Before we get into the next installment, I want you to go to AC: Science and have a little play, if you haven’t already. One of the things I love about this curriculum has nothing to do with the pedagogy or science and everything to do with the presentation. Those little symbols up the top that look like an optometrist’s test let you decide whether the year levels go down the page horizontally or across vertically. You can choose which year level to look at. You can choose whether you see the achievement standards, the content descriptors or the whole shebang. You can even choose to see the links to the cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities in there. Or not. It’s the first document I’ve seen anywhere, not just in education, that really takes advantage of the fact that the web is not linear.

And that makes it a joy to use. I spent today writing advice on multi-level classes. Nothing can do everything right and this is the bit that the AC: Science does horribly. That’s not to say I can think of a better way right now and 9 hours of solid work may have hammered out a compromise, but it’s ugly. At least while I was writing it I could arrange the years vertically and clear everything else away to compare the achievement standards right next to each other. Then add in the content descriptors to see if it still worked. When I was writing an exemplar for a year 2 program I could just look at the specific standards, descriptors and elaborations for year 2. This is a complete change in the way we can use this document, far more useful and flexible than any book we’ve been given in the past. And that makes it a pretty darn good metaphor for the AC: Science itself, because this curriculum is not only based on the latest thinking and research, it completely re-writes the goal of teaching science and therefore the way we teach it.

One of the big concerns at #onsci was where is the science for general life? The answer is right there. Throughout the entire curriculum in every single class.

In the past science education was aimed at producing future scientists. There was some nice fiction that every student in our classes could be going on to become a scientist, so that was what we had to prepare them for. This has changed.

Now, our goal is to produce scientifically literate future citizens. There is national and international acknowledgement that not everyone is going to become a scientist, but everyone needs to be able to grapple with the big issues facing us as a global society, which means being able to understand how science works and how it affects our lives even if you aren’t specialising for a career.

AC graphic

Click for full size

This is one way of representing AC: Science. It’s actually much more complicated, and I will love forever anyone who manages to design a graphic for the rest of it. I’m thinking of multiple paths to the same destination and weaving. But this bit’s fairly reasonable.

The Achievement Standard is the most important part. If you’re a non-teacher forget the content descriptors. I know they take up lots of room and look important, but they are just suggestions of how to meet the standard. Suggestions you need a darn good reason signed off in triplicate to ignore, but ‘the order and detail in which the content descriptions are organised into teaching/learning programs are decisions to be made by the teacher.’ The achievement standard, on the other hand, is the bit that we expect every Australian child to have the opportunity to achieve.

Below the achievement standard are the most important strands that contribute to it. And front and centre you can see ‘Science as a Human Endeavour,’ which is the fancy name for science for real life. And right there next to it is ‘Science Inquiry Skills.’ No longer are they tucked away in a corner as something along the lines of ‘Working Scientifically,’ they make up fully two thirds of the curriculum and the achievement standard. Biology? Chemistry? Physics? They’re the ones tucked away, down below in the sub-strand level. They’re still important – knowledge is an important element of scientific literacy – but they are in many ways just the context for learning about scientific ways of thinking and doing.

Now let’s look at an actual achievement standard so you can see what I mean. They all follow the same pattern, so I picked one in the middle.

By the end of Year 5, students classify substances according to their observable properties and behaviours. They explain everyday phenomena associated with the transfer of light. They describe the key features of our solar system. They analyse how the form of living things enables them to function in their environments. Students discuss how scientific developments have affected people’s lives and how science knowledge develops from many people’s contributions.

Students follow instructions to pose questions for investigation, predict what might happen when variables are changed, and plan investigation methods. They use equipment in ways that are safe and improve the accuracy of their observations. Students construct tables and graphs to organise data and identify patterns. They use patterns in their data to suggest explanations and refer to data when they report findings. They describe ways to improve the fairness of their methods and communicate their ideas, methods and findings using a range of text types.

That entire second paragraph is all about the Science Inquiry Skills, the doing of science. In the first paragraph, we have a sentence on chemistry, a sentence on energy, a sentence on the solar system and a sentence on biology. Then we finish with a longer sentence about science as a part of daily life and how we got to where we are.

Facts and pracs are no longer an option. In order for students to pass science, in order for them to be able to do the things that we have decided are important for all Australian children, investigation of real-world questions important to the students themselves is not the jam you get to if you are lucky, but the absolute bread and butter.

But wait! There’s more! In part three we’ll meet the Overarching Ideas.

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This is a response to the #onsci twitter chat on the 9th of August about the Australian Curriculum (AC) that I think might be useful generally. Judging from the chat there seem to be a few broad themes of concerns, some of which I’m placed to explain or discuss. This seems the appropriate time to put in the obligatory disclaimer – this is all my personal understanding and opinion, and is in no way official.

I work in a state curriculum area, so the short answer to ‘who determines how science is taught now’ is ‘Me.’ And of course my colleagues, within the constraints of policy and working together with all the other teams including other learning areas and assessment and reporting, differentiated learners, English as Another Language/Dialect (EAL/D) learners, student services, technology, the list goes on. And determines is rather a strong word – we can suggest and provide advice, interpretations, templates, professional learning and examples. We may even get to contribute to policy. But in the end it all comes down to schools, resources and teachers. And teachers already have a full time job.

My colleagues and I have the time that teachers don’t to grapple with the curriculum and consider the wider implications, then hopefully come up with frameworks and tools and explain them to teachers so they can successfully use it. I currently have a happy little group of guinea pigs who have volunteered to use the AC in their classes, so they tell us what problems they are having, what we aren’t explaining clearly and what tools they need, and from that we modify our message or try to get it for them. Eventually it will go out to all staff, and believe me I know how frustrating the vacuum is because I’ve been on the other side, but getting the wrong message or unclear and conflicting advice out there would be even worse.

So what and how curriculum is applied is an extremely complicated and specialised question with a myriad of influences, and I apologise to non-teachers if I don’t explain something clearly. But I would like people to understand that curriculum development and implementation involves specialists just as much as something like immunology, and many newspaper stories about education resemble reality about as much as vaccination debates on Facebook. I’m definitely not complaining that other people want to be involved and have opinions – passion and engagement is good and even a responsibility for an informed populace. I just want to provide a bit more context than is possible in chats broken into 140 characters.

Firstly, there seems to be some confusion about the different levels and responsibilities in getting to the classroom.

On top is ACARA, which developed the AC. This involved several versions over many years, with contributions from states, teachers, universities, scientists, industry and lay people. This includes the Australian Academy of Science, it doesn’t get much more expert than that. I wasn’t involved in any of this because I was employed later, but it is still on-going with feedback now it is being used, further developments for senior years and assessment trials.

There was public consultation that may or may not have been advertised effectively – I knew it was happening even though I wasn’t employed with an education department, I know of at least one group that should have put in a submission and didn’t, I’d be shocked if industry and professional or interest groups hadn’t got their act together and submitted their concerns or opinions – the opportunity was there. How that process was done and whether it was fair is a legitimate question and area for creative solutions because other curriculum areas are still being developed.

ACARA runs a limited amount of professional learning but it’s mostly aimed at people like me rather than teachers themselves – they don’t have enough people to do that as well.

At the next level, when, where and how the AC is implemented is a question for the state education departments and there are many different solutions. NSW has opted out, Queensland has mandated a set of units for all students (C2C), I have my happy little guinea pigs (who, by the way, are an awesome bunch). States still put in place the policies on things like assessment, mandatory hours and subjects, and run most of the professional learning. Two states following the AC can still come up with very different looking science classes.

In addition, states all have their own forms of registration for teachers which sets out their ongoing learning and performance management requirements. The registration boards include several stakeholders and accredit professional learning, including learning put on by outside organisations such as national parks or even mining companies (if they wanted to, I have no idea if they do or not).

Finally the schools and individual teachers make decisions about resources such as text-books or programs. In most states teachers write their own programs to cater for their individual class, context and interests, taking into account all the other organisational limitations in a school.

In reality it’s far more complicated with other levels and influences going back and forth but that’s the overview. If you have a particular problem with the general way the curriculum is set up or don’t think year 3s should be learning about heat*, for example, that’s ACARA. If you don’t like the way your kids are being assessed and reported on (including common or mandated assessments), the way units are put together, or feel you aren’t getting enough support to teach it, talk to the states. And if you don’t like the textbook or emphasis the teacher is putting on the uses of heat, start with your school. From what I understood about the #onsci chat, most people’s concerns are actually with their state departments’ implementation and schools, not the AC itself.

Part 2 will be about the parts of the curriculum and how it works, especially the popular ‘science as a part of life!’

 

* The Year 3 achievement standard, which is the important bit, reads in part:

“students use their understanding of the movement of the Earth, materials and the behaviour of heat to suggest explanations for everyday observations.”

That’s 3 of the 4 ‘traditional subjects’ dealt with, the next few words are about biology. There is just not that much scope for bias at the generalised level of the AC.

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