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.

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A new website shows how global warming could change your town

By Leanne Webb, CSIRO and Penny Whetton, CSIRO

What will Australia look like in 2050? Even if we significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as under an intermediate scenario, Melbourne’s annual average climate could look more like that of Adelaide’s, and Adelaide’s climate could be more like that of Griffith in New South Wales.

These changes are captured in a new Climate Analogues tool released by CSIRO today. It’s not just capital cities – you can find climate analogues for more than 400 towns around Australia, under various climate scenarios.

Eastern Australian coastal sites could see a climate shift to those currently typical of locations hundreds of kilometres north along the coast. Sydney’s climate could resemble that of Port Macquarie, and Coffs Harbour’s climate resembling that of the Gold Coast (by 2050; intermediate emissions).

Towns in major inland agricultural areas could have climates typical of inland areas further north, such as Griffith’s climate shifting to that of Cobar, a town around 300 km north (by 2050; intermediate emissions).

The change in climate is much greater by 2090 and under a high emissions scenario. In this case Melbourne’s climate could then be more like that of Dubbo, Griffith’s more like that of Bourke (600 km away), Sydney’s more like Brisbane, and Coffs Harbour’s could be like Mackay.

Sydney could end up with a warmer climate like Brisbane’s.
Andrea Ferrera/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Australia’s climate future

In January this year CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology released updated projections for Australia’s climate in the 21st century. All regions in Australia are expected to get warmer with, in general, inland regions warming at faster rates than the coast.

By 2030, Australian annual average temperature is projected to increase by 0.6-1.3C above the climate of 1986-2005 with little difference between emissions scenarios.

By 2050, the warming is around 0.7-2.1C for low emissions, 1.0-2.5C for intermediate emissions, and 1.5-3.0C for high emissions (the ranges expressed here indicate results from different model simulations).

By 2090, Australian average temperature is projected to increase by 0.6 to 1.7C for low emissions, 1.4-2.7C for intermediate emissions, and 2.8 to 5.1C for high emissions.

Projections for rainfall vary across the Australian continent, where southern areas are expected to get drier, while for northern areas rainfall may increase, decrease or remain the same in future. The magnitude of rainfall change is larger later in the century and for high emissions.

Coffs Harbour in NSW could end up with a climate like Mackay’s in Queensland, a thousand kilometres further north.
Luc Jamet/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

What will your town’s climate be like?

One way of showing this change is by using climate “analogues”. These are places that currently experience the climate another place will see in the future.

Using analogues we can explore questions such as “What will the future climate of Melbourne be like in the year 2050 under a high emissions scenario?” or “What will Perth be like in a climate that’s 2C warmer and 10% drier?”.

These analogues are built on the most up-to-date set of climate projections for Australia, and use the approach we developed for a previous discussion about Australia’s future climate.

To find analogues, we first need to specify what climate scenario we’re looking at. In the tool these scenarios include:

  • three time periods (2030, 2050, or 2090)
  • emissions scenarios (low, intermediate, or high)
  • differing regional results from global climate models (best or “least hot and wettest”, worst or “hottest and driest”, and most likely or “maximum consensus” of models).

Alternatively we can specify an amount of temperature and rainfall change, regardless of year, emissions or climate model results, and let the website generate matching towns.

The website then finds a matching town based on average rainfall and average maximum temperature.

For example, in 2090, under high emissions and maximum model consensus, Melbourne’s future climate matches the current climate in Dubbo, Muswellbrook or Cowra in NSW, Warwick (Qld.), or Gawler (SA) for the climatic characteristics considered by the tool.

Some of Melbourne’s climate analogues for 2090 under a high emissions scenario.

Watch out for the seasonal rains

This simple approach to analogues works well with current and future climates which are broadly similar in annual maximum temperature and rainfall distribution. However, it is less appropriate when rain at the different locations falls at different times of the year.

For example, by only considering annual rainfall totals, the Sydney climate could match that of current day Perth by 2090 under an intermediate emissions scenario and the hottest and driest case.

However, unlike Sydney, Perth gets most of its rainfall in winter, so it doesn’t make a good match for Sydney. By using the climate analogues’ “rainfall seasonality” adjustment we can set how much rain falls in the summer.

