Students with laptops did better in HSC sciences

Here is an article I wrote recently, published originally in The Conversation.
Laptops did have a positive effect on learning. AAP/Alan Porritt

While there are plenty of reasons why students should be exposed to technology in schools, educational research is yet to produce consensus on the degree to which personal laptops boost learning.

Historically, when researchers examine what makes a difference in education, laptops, and other technology, come way down the ranks. Some educationalists go as far as to describe the use of computers in schools as distractions, plus there are concerns about screen time.

A report from the European Commission which looked at 31 recent “one laptop per child” initiatives from across 19 countries found little or no improvement in learning outcomes. However, recent research which examined a group of Australian schools found laptops did make a positive difference to learning. Not surprisingly, how the laptops were used determined the size of the benefit.

The Digital Education Revolution

In 2008, the then newly elected Labor government began implementing the (subsequently much maligned) A$2.1 billion “Digital Education Revolution”, whereby it was intended that every Year 9 student would receive a laptop over four or five years, thus creating a 1:1 computer-to-student ratio.

For 12 Catholic secondary schools in Sydney this meant that half of the Year 9 students in 2008 received a laptop and half did not. The distribution of who received the laptops was random in terms of socioeconomic status and average performance, having being imposed independently by a federal audit.

This ultimately lead to a dichotomous scenario whereby in 2011 half of the students in these schools sitting for the NSW HSC had been schooled for over three years with 1:1 laptops and half had not.

This created a natural experiment beyond our influence rather than a researcher-designed randomised experiment. This was also quite timely as many principals and education authority directors were wondering what would happen to their exam results.

The effect

We looked at the examination data from the 12 schools to see if the students with laptops performed better or worse in the sciences (our field of research) than those without. We predicted a null result.

To our surprise, when controlling for other factors (socioeconomic status, gender, school type, prior attainment and more), we found that those who had been schooled with a laptop did better to varying degrees and that this was statistically significant in biology, chemistry and physics.

HSC physics students had the most significant gains from laptop use from

In senior science laptops were found to have no effect and the sample size for earth and environmental science was too small to produce a result.

We then found the “effect size” (an approach taken by prominent education researcher John Hattie who gave a score of effect size to every kind of educational intervention so that we may compare them) was much greater in physics than in biology or chemistry. This presented the follow up question – why?

The why

In our follow up paper we investigated why the students with laptops did better, particularly in physics, by surveying how physics and biology teachers and students actually used their laptops.

Interestingly, the physics students and teachers consistently reported performing more “higher-order” activities such as simulations and spreadsheets with their laptops than their biology counterparts, and much than those without laptops.

The biology students and teachers consistently reported more use of “lower-order” activities such as word processing, electronic textbooks and internet searching.

We also scrutinised the NSW HSC syllabuses. Despite both the biology and the physics syllabuses providing identical motherhood statements about the use of technology in their guidelines there were no explicit mandates or recommendations for the use of technology in the biology content, unlike physics where there were many.

Ultimately we found that in HSC biology, chemistry and physics, those students schooled with laptops actually performed better than those without. This effect was much more pronounced in physics which correlated with greater higher-order use as mandated by the curriculum.

The aftermath

There are several repercussions from this research. The findings, as ever, are highly contextual (for these 12 schools; in southwest and south Sydney; in the HSC sciences; in 2011), but we now have some robust quantitative data regarding the use of technology and student academic performance in Australia. The crude data is freely available for anyone to perform their own analysis.

The research also suggests the “Digital Education Revolution” was not as shambolic or a waste of money in all cases, as portrayed in the media . With the NSW HSC syllabuses about to be rewritten, we hope there will be greater consistency in the capitalisation on technology for “higher-order activities” across all subjects.

Five challenges for science in Australian primary schools

Here is an article I’ve just had published in The Conversation. It’s rocked a few boats and there is some robust discussion in the comments.

Five challenges for science in Australian primary schools

Simon Crook, University of Sydney and Rachel Wilson, University of Sydney

Science education has been in the spotlight after federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne recently proposed to make science and maths education compulsory through to year 12.

While this is welcome news, such a proposal needs to include long-term plans for improving the status of science in primary schools and ensuring teachers have the requisite support. Here we outline some of the challenges faced as the new science curriculum is implemented across the country.

