Charles Sturt University

Bang! How small particles form the big ideas

When we think of science, we tend to think of historical figures like Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Curie and others. Or we think of anonymous modern scientists working on complex modern problems: climate change, energy futures, artificial intelligence and others.

Both these approaches are understandable and far from inaccurate. But science must be understood as a process of collective knowledge building and application for the betterment of society. The goal of all levels of science education should be the development of a scientifically literate population who understand how scientific processes and knowledge relate to their worlds and catalyse meaningful positive actions. The work of our most brilliant scientific minds would be rendered meaningless if it falls on deaf ears.

Science education: how are we faring?

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) affords comprehensive (albeit still flawed) insights into the science learning of Year 4 students in Australian and other OECD nations. There are some positive trends with Australia’s performance remaining quite steady, a closing gap between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan learners, and reports of more engaging, student centred practices in primary science classrooms. 

But there remains room for improvement as 90% of Australian Year 4 students in the 2020 TIMSS fell below the ‘high threshold’ (550), which denotes a capacity to generalise science skills and knowledge beyond the classroom. This trend is echoed in the 2019 Australian National Assessment Program (NAP) Sample Assessment in Science Literacy (NAP-SL) where 58% of Year 6 students met the proficiency standard. 

In my view, there is a promising foundation in primary science which we should nurture. 

What works?

There are many grand concepts that drive practice and research in primary science. As a primary science academic, I find a core part of my work is translating grand concepts (e.g., student-centred, constructivism, active learning, etc.) into tangible classroom practices for preservice academics. 

Student-centred teaching approaches such as community projects, outdoor science, project-based learning and many others all have established records of success in both the experiences of teachers and the academic literature. Even teacher-centred approaches, such as direct instruction/ transmission, worksheets, and videos have important roles to play. I have just published a framework of 38 primary science teaching approaches for those eager to learn more. 

In an effort to consolidate our collective understanding of what works in primary science education, my colleagues and I reviewed 142 academic articles which investigated the impact of science teaching approaches on primary science learners’ scientific content knowledge, skills and dispositions. 

Common student-centred approaches

We found that common student-centred approaches, such as Project/Problem-based learning, inquiry learning, cooperative learning, science beyond the classroom, nature of science instruction, cross curricular integration and others, were associated with remarkable improvements in learners’ science knowledge, skills and dispositions. 

For skills and dispositions, the levels of growth associated with student-centred approaches were above markers of normal and above average progression. 

And this is truly remarkable – our finding that the average growth in scientific content knowledge grew markedly.  Usually, this type of learning growth is typically associated with one-to-one tutoring (the 2-sigma problem) and would be considered 900 per cent (yes, 900 per cent) higher than normal progression. This means that the student-centred approaches common in primary science have the potential to be orders of magnitude more impactful than more traditional approaches such as “cook book” investigations, rote note taking and lectures.

The science education array

As interesting as these findings may be, they cannot provide us with a notion of “best practice” that can be simply enacted in every primary science classroom. Most of the lessons, units and interventions used an array of complementary science teaching approaches that require considerable teacher expertise and reflexivity. Just as we can’t make every primary science lesson a lecture with note taking, we can’t just give the students a problem and put them in cooperative learning groups and expect to achieve the same outcomes reported in the academic literature. 

Research is seldom an accurate reflection of real world classrooms –  it is quite common for academic research to report on the teaching of external experts and academics, which cannot be scaled or sustained across all schools.

We now have a strong evidence base showing “what” teaching approaches are effective in primary science education. The importance of student-centred approaches appear to be widely understood by educators, academics and policy makers. 

This leaves us with the “how” question as we strive to work out how academic insights can be applied in ways that are sustainable (i.e., manageable for typical schools despite inconsistent funding and support) and scalable (i.e., reasonable for all schools to implement in “normal” conditions).

Science education: How can we make it work?

The “how” question will always be the domain of classroom teachers responding to the unique traits of their students, and it is being answered every school day across Australia. Teacher decision-making is of paramount importance and we cannot simply commit to an ideal approach and leave it at that – to do so would be a gross misuse of academic evidence.

But we should strive to draw together the collective knowledge of primary science teachers enacting these effective practices regularly in their classrooms. Not only would this provide useful examples of theory working in practice, it would provide the authentic insights necessary to advance primary science in a sustainable and scalable way. Rather than answering the “how” question, those outside the classrooms can work to support teachers to more easily and effectively answer the “how” question for their own students. 

An excellent example of teacher support in primary science education is the longstanding and widely lauded Primary Connections Program. Primary Connections addresses many areas of need among primary teachers through flexible professional professional development and freely available resources. It has also been consistently evaluated over nearly 20 years. The 5Es framework (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate & Evaluate) that underpins the Primary Connections program also provides conceptual guidance to assist teachers in making informed decisions about science teaching approaches.