Similarly, temperature varies with the seasons in different ways for different places, due to differences in latitude and proximity to the coast. So we can set how much temperature varies between summer and winter.

For instance, Bendigo is an analogue town for Hobart in 2090 under a high emissions scenario (4C warmer and 10% drier), but Hobart is on the water, while Bendigo is inland. A better analogue may therefore be Port Lincoln (SA).

Climate analogues can be useful for a number of purposes: agriculture, urban planning, or natural resource management. However there are some things that they can’t tell us: frost days, solar radiation, soils and other local climate influences. They can help us start to imagine what the future can look like, but we’d strongly caution against their direct use in decision-making where a more detailed assessment is advised.

This article was co-authored by Tim Bedin, former Technical Scientist at CSIRO.

This article is the first in a short series on climate change in Australia, coinciding with the release of new climate websites by CSIRO.

The Conversation

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Six ways Australia’s education system is failing our kids

This article was originally published on The Conversation(written by my co-superviser Rachel Wilson et al.

By Rachel Wilson, University of Sydney; Bronwen Dalton, University of Technology, Sydney, and Chris Baumann

Amid debates about budget cuts and the rising costs of schools and degrees, there is one debate receiving alarmingly little attention in Australia. We’re facing a slow decline in most educational standards, and few are aware just how bad the situation is getting.

These are just six of the ways that Australia’s education system is seriously failing our kids.

1. Australian teens are falling behind, as others race ahead

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey tests the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in more than 70 economies worldwide. And it shows that Australian 15-year-olds’ scores on reading, maths and scientific literacy have recorded statistically significant declines since 2000, while other countries have shown improvement.

Although there has been much media attention on falling international ranks, it is actually this decline in real scores that should hit the headlines. That’s because it means that students in 2000 answered substantially more questions correctly than students in 2012. The decline is equivalent to more than half a year of schooling.

Our students are falling behind: three years behind students from Shanghai in maths and 1½ years behind in reading.

In maths and science, an average Australian 15-year-old student has the problem-solving abilities equivalent to an average 12-year-old Korean pupil.

An international assessment of school years 4 and 8 shows that Australian students’ average performance is now below that of England and the USA: countries that we used to classify as educationally inferior.

The declining education standards are across all ability levels. Analysis of PISA and NAPLAN suggests that stagnation and decline are occurring among high performing students as well as low performers.

2. Declining participation in science and maths

It has been estimated that 75% of the fastest growing occupations require science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and knowledge.

The importance of STEM is acknowledged by industry and business. Yet there are national declines in Australian participation and attainment in these subjects. We are also among the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 34 nations on translation of education investment to innovation, which is highly dependent upon STEM.

Fewer than one in ten Australian students studied advanced maths in year 12 in 2013. In particular, there has been a collapse in girls studying maths and science.

A national gender breakdown shows that just 6.6% of girls sat for advanced mathematics in 2013; that’s half the rate for boys, and represents a 23% decline since 2004. In New South Wales, a tiny 1.5% of girls take the trio of advanced maths, physics and chemistry.

Maths is not a requirement at senior secondary level in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia, although it is compulsory in South Australia, and to a small extent in Queensland and the Northern Territory. In NSW, the requirement for Higher School Certificate (HSC) maths or science study was removed in 2001. The national curriculum also makes no requirement for maths or science study after Year 10.

Australia is just about the only developed nation that does not make it compulsory to study maths in order to graduate from high school.

A recent report by the Productivity Commission found almost one-quarter of Australians are capable of only basic mathematics, such as counting. Many universities now have to offer basic (school level) maths and literacy development courses to support students in their study. These outcomes look extremely concerning when we review participation and achievement in maths and science internationally.

3. Australian education is monolingual

In 2013, the proportion of students studying a foreign language is at historic lows. For example in NSW, only 8% studied a foreign language for their HSC, the lowest percentage ever recorded.

In NSW, the number of HSC students studying Chinese in 2014 was just 798 (635 of which were students with a Chinese background), whereas a decade ago it was almost double that number, with 1,591.

