Your chance to shape how science is taught in NSW

The New South Wales Board of Studies is currently running a consultation on the Science and Maths Syllabus for Years 11 and 12. The Warren Centre’s John Phillips explains how you can get involved.

25 August, 2014

We can all agree from both professional and personal experience, that teaching science straight out of textbooks and without context is not the way to engage kids and encourage them to take up STEM careers. Yet this is often the default consequence arising from teachers needing to follow the current content-heavy NSW Board of Studies (BOS) Syllabuses to ensure coverage for the HSC and recent Federal initiatives such as the NAPLAN tests.

Of course the best teachers seek to inspire and motivate their students by adopting approaches such as project-based learning (PBL) – where the subject matter is taught within the context of real-life challenges and issues. However, with the current syllabuses requiring them to demonstrate coverage of an ever-increasing number of specific content areas, they are struggling to find the classroom time for PBL and other contextual teaching methods.

Teachers are effectively being rewarded by the system for their inputs (the static content that is presented for the student to regurgitate in a test situation), rather than their outputs (students who actually understand that knowledge, and can relate and apply it in real life).

Such a system leads to teaching from the text book “Open your book to Page 29…”, and benefits only textbook publishers and teachers comfortable with the status quo. Indeed, it would appear from the BoS review document that there have been no significant changes to the NSW Years 11-12 Science syllabus since 1997.

At the moment, we have a chance to actually influence the NSW Syllabus and how it is taught in our schools – but we have to act fast in respect of the Syllabus for Years 11-12 Science and Maths, as the first round of public consultation closes on 21 September. How the children of NSW are taught is in our hands.

The BoS uses a consultative process that requires input from individuals and organisations to steer syllabus development: every so often it decides that a review of a syllabus in a subject (or subjects) is necessary and arranges for public consultation and comment on their recommendations for change. The BoS is obliged to address each and every comment in their submission to the Minister in respect to their recommendation. Right now the planets for change are aligned – particularly in the Science field – as we have an Education Minister calling for reform and a newly appointed BoS Science Inspector.

The reason for the flurry of review activity by the Board over recent times is the introduction of the Australian Curriculum which (finally) standardises curricula in all major subjects across all States. Of necessity (in order to achieve consensus) each curriculum is a lowest common denominator driven compromise and States can (and will) choose to add to, or re-arrange, it to suit their existing teaching models. But they cannot subtract from it.

The BoS has released its recommendations for review of the Years 11–12 English, Mathematics, Science and History syllabuses. The recommendations for Science include (page 24):

“In reviewing the NSW senior secondary Science courses there is a need to enhance the relevance and applicability of the courses for students. Syllabus content should provide flexibility to deliver the curriculum in authentic contexts. Some Science courses may not currently attract the most capable students. The proposed revisions aim to strengthen student engagement and the relevance of Science for students, as well as being sufficiently flexible to cater for the needs of all students.”

And again the dot point in Table 22:

“* Enhance opportunities for research and project-based learning.”

To express your support for the above recommendations, email the Science Inspector, Kerry Sheehan at You might also consider sharing this article with those of your colleagues who you might believe share our views and wish to comment.

The more comments, the greater the chance of these changes being adopted. I would recommend that all those who comment also ask the BoS to extend such changes to the Science syllabus across all school years. The weight of our comments might even influence the BoS to review other years earlier than they might already be contemplating.

The Warren Centre’s Engineering Skills & Education project is working to address the issues behind Australia’s shortage of engineers and technologists.