improving it. Does anyone seriously want to argue that that's not an option?

The Southland Times