The Australian curriculum is not a ‘national curriculum’

Many people in education are somewhat bemused that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s Australian Curriculum is not national.

Every state and territory is implementing the curriculum in their own way. This is most noticeable in NSW. Primary school teachers have to follow the NSW syllabus, which combines an additional “technology” component along with science.

Primary Connections – one size does not fit all

Primary Connections is a program developed to support the teaching of the Australian science curriculum. It has been overtly promoted and endorsed by the Australian Academy of Science plus the science panel on Q&A in 2014, which included Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, Professor Suzanne Cory and Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt. Schmidt even used some of his Nobel Prize money to support it.

Primary Connections does provide a wealth of ideas, activities, background knowledge and safety considerations. However, it also has several issues.

While Primary Connections is free to all schools via the online platform Scootle, many schools are still spending money to get it via the Primary Connections website, to which the Australian Academy of Science website points all those interested.

Primary Connections is essentially just a bunch of PDFs, which is a long way from an inspiring instructive for teachers to get kids interested in science.

Many schools are also implementing Primary Connections in its entirety, which might not be consistent with their state or territory requirements. This will not allow for a personalised journey into scientific inquiry.

In some states, relying solely on Primary Connections would make a school non-compliant with the requirements of the state syllabus. For example, Primary Connections does not cater for the technology knowledge and skills in the NSW syllabus.

Science is a high-anxiety, low-confidence subject for many primary teachers

As a primary school teacher once told us, “primary teachers are expert generalists”. Most lack the training and experience to teach science, and a deep understanding of the subject and experimentation. Many feel under-confident in science.

Teachers spend less time on subjects they’re less confident in, like science.
USArmyRDEcom/Flickr, CC BY

The declines in science participation are longstanding and will have fed into the teaching profession. So, increasingly, teachers will not have studied science at upper secondary school or university. Only around 50% of teachers teaching science in 2013 had received training in teaching methods for science.

There are also issues in secondary schools. One in five teachers in science classes teaches out of their area of specialisation.

The introduction of the new curriculum adds to the challenges teachers face. It may lead some to cling onto any resource they find – even if it does not cover all of the curriculum needs.

Time demands on primary schools

When primary teachers face disruptions due to impromptu assemblies, excursions (reported as causing serious disruption in Australian schools in particular) and extra-curricular activities, they have to choose what to chop from their teaching. This has been demonstrated to impact most on subjects that the teachers themselves are least comfortable with. This is traditionally mathematics, where teachers are under-confident and often have limited content knowledge.

While mathematics is assessed in NAPLAN, there is currently no comprehensive national assessment of science. Thus, despite (or perhaps because of) the new emphasis on science, science is at risk of being the new sacrificial lamb of choice.

NSW mandates that 6-10% of curriculum time is spent on science in primary schools – that’s 1.5 to 2.5 hours a week. There is substantial variation in the time devoted to science across states and schools. Many schools are operating on only one hour a week, which could easily become 45 minutes when you factor in “pack-up time” at the end of the day and other interruptions.

Primary school science teaching survey, 2014.
Author provided

Specialist teachers an unlikely dream

Ian Chubb recently wrote about aspiring to something magnificent with science in Australia. He said:

Every primary school ought to have a science teacher with continually updated knowledge.

This is a noble dream. However, it also raises several issues.

First, there are enough problems recruiting specialist science teachers into secondary, let alone primary schools. And what happens to those students already in school during the hiatus to train up specialist primary science teachers?

Second, in a large primary school, only one science specialist would not be enough. They would not be able to get to every class for the recommended curriculum time. Teaching science, as with any subject, is the responsibility of all primary teachers. With science being somewhat neglected historically in pre-service training, how are we going to train up all of the incumbents?

There are some wonderful primary teachers out there who openly admit they need help with teaching science. However, national, state and school structures currently conspire to make this more difficult and less enjoyable than it should be.

To benefit the national economy, we need to raise the profile of science and develop a long-term plan to nurture it in schools and industry. Educational attainment in science is linked to national economic growth and competitiveness. These high stakes prompted the UK Royal Society to develop a 20-year plan and a follow-up UK government strategy.