The most popular beginner language in NSW was French, with 663 HSC students taking French as a beginner in 2013. These numbers are extremely small when you consider that the total number of HSC students in NSW: more than 75,000.

These declines, which are typical of what has happened around the country, have occurred at a time when most other industrialised countries have been strengthening their students’ knowledge of other cultures and languages, in particular learning English.

English language skills are becoming a basic skill around the world. Monolingual Australians are increasingly competing for jobs with people who are just as competent in English as they are in their own native language – and possibly one or two more.

4. International and migrant students are actually raising standards, not lowering them

There are many who believe that Australian education is being held back by our multicultural composition and high proportion of migrant students. This could not be further from the truth. In the most recent PISA assessment of 15 year olds, Australian-born students’ average English literacy score was significantly lower than the average first-generation migrant students’ score, and not significantly different from foreign-born students.

The proportion of top performers was higher for foreign-born (14%) and first-generation students (15%) than for Australian-born students (10%).

Students from Chinese, Korean and Sri Lankan backgrounds are the highest performers in the NSW HSC. The top performing selective secondary schools in NSW now have more than 80% of students coming from non-English speaking backgrounds.

5. You can’t have quality education without quality teachers

While there are many factors that may contribute to teacher quality, the overall academic attainment of those entering teaching degrees is an obvious and measurable component, which has been the focus of rigorous standards in many countries.

An international benchmarking study indicates that Australia’s teacher education policies are currently falling well short of high-achieving countries where future teachers are recruited from the top 30% of the age cohort.

In Australia between 1983 and 2003, the standard intake was from the top 26% to 39%. By 2012/2013, less than half of Year 12 students receiving offers for places in undergraduate teacher education courses had ATAR scores in the top 50% of their age cohort.

Teacher education degrees also had the highest percentage of students entering with
low ATAR scores, and the proportion of teacher education entrants with an ATAR of less than 50 nearly doubled over the past three years. We cannot expect above-average education with below-average teachers.

6. Early learning participation is amongst the lowest in the developed world

While Australia has recently lifted levels of investment in early childhood education, this investment has not been reflected in high levels of early childhood participation. In Australia, just 18% of 3 year olds participated in early childhood education, compared with 70% on average across the OECD. In this respect, we rank at 34 out of 36 OECD and partner countries.

Australia also ranks at 22 out of 37 on the OECD league table that measures the total investment across education as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.

While low levels of expenditure and participation curtail any system, there is more negative impact from a lack of investment in early childhood than there would be from a lack of funding further up the educational chain. Nobel prize winner James Heckmann has shown how investment in early childhood produces the greatest returns to society.

What to do?

Funding is a critical issue, and not just in terms of what you spend, but also how you spend it. Research suggests spending on early childhood, quality teaching and core curriculum have the greatest returns on investment.

There is also growing evidence to suggest that a segregated schooling system – for example, socio-economically or academically selective schools – is counterproductive and restricts social mobility. High-performing countries have school systems on a far more level playing field than Australia.

We need a long-term plan across education sectors: from early childhood, to schools, universities and TAFE, which includes plans for supporting and strengthening teacher education in all those sectors.

We also need a louder public conversation about Australian education, and lobbying to shift how we value and invest in education.

When Germany was shocked by its first performance on the 2000 PISA assessment, it started a national conversation that saw education on the front page of newspapers for the next two years. Germany’s education has been improving ever since.

If Australia wants to build a strong and competitive economy, we need fewer front page articles about budget cuts, and more on reform and investment in education.

The Conversation

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You probably haven’t heard of these five amazing women scientists – so pay attention

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

By Sophie Darragh, University of Hull

All week I’ve been intrigued and inspired by posters appearing in my department that depict truly great scientists, mathematicians and engineers. Few of them were known to me or my fellow students, yet their achievements include revolutionising algebra, developing the first treatment for leukaemia, and discovering fundamental processes in physics.

Their only common characteristic? They are women, and their appearance on the walls marks International Women’s Day. Try to recall a woman scientist and Marie Curie may be the first and perhaps only name that springs to mind. This is a shameful state of affairs, when for more than a century scientists who happen to be women have reached great scientific heights, despite the many barriers they faced on account of their gender.

