Observations of Science Ed

During my school visits, I have learned a ton about some of the similarities with my own school experiences in the U.S. (i.e. great teachers – see my “Inspiration” blog) and many things that are different here in New Zealand. This is one of my main focus areas- to determine some of the differences to hone in on and “takeaway” (Kiwi term for take-out food) to the U.S. to improve our suffering science scores! Some interesting differences  in the overall school day that I really appreciate are things like classes starting later (8:45am or 9:00am in some schools, but they still release at 3:15pm!) and tea time in the morning around 10:30 or 11:00am! These two events are fabulous, and considering a typical teenager’s need for sleep (just ask any of them! LOL), I am sure all would agree! Tea time includes not only tea and coffee, but usually a scone or other baked goodie that is provided by the school! How fantastic is this?! Any teacher from the U.S. reading this and unaware of this goodness is surely going to put this on the next agenda in their own school!  The kitchen area adjoining the faculty meeting area is the locale for this event in schools and is a hub of important discussions about schedules or other important issues of the day. This is also an important piece to my observations of the informal teacher collaborations that seem to be more frequent here in New Zealand. It definitely creates an authentic collaborative space for teachers to grow and work together for the students’ benefit!

I have been thrilled that most class sizes so far are no more than 24 students in a science class. This is possibly one of the greatest ways to ensure a teacher can reach all of his/her students effectively – keeping class sizes small. Is it possible to teach more than 24 students at once? Well, of course. But is it effective? My personal experience says, “no.” I also believe that most teachers would agree (and most research! For further support on this topic from the New Zealand Education Institute click here) that too many distractions for those teenage minds and attention spans happen beyond the 24 student threshold.

Another difference, interestingly, is the assessment methods for science coursework in the secondary levels (the assessment methods may be similar at other grade levels or “years” as they are called here, however my study is secondary school science education and I am limiting myself to this). The grading scheme is completely different than that of schools in which I have worked in the U.S. In the U.S., we typically have the old 10-point grading scale for our assessments (A=90-100, B= 80-90, C=70-80, D=60-70 and F<60 and no credit is gained for the F score). In New Zealand, there is an “Achievement” ranking for their “internal” and “external” assessments. The internal assessments are those resources that are given by the teachers in the classroom to indicate the students’ comprehension of subject matter while the external assessments are those provided by the National Certificate for Educational Achievement usually by examination at the end of the year. Both the internal and external assessments are scored with “Achievement,” “Achievement with Merit,” or “Achievement with Excellence”(from the lowest ranking to the highest respectively). Essentially these are correlated with an “A, B, or C” on the U.S. grading system and if a student does not receive at least “Achievement,” they have not acquired the skill or knowledge and do not receive credit. Which points to another difference, and that is the credit schema. Credits are received by the students in the internal assessments as well as the external assessments. All of their credits can add up to the credits needed for graduation at Year 13. There are not nearly as many internal assessments as we have in the U.S. I know at most of the schools in which I have taught, teachers are required to provide approximately 3 grades (minimum) per week to be able to paint an accurate picture of the students’ grades. It is also my understanding that we have those grades in the system for the parents to have a transparent view of their child’s performance in the class at any given time. Here in New Zealand there are days of “parent conferences” at all years or grade levels for students, even students in the secondary schools. This was also surprising to me because most parent attendance at open house meetings drops dramatically by the time their students reach secondary level, so I was impressed to see the successful interaction at these levels here. Additionally, the students play a much larger role in these meetings than most “parent-teacher conferences” to which I am accustomed. The student is required to set goals to attain and come up with ways to reach those goals while the parent is there to be a witness to that goal setting and offer support for the student at home. I think these conferences that are held on scheduled days during each quarter (students have a break from school to accommodate these days), carry weight on the absence of the teachers not having to enter weekly assessment grades. This forces the student-teacher-parent collaboration to become reality and a true team environment.

All this information to shine the light on the fact that the grading scale is very interesting and different from the ones to which I am accustomed, but the most poignant difference is the format of the assessment. In New Zealand, the science assessments are in essay format. The students are required to write out the explanations including the correct terminology for the questions. This is a fantastic assessment tool! The student not only has to comprehend the question, but they have to answer with the correct vocabulary terms in a way that communicates their understanding of the topic (and “fluff” or extraneous verbage is not counted towards the “achievement” level and can sometimes hurt the score-just FYI for those of my students that like to do this on essay questions :). I know my own students are just short of “freaking out” when I throw in the essay or short answer questions on assessments, but it is my teaching philosophy that if they learn the information, they can answer in any format provided! Unfortunately, in the U.S., while we are rushed to grade approximately 150 students’ work X 3 assessments per week for a grand total of 450 papers or assignments per week (and if each assignment is only 10 questions, which most are more than this, that is 4,500 items a teacher reviews each week!), we often lean on the Scantron or multiple choice grades to accomplish this beast of a task! While teachers in the U.S. are aware that this is not always the most effective tool for assessing student comprehension, Scantron sometimes seems to be the only way humanly possible. Additionally, teachers are supported for these multiple choice formats in the fact that the students’ progress on tests like the ACTs (which have become Alabama’s high school graduation evaluation tool) are multiple choice and they need the practice to perform well on these high stakes tests. Ugh.

To ensure the students here in NZ are learning the required science topics, there is a great deal of time spent on the topics and lessons in many different formats. There is hardly any lecture with the use of PowerPoints (which is so refreshing – read more on the topic of how PowerPoint lectures kill critical thