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    Science education for the future – this was the theme for an inspiring, challenging day of discussion hosted by the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Science Special Interest Group in September 2019. The day consisted of a number of diverse presentations and lots of opportunities for participants to discuss these. This article identifies some of the themes that were explored. These thoughts and ideas are shared in the hope they will help provoke thinking and discussion about what they might mean for your practice.

    Not everyone who was involved in the day would agree with some of the ideas expressed here. At the end of this article, there are short abstracts of some of the papers that were presented on the day, and you can get the authors’ contact details via the Science Learning Hub’s enquiries email.


    Modern education as we know it played an important role in producing the human resource that was needed as western society transitioned from the agricultural to the industrial era. The subjects of the modern school curriculum, including science, were generally developed to support the growth of modern capitalist economies.

    However, we are now at a moment in time where we must transition into a post-carbon way of life or our planet will become uninhabitable, threatening the existence of all living organisms. Not only has science contributed to the growth of our current economies and societies, it has also contributed to the planetary crisis we are now facing. Some scholars are arguing that the complexity, chaos and uncertainty of our current times demand a rethinking of old certainties, including the old image of science. So what sort of education could help prepare young people for the complex issues we are now facing? What are the implications for science education?

    Points to think about

    Traditionally, a main focus of science education has been to teach students to think in disciplinary ways – to think like a scientist. If we are to grapple with the complex issues facing us today, it is also important for students to learn to think in different ways – to be able to hold multiple perspectives and embrace complexity. We need people who can stand outside the discipline and see how things work and what matters in the discipline – a bit like standing on a balcony looking down on the action. One way of achieving this meta-view could be to focus on the history and philosophy of science as a way of helping students see that science is one way of making sense of the world. Students could be provided with opportunities to learn the stories of science – the successes and failures, new discoveries and changing ideas – and also to learn about other knowledge systems, such as mātauranga Māori.

    Traditionally, science education has emphasised the importance of objectivity. However, if we recognise that science is a human endeavour, we can be more explicit that science is not a values-free process. Ethical considerations become important. Learning about ethics and looking at issues from multiple perspectives could be a way of supporting students to develop more complex understandings.

    Given the seriousness of the planetary crises we are facing, it is also important to ensure students do not lose a sense of hope. One way of doing this is to build students’ sense of agency that they can influence and change things. Programmes that have a strong emphasis on taking action seem to be important.

    Perhaps it is also time to pay closer attention to views in which humans are inextricably linked to and part of the natural world. By contrast, the modernist view of science positions humans outside nature. Maybe focusing on developing a stronger bond with the natural world could help to not only protect our planet but also contribute to the development of a more genuinely bicultural society. Place-based education might be one way of achieving this.

    Thinking further

    If you ask yourself what is the purpose of science education in today’s world, what in your current practice would you hold on to, what could you let go of and what could you change?

    Abstracts of papers from the symposium

    Reimagining school science for the Anthropocene – Ally Bull, Evaluation Associates

    Ally argued for the need to re-imagine science education in the compulsory school sector to better meet the needs of young people growing up in the Anthropocene, exploring the possible benefits of a school curriculum focused not solely on science itself but on students connecting emotionally with the natural world and exploring various ways of making sense of the world (including through science).

    Rebalancing science education for the Anthropocene era – Jane Gilbert, Auckland University of Technology

    Jane’s argument is that the arrival of the Anthropocene – a new geological era in which human activities are now a major influence on the Earth’s physical processes – requires us to rethink science education. It isn’t enough just to teach students about climate change or to encourage them into science-related careers so they can help solve the problems we now face. Rather, science and science education are part of the problem – they arose from and are embedded in the thinking that led to the situation we’re now in. Jane argues that instead of focusing on science’s content and/or its ways of thinking, science education for the Anthropocene should focus on developing students’ meta-level understandings of science – their knowledge of the historical, social and cultural contexts in which scientific thinking developed. She suggests that this kind of understanding is needed if we are to break out of current ways of thinking and create different futures for humans and planet Earth.

    Platforming the science curriculum – Rose Hipkins, New Zealand Council for Educational Research

    The idea of platforming is a future-focused strategy for keeping current systems working while making difficult changes in response to complex challenges triggered by wicked problems such as climate change. Rose explored a possible sequence of rapid changes that could be made to the school curriculum without “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. Principled content reduction is the first step, followed by a rethinking of how the central concepts that remain are developed and framed. As one example, systems that might have been presented in linear/static terms in the past now need to be taught as complex dynamic systems. A third stage involves a profound reorientation of ourselves from the position of outsider observers looking in on the world to being deeply embedded within it. Rose uses examples from her own disciplinary expertise (biology) but argues that many other examples will also be needed — the greater the diversity of expert perspectives brought into play, the more likely that a robust new curriculum can be built. Rethinking purposes for learning science must underpin the whole so that deeply held tacit assumptions do not prevent real change from happening.