So here are five women whose amazing discoveries and contribution to science should be as well-known and respected as those of Marie Curie.

Rosalind Franklin – crystallography

Rosalind Franklin.
Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images

Only now is Rosalind Franklin’s (1920-1958) reputation recognised: a chemist, she was responsible for much of the X-ray crystallography research that was critical to the discovery of the famous double helical DNA structure.

She worked in a climate that was far from inclusive to women; her fellow scientists’ attitude towards her are typified by James Watson’s book The Double Helix in which he is condescending throughout and refers to her as “Rosy”, a nickname she was known to dislike. Tragically, Franklin died from ovarian cancer in 1958, aged just 37. Four years later Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and famously omitted Franklin from their acceptance speech.

Lise Meitner – nuclear physics

Lise Meitner in 1906.
Churchill College Cambridge

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was an Austrian physicist and the second woman to obtain a doctorate in physics at the University of Vienna in 1906, and the first woman in Germany to assume position of a full Professor of Physics in 1926. The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938 forced Meitner to flee Germany due to her Jewish descent.

Meitner and Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission in 1939, yet the 1944 Chemistry Nobel Prize was awarded only to Hahn who downplayed Meitner’s involvement. This was later described in Physics Today as “a rare instance in which personal negative opinions apparently led to the exclusion of a deserving scientist”.

Mary Anning – paleontology

Mary Anning.
Grey/Royal Geological Society

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was a self-educated palaeontologist from a poor background in Lyme Regis in the southwest of England. Her discoveries of the first complete Ichthyosaur in 1811 and a complete Plesiosaurus in 1823 established her as an expert in fossils and geology, which she played a key role in establishing as a new scientific discipline.

Her expertise was much sought-after by educated male contemporaries even though, as a woman, she was ineligible to join the Geological Society of London. However, by the time of her death from breast cancer aged 47, Anning had gained the respect of scientists and the general public for her work.

Gertrude Elion – pharmacology

Gertrude Elion.
Wellcome Foundation Archives, CC BY

Gertrude Elion (1918-1999) graduated from Hunter College in New York in 1937 with a degree in chemistry. Unable to complete a postgraduate degree due to the Great Depression, undeterred she spent time working as a lab assistant (for US$20 a week) and as a teacher until she obtained an assistant position at the Burroughs-Wellcome company.

Here she developed Purinethol, the first treatment for leukaemia, anti-malarial drug Pyrimethamine, and acyclovir, a treatment for viral herpes still sold today as Zovirax. Later Elion oversaw the adaptation of Azidothymidine, the first treatment for AIDS. In recognition of her achievements she was presented with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988, despite having never completed her PhD.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell – astrophysicist

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

With a PhD in astrophysics from Cambridge University, Jocelyn Bell (1943-) built and worked on a radio telescope during her graduate studies. Here she discovered a repeating radio signal which, though it was initially dismissed by her colleagues, she traced to a rotating neutron star, later called a pulsar. For Jocelyn’s discovery of radio pulsars, described as “the greatest astronomical discovery of the 20th century”, her supervisor and his colleague were awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Burnell was completely omitted as a co-recipient, to the outrage of many prominent astronomers at the time. However Burnell has gone on to receive many subsequent awards and honours, was President of the Royal Astronomical Society and the first women president of the Institute of Physics, and was appointed Dame Commander (DBE) of the Order of the British Empire in 2007.


My decision to study chemistry was inspired by my love for understanding the world around me and using science to help people. Learning about these incredibly tenacious women has kept me driven through tough weeks of thesis writing; the hardships they faced in their careers were immense in comparison to today.

Not only this, but it has reminded me of the amazing women colleagues around whom I am privileged to carry out my research. I spend time with scientists of many disciplines, all of whom inspire me daily. And while we women might happen to be fewer in number as scientists this has no bearing on our capacity to conduct intuitive, ground-breaking science now and for the future.

The Conversation

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The pen is mightier than the sword, but the computer is mightier than both

By Michael Cowling

It’s official. In 2015, the keyboard has began to genuinely challenge the pen for dominance in the classroom.