Where to from here?

In a practical sense, we need more shared research to better understand how best practices are realised in typical school settings where academic support and targeted funding are sparse. This should ideally occur alongside development in how we conceptualise and make decisions about primary science teaching practices. 

There are many (really too many) interesting ways to discuss and conceptualise primary science teaching.

Here are a few big ideas

  • Big Ideas encapsulate the purpose of science learning in succinct terms for students and teachers alike. Harlen’s 14 Big Ideas of science (for example, all matter in the universe is made of very small particles) and about science (for example, Science is about finding the cause or cause of phenomena in the natural world) lead the emerging research in big ideas. Big Ideas have also been incorporated into the Australian K-10 Science Curriculum in the form of Inquiry questions and key ideas. It has the potential to aid the navigation of different activities by helping students to retain the purpose of their science learning
  • Learner Choice or agency is at the heart of student-centred teaching. Primary science teachers can approach choice in different ways, including minimisation, pre-planning/ designing choices in science learning or responding to emergent opportunities for choice. Choice can be enacted in many ways, including peer interaction, mode of communication, research methodologies, variable changes, etc. 
  • Outward and inward facing pedagogies is an alternative conceptualisation to student and teacher centred pedagogies. In this case, inward facing pedagogies are those that are focused solely on within-school events whereas outward facing pedagogies are those that connect students to the world beyond the school. While both can be student-centred, outward facing pedagogies are often more time and resource intensive approaches that may consolidate earlier inward focused learning.

If everyone in this space (educators, academics, policy makers, professional development providers, and parents) is committed to ensuring our young people grow to become scientifically literate citizens then we must collectively emphasise sustainable and scalable improvement in primary science education.

James Deehan is a senior lecturer in Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University who specialises in primary science education. His research interests are primarily in preservice and inservice primary science education. James is also interested in interdisciplinary education research and firmly believes that good research should both inform and advocate.

Graduate employment: Right now, the ‘fair-go’ isn’t fair enough

A cornerstone of Australian values is the idea of a ‘fair go’: equality of opportunity regardless of personal circumstances. However, when it comes to higher education, decades of equity data reveal how university systems have failed to ensure this ‘fair go’. Nowhere is this more noted than in relation to gaining employment post-graduation.

Getting a job after completing a university degree is rarely straightforward. Only a minority of students walk straight from the graduating stage into permanent employment. However, students from equity backgrounds experience markedly different post-graduation trajectories compared to their peers from non-equity groups. In Australia,  students from a poorer background, living with a disability or with a first language other than English, consistently encounter ‘labour-market disadvantage’  with lower levels of employment 6 months after graduation. This is particularly noted for those living with disability, with a full-time employment rate of 68.4%, compared to 79.5% for those with no reported disability.

Statistics only tell one part of the story

Disparities in securing employment or job conditions are only some of the inequities experienced. Recent research indicates that those graduates from more diverse backgrounds also 1) have less opportunity to achieve ‘high status’ professional roles (e.g. medicine, law), 2) report differences in hourly wages and also, 3) experience more complex, interrupted pathways to employment.

There are many reasons for these differences not least of which is these graduates may not have access to necessary, but often obscure, networks or information needed to obtain professional roles. For example, graduates who were the first in their families or communities to attend university do not have a ‘guide on the side’ who can provide insight or advice about the fundamentals of job seeking. In recent research, graduates repeatedly told me how this was a hidden, but significant, barrier. For example, one survey respondent explained how seeking employment after graduation was like “navigating uncharted water”, another reflected on the difficulty of “understanding […] the white collar world” and sadly one defeatedly stated: “I was very ignorant in what came after.”

What’s the difference?

In their reflections, there was a perception of “difference” that was implicitly and overtly experienced within the workplace, tied up with their family background and biography:

Perhaps if someone else in my family had graduated and embarked upon a professional career they also could have given me advice about building the foundations early, such as doing internships and volunteering in places.

What this and other quotes indicated was that while these students had received a university degree, there was more practical and applied knowledges needed to achieve their end goals. Not only did they need to aim for good grades but also, participate in internships, gain volunteer experience, network with future employers and proactively engage with the careers services on-campus. As one student so eloquently summed up, many ‘assumed the degree would be all I needed’.

The promises of university education were not delivered for some and the frustration and anger of this situation was palpable in survey responses:

The universities just pretend that getting that piece of paper is all you need, like they are selling ice cream. (Female Survey Respondent)

We need to think about entry and exit

The last two decades have seen huge changes to the university sector with increasing numbers and diversity in our student populations. While policy and procedures have engaged with the implications of this as students consider and enter university, those who are exiting the higher education system have not attracted a similar level of attention. We are experiencing a highly competitive job market with a global oversupply of graduates and this, combined with the need to be ‘employable’ means that those students with less access to necessary material and personal resources may be at a marked disadvantage within the graduate employment market.