    Re-envisaging science education: Learning for an uncertain, complex future – Sally Birdsall, University of Auckland

    The Anthropocene is a time of challenge. The future is uncertain and complex as there is no single trajectory towards the future. Science education needs to change in order to best prepare learners to meet these challenges. While the goal of scientific literacy still seems relevant, its emphasis needs to shift to developing citizens who can make informed decisions about the myriad contentious issues found in society today. Such a shift involves including five elements in science education programmes – a far stronger emphasis on the ‘doing’ of science and how scientific knowledge is constructed, using an interdisciplinary approach for learning, preparation of learners to be part of an extended peer community, learning about ethics and learning about how to take action. Consequently, learners will understand about science, be able to make informed decisions and share power with scientists and politicians, with all working together to build life in the Anthropocene.

    The role of epistemology in science education – Edit McIntosh and Michael Johnston, Victoria University of Wellington

    Scientific literacy is the ability to engage with socio-scientific questions and requires the integration of scientific thinking and knowledge derived from scientific inquiry, with social, political, economic, ethical and pragmatic considerations. Edit and Michael argued that the best approach to developing scientific literacy is to focus on epistemic aspects of science, which can help to mitigate subjective aspects of scientific theory through a focus on evidence and logical argumentation. This contrasts with a view that science education must directly incorporate social, political and ethical considerations in order to develop scientific literacy. Such an approach risks conflating scientific with non-scientific considerations, thereby undermining the contribution that scientific thinking and knowledge can make to addressing socio-scientific questions. At present, science education places a greater emphasis on ontological and causal knowledge than on epistemic knowledge, yet it is the epistemic elements of science – its inquiry processes and its argumentative structure – that define it as a discipline. Without an adequate understanding of how the discipline operates, students are unable to appreciate both the power and limitations of scientific contributions to addressing socio-scientific questions.

    Knowledge building as a future focus pedagogy in science classrooms – Simon Taylor, University of Waikato

    Simon outlined how knowledge building – where learners work together to create knowledge – is an effective pedagogy for framing future-oriented science education in schools. With the emergence of the knowledge economy, it has become a precedence for young people to develop competencies associated with innovation and creativity. The intention of a knowledge-building community (KBC) is to produce new ideas and knowledge, which are useful to and usable by the community (Scardamalia, 2002; see also this article here). There is an emerging opportunity for science teachers to develop learning programmes for students to improve knowledge or even to create knowledge, not just reproduce it.

    On the urgent need for a national climate science education initiative for Aotearoa New Zealand – Thomas Everth, Mercury Bay Area School

    Anthropogenic climate change is recognised by the overwhelming majority of the science community as the pre-eminent existential challenge not only to the sustainability of the human civilisation but arguably the survival of the global ecosystem in its current form. Climate indicators suggest that the triggering of feedback loops may soon prevent humanity from mitigating this threat successfully. Thomas argues that a national climate science education initiative is urgently needed in order to lay the groundwork for the necessary ongoing public support of wide-ranging climate change mitigation and adaptation policy frameworks and in order to pre-empt political paralysis and the loss of governance due to the bifurcation of society along old political fault lines, climate denialism, pseudoscience and social media-driven disinformation.

    Addressing misinformation and pseudoscience by fostering meta/macro thinking in school science – Kelly Price, Ormiston Junior College

    The misuse of science, and indeed the proliferation of misinformation and pseudoscience in the digital age, is evidence that science education is failing to deliver one of its core objectives: scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is valuable for both individuals themselves and society at large, yet education is struggling to come to terms with the impact information abundance is having and how scientific literacy can be achieved in such a climate. Kelly suggests a way forward through the introduction of two strategies. First, the development of a skillset around what she calls knowledge discernment, and second, by amplifying the existing relationship between traditional ways of teaching science alongside a macro approach to the discipline. These strategies are designed to specifically enhance the scientific literacy of students at all levels of learning and look to orient science education in the digital age.

    Activity ideas

    Use the Hub’s Ethics thinking tool and Futures thinking toolkit to support students’ thinking and decision-making skills.

    Useful link

    More research, ideas and wonderings can be found on the NZARE blog.


    This article was written by Ally Bull with permission from each of the symposium contributors. To get their contact details, email the Science Learning Hub –

      Published 16 March 2020 Referencing Hub articles