Here, Australia’s Chief Scientist has outlined the need for such planning. Central to this is the need to support teachers in schools, because, in the words of Ian Chubb:

… every child needs to love science to thrive.

The Conversation

Simon Crook is PhD Candidate – Physics Education Research at University of Sydney.
Rachel Wilson is Senior Lecturer – Research Methodology / Educational Assessment & Evaluation at University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

‘Parents these days’ are judged too harshly

As the dad of a terrible two year old I found this interesting. This article was originally published in The Conversation.

AUTHOR – John Pickering, The University of Queensland

I need to start with a confession: I’m not a parent.

I am someone who investigates how science can help parents deal with the sleepless nights, the fussy eaters, the sibling rivalry, the intrusive in-laws, and a career that favours fulltime hours.

I certainly don’t know what it feels like to hold your own child in your arms and to see that same child grow to become an independent human being.

I haven’t experienced these things.

What I have experienced, though, is the growing and seemingly widespread view that parents these days aren’t doing a good job – that in fact they’re doing a “crap” job.

Parents are out of touch, we’re told, and too soft. They give in to their kids too easily. They’re over-involved helicopter parents, or under-involved don’t care parents. Or they could be bulldozer or lawn-mower parents, the ones who smooth the way for their child’s transition through life and make life difficult for everyone else in the process.

This is the old “kids these days” narrative but applied to parents.

Has parenting actually changed?

A 2012 study surveyed thousands of English adolescents in 1986 and again in 2006 to determine the extent that parent-child relationships had changed over 20 years.

The study showed that parental monitoring of youth behaviour and parent-child quality time increased from 1986 to 2006. Parents in 2006 also expected more from their children than they did in 1986, including the expectation of being polite.

The authors concluded that their study failed to provide any evidence that the quality of parent-child relationships had declined over time, and that there is little evidence of any decline in parenting across the target population.

This finding corroborates earlier studies which analysed parenting patterns across generations and found that both mothers and fathers tended to spend greater amounts of time in child care-related activities in the 1990s than they did in the 1960s.

So what is different?

The major trend that strikes me about parents today is the appetite for evidence that informs decisions about parenting. Parents want evidence that what they are doing is effective.

They invest time to research whether vaccines work; to find evidence that “breast is best”; evidence that car seat A is superior to car seat B; evidence that certain toys are developmentally appropriate; evidence that the discipline strategies they use are effective.

The costs of having children are also on the rise.

In Australia the costs of raising a child are estimated at anywhere between A$500,000 and A$1 million per child – and that’s just to the point when they leave home.

These costs have doubled since 2007 while household income increased 25%, which is perhaps an indication of why people are having fewer kids these days.

How you parent is important

Years of experimental research are now converging on a very simple, and plainly obvious, conclusion: the way we parent our children has a profound effect on how they develop and go on to contribute to society. Put differently, the specific parenting strategies we use with our children have a direct and significant impact on our children’s life chances and opportunities.

Early family relationships have been shown to have an impact on an individual’s cognitive ability, social and emotional adjustment, health and wellbeing, and involvement in crime and substance abuse.

Recent research has also demonstrated how different parenting styles and strategies influence various aspects of brain development. One study showed how harsh parenting reduced telomere length in the brain (a biomarker for chronic stress). Another demonstrated that, even in environments of poverty, altering the way we parent our children can help alleviate some of the adverse effects of disadvantage and promote better brain development in kids.

A fundamental skill that parents can teach their children is self-control. It’s a skill that allows us to get on with others, to focus and stick to tasks and to be sure to look after ourselves. The importance of self-control at both the individual and community level has been captured in a powerful longitudinal study which found that the level of self-control of children at age 3 could predict their later physical health, substance dependence, financial wellbeing and involvement in crime at age 32.

Nobel Laureate James Heckman, points out that disadvantage is better defined by the quality of the early nurturing environment and the types of parenting that children receive, rather than by the financial resources available to them.

As this evidence begins to make its way into the modern vernacular of parenting, the physical, emotional, financial and intellectual resources that parents are now investing in raising their kids have never been greater.

We need to stop damning parents of today, embrace their appetite for knowledge, and continue to evolve the sophistication and availability of evidence-based parenting strategies.