With Finland having decided that it will no longer teach cursive handwriting in primary school, replacing it with typing lessons for students, and with pen manufacturer BIC fighting to “save handwriting” in Australia, it could be argued that the humble pen might finally be singing its swan song.

But what does this mean for the Australian classroom, now that smartphones are ubiquitous and gadgets are invading every part of our lives?

The relationship between education and technology

Education has always embraced technology. From the humble overhead projector, to the TV with VCR that was pushed into the classroom on a trolley, to the computer labs full of Commodore 64s, new technology in the consumer space has always found its way into the classroom. What’s changing, though, is the availability of that technology.

As a middle-class student growing up on the North Shore of Sydney in the 1980s, I remember clearly how computer time worked. The classroom I sat in every day had no computers, but once a week we would all queue up and march down to the computer room to spend an hour using them.

You would find a disk, boot the computer and spend a blissful hour playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? or Treasure Island and learning how the computers worked. Even in my later years in high school, the computer labs were always a separate activity, reserved for special classes on “Business Technology” or “Computers in Schools”.

Now, 30 years later, my son is attending prep at a school that boasts a 1-to-1 computer policy. Every student in the school is expected to have a computer, and in later classes every student is equipped with an Apple iPad.

The teacher uses a television screen for learning connected to a Macbook Pro and builds lessons around the technology that the students have access to. As he grows up, I’m sure my son will request a smartphone of his own, and I hope that the school he goes to will encourage him to use it for learning as well.

No longer is technology relegated to just the computer. Rather, it’s built into every facet of the students lives. This has the potential to change classrooms in ways that have never been seen before.

The digital native, active learning, digital resident student

Back in 2001, Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” to describe a different type of individual, one who doesn’t know a world without technology in it.

I personally learnt the term around five years ago, and since then have noticed a certain amount of controversy about it’s use, especially amongst those that Prensky considered “digital immigrants”: individuals who grew up in a world before technology was commonplace.

Among the immigrants, the notion that there is a divide between those who know technology and those who don’t is difficult to come to terms with. Many counterpoints to Prensky’s work have been written, as well as other terms proposed like David White’s “Digital Resident/Digital Visitor”, or the “Active Learner” to describe the change in learning.

For some reason though, the term “digital native” persists, perhaps because, despite its flaws, it acknowledges a change the in the way that we interact with the world, regardless of our generational differences.

Technology is integral to the lives of digital natives, but is our education system catching up?
Michael Coghlan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The best example I can give is from my own experience. When I was a student, a pen was an important implement to take to lectures and tutorials. It allowed me to not only make notes but also write down other pieces of information, like the lecturer’s contact details or the submission time for an assignment.

Now, I notice that students no longer take pens to class, and when they want to take notes, they instead use their mobile phone’s inbuilt camera.

As a “digital immigrant”, I found myself totally floored the first time that a student submitted an assignment via the online Learning Management System in front of me, and when I suggested that they print the confirmation page, they instead took out their phone and took a photo of the screen!

Add that to the ubiquity of students using their phones to check words you say in class, Google a quick question you ask, or even record your lectures for later listening, and you can understand the persistence of the term “digital native”.

The last gasp for the mighty pen

Of course, this transition is not without its challenges. Technology moves quickly, and as soon as one piece of technology becomes popular, it gets replaced with another.

This presents a challenge in the classroom, where lesson plans and pedagogy often takes longer to bed down than the life of the average mobile phone.

Add in new technology like the Oculus Rift headset and the raft of new Internet of Things devices and you discover new pedagogical challenges for the 21st Century student.

A good example of this is the use of technology in exams. We often use exams to make sure that students understand the material in a controlled environment, free of opportunities to “phone a friend” or look items up on the internet.

But how does this work for the digital native, who expects to always be connected? How do we conduct exams with these students, without resorting (as many universities do), to forcing students to write the exam with pen and paper, possibly asking them to put ink on the page for the first time in the semester?

I am currently working on a project to bring electronic exams to more classrooms, but even this presents challenges, as computers need to be locked down and student access to a global world of information controlled.

