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Effective pedagogy for science

Science teachers have a dual responsibility:

  • to nurture future scientists
  • to develop broad scientific literacy in students.

Scientific literacy is the capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity.

(OECD, 2001)

While this has been true for some time, the need for scientists and for scientifically literate students is now greater than ever. To achieve these ends, we need to examine how we teach, and how we can better engage our diverse students in science learning.

Dual objectives of science education

In his report Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century, the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor stresses the need for the population to be better educated in science.

… there are at least two distinct objectives of science education at secondary school – the first is that of pre-professional education which is traditionally for careers needing science, usually arranged around mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and perhaps general science. The second is the citizen focused need for all children as they mature to have a clear understanding of the complex world of science that they will confront as citizens over the next 60 years of their lives.

(Gluckman, 2011, page 5)

The second objective is perhaps the more challenging of the two. For students, developing scientific literacy is a less immediate or tangible goal than preparing for a career that requires science knowledge. For teachers, it involves realising the potential within the nature of science strand of The New Zealand Curriculum.

Desirable outcomes from science teaching and learning include:

  • building students’ scientific literacy so that they are capable of participating as informed and contributing citizens in science-related debates and issues
  • developing students’ skills in nature of science to effectively engage in scientific thinking and knowledge of science as part of their learning
  • preparing students for a career using science.

Learn more:

Characteristics of effective science pedagogy

While all students take science as a subject in years 9 and 10, many will continue in senior science courses only if compelled by school policy or if the programmes teachers design are interesting and/or relevant to their lives and aspirations.

Learning programme design

For students to understand that science programmes can be interesting and relevant to them, teachers may need to break down stereotypes about science, those who take science, and those who should consider science-related careers. In the past, too many students concluded that science was not for people like themselves.  For a long time, stereotypical attitudes kept many women from seriously considering science; today, similar attitudes continue to keep many Māori and Pasifika young people from pursuing science studies.

Learn more about young New Zealanders who have pursued careers in science: Lab rats: NZ's rising science stars

Teachers also need to review all aspects of teaching and learning, from programme design and choice of contexts through to the safety and inclusivity of learning environments and the nature of teacher–student interactions.

The following sections highlight several crucial aspects of teaching and learning. You could use them for personal reflection. Better still, you could use them as the basis for a series of science department/faculty professional learning sessions.

Effective teaching in science:

Effective pedagogy for science – Questions

These reflective questions will guide you and provide a basis for discussion in your department:

  • Practical inquiry in science:
    • Is this a key consideration when you are planning?
  • Assumptions and expectations about students:
    • Do they open up or shut down opportunities for students to engage in science learning?
  • Values, cultural diversity, inclusion:
    • How do your science programmes and courses address diversity through quality teaching and learning?
  • Making learning in science relevant and meaningful:
    • What local community resources do you access to create engaging learning experiences?
  • Nature of science:
    • How can you design teaching and learning experiences that build out of the nature of science strand rather than through science topics? For example, starting from a socio-scientific context such as wind power generation rather than starting with ‘energy’.
  • Local contexts:
    • How do students engage with their immediate environment? Is this part of your schools’ learning plan? If not, how could you incorporate it? For example, consider using the local stream ecosystems rather than travelling 30 minutes to a forest.
  • Shared learning experiences:
    • How are opportunities provided in sciences? 
  • Science pathways:
    • How could redesigning science courses better meet the needs and interests of different students and lead to vocational pathways opportunities?

Additional readings

Last updated November 2, 2015