The recent Accord Interim Discussion paper proposes a range of actions designed to ensure that the skills and knowledge developed by students are readily transferable to the workplace. The paper calls for a ‘modular, stackable, integrated approach to course design’ complemented by a framework for coordinated work placements as well as ‘earn while you learn’ and other financial support for undergraduates.

What they need

But what the graduates in this study indicated was a need for more practical and applied careers-related support deliberately targeted at that final transition: the move between university into employment. Suggested initiatives included proactive careers advice contextualised to different stages of the degree journey; ongoing professional mentoring that commenced early in the degree and extended beyond graduation; opportunities to have meaningful contact with professionals with similar (equity) backgrounds to their own; and explicit teaching about protocols and expectations within a professional workplace environment. Those changes are not difficult but such initiatives do require a ‘shift’ in mindset across the university sector – to one that more readily embraces and desires a relationship with students that extends beyond the graduation stage.

Sarah O’Shea is the dean, graduate research at Charles Sturt University, a Churchill Fellow, principal fellow of the Higher Education Academy and leading an ARC Discovery Project exploring the persistence behaviours of first in family students.

Want to do a PhD now? Here’s what you should know

Research in schools is messy. Things change fast and decisions need to be made on the fly. As PhD students doing research in schools, we (Kate and Matt) learned that challenges quickly arise and that tough decisions need to be made.

Our PhD research took place in vastly different contexts. Kate went to Zimbabwe to research the proliferation of philanthropic edu-tourism, and Matt explored differences in the teaching of drama and maths at a school in a regional town in NSW. Despite these “worlds-away” classrooms, we experienced similar challenges and discovered a gap in the literature on education fieldwork for postgrad students.  

That’s what our new paper explores,and from that we have four key lessons for PhD students. 

Four key lessons

We started our PhDs by ‘going with the flow’ of doctoral study. This meant we designed our research with the support of our supervisors. We presented our research plans to a panel of academics. We gained ethics approvals to conduct our studies. We undertook recruitment procedures. We went into ‘the field’ to collect data at schools. Then the flow changed. 

Our paper explains how this early ‘flow’ became more like ‘rapids’ (Lonergan & Cumming, 2017) as we undertook classroom-based research in Australia and Zimbabwe.  

In our research, we faced challenges and had to act in the moment. One such moment was when the classroom teacher left the classroom Kate was observing. What do you do? If you leave the room, where do you go? If you choose to stay, how long do you wait for them to return? If the class begins to misbehave, do you step into a teacher role or do you stay silent? If, and how, do you have a discussion with the teacher and ask them not to do this in the future?  

Someone’s missing

In another example, the teachers participating in Matt’s study were both absent from school but failed to tell him beforehand. This encounter resulted in wasted time travelling to and from the school. It also highlighted that research involves adaptive responses and planning on-the-go.  

Together, our reflections throughout the paper shed light on some of the emotional challenges during fieldwork. Even though one of us was geographically close and the other was far away from our supervisors, we were both unable to access their knowledge in the moments of shifting plans.  

Four key lessons

Here are four key lessons we wish we knew before starting fieldwork: 

  1. Communication is key. Having clear expectations and conversations about the research with the school community is integral to the success of the research. Do not assume that everyone in the school community will understand the intricacies of your study – the reality is this is an ongoing part of the process.  
  2. Developing rapport with research participants is crucial. While it is important to ‘give back’ in research and avoid disruptions to schools, it is equally important to be on the same page with participants about your role/s within the research. 
  3. Plan for a range of different scenarios, be open to how you might negotiate them as they unfold. Anticipating changes to your research plan may help you cope when these changes happen and allow you to know which components of your research plan you are willing to change or remove.  
  4. Keep a diary. Your field notes are hugely valuable when it comes to writing up and reflecting on your research. And a daily diary reminds you of all the things you’ve achieved (big and little) when the going gets tough. 

Continued conversation

We hope that others find these key lessons useful in thinking more broadly about their data collection plans. We are also mindful doctoral students have a range of resources at their fingertips when preparing for fieldwork that should not be overlooked. PhD supervisors are vital in the learning and development of doctoral students. Methods textbooks abound. And, there is a range of very insightful blogs, such as The Thesis Whisperer and Patter. Our research brings attention to these resources and the need for continued conversations about fieldwork.  

Kathleen Smithers is a lecturer in the School of Education at Charles Sturt University, Australia. Kathleen has worked across a number of projects with a focus on the sociology of education and higher education. Her doctoral thesis investigated developmentourism in schools in Zimbabwe.

Matthew Harper is a PhD candidate and research assistant across a range of projects at the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, School of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia. His doctoral thesis compares teaching practice and the student experience in high school mathematics and drama.