And don’t even get me started on how Internet of Things devices fit into the mix. Students are now able to use devices such as Android Wear and the upcoming Apple Watch to bring the connected world into the exam room, even when we don’t want them to.

An exam invigilator recently confessed to me that this check has now been added to their list: checking water bottles, erasers and then also what watch a student is wearing! Quite a challenge for the digital immigrant, isn’t it?

But even these challenges are surmountable. The evidence suggests that 2015 might be the year where we finally start making these changes, acknowledging that even if we aren’t sure if we should call them “digital natives”, the way that modern students learn has changed, and the tools we use in the classroom have to change along with it.

Just like the humble Commodore 64 and the TV on a trolley before it, perhaps it’s time for the pen to say it’s farewells for regular use in the classroom, replaced by the smartphone and relegated to “writing time”, just like we used to have “computer time” back when I was a kid.

The Conversation

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Boys are more likely to play up at school, but it’s more social than biological

This article by Amanda Keddie from The University of Queensland was originally published in The Conversation.

While research generally agrees that boys are more likely to be disengaged with school than girls, there is far less agreement as to why.

Social expectations of being a boy

Many of the studies on boys and school disengagement look at the social expectations of how boys ought to be. Expectations that boys will be disruptive, defy school rules and collect more detention slips than girls, engage in rough and tumble play, be homophobic and sexually harass girls are rife in schools, homes and the broader community. These common expectations of being a boy reproduce these behaviours and tend to be informed by the cherished notion that “boys will be boys”.

Boys are often expected to be “challenging” and to misbehave. We still regard much of this behaviour with affectionate tolerance – as research conducted nearly 30 years ago by Adams and Walkerdine into teachers’ perceptions of boys’ misbehaviours suggested:

“The high-spirited child is traditionally regarded with affectionate tolerance. Boys will be boys. A boy who never gets up to mischief, it is suggested, is not a proper boy.”

However, there’s also research that highlights that girls are just as disengaged as boys. Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli’s study in their book Being normal is the only way to be found that girls expressed similar negative views to boys in terms of their resistance to school (especially in relation to authority) but that expectations associated with girls and traditional femininity meant they were less obvious about expressing it.

The point is how such disengagement is understood and addressed, particularly given the perpetuated stereotypes of boys and girls that inform how we see and address this issue. If we continue to hold to the view that boys will be boys and continue to affectionately tolerate boys’ challenging or violent behaviours and value them for their physical strength, social dominance and risk-taking, then we will continue to see anti-school and anti-authority behaviours.

If we continue to toughen up boys, tell them not to be like girls and administer discipline through authoritarian and punitive measures, we will continue to see these behaviours because being studious, quiet and conforming at school tend to be seen as feminine traits.

What are schools prioritising?

Rather than asking questions like “do boys dislike school more than girls?” we should be continuing to explore the broader issue of why so many students, both boys and girls, experience school disengagement.

An abundance of excellent research highlights how schools and teachers are engaging students in meaningful, relevant and intellectually stimulating ways within environments that are socially supportive and inclusive. In these classrooms, students are too interested in learning to be disengaged. Teachers are focused on teaching rather than managing and controlling.

Creating these environments is an increasingly difficult task for schools and teachers in the current climate where a school’s effectiveness has been reduced to its performance on external measures such as NAPLAN test scores.

Such measures and their punitive consequences have forced schools to narrow their curriculum and degrade their teaching to a back-to-basics non-creative approach.

Social inequity

Creating these environments is also ever more difficult given Australia’s increasing social inequality. Teacher quality is currently seen as the most important factor in lifting educational outcomes. While teacher quality is important, as much research has told us for many years, the most significant variable impacting on levels of school engagement and attainment is students’ backgrounds – what they bring with them to school.

No amount of quality teaching will ameliorate the broader structural inequalities of poverty, for example. Wider economic reform such as that recommended by the Gonski review of school funding is crucial in supporting our teachers and schools to engage all students but especially underprivileged students who tend to be the most disengaged.

If we’re going to address these issues we need to challenge the limited gender messages that contribute to the higher levels of disengagement we see in our boys and we must better support teachers and schools to create engaging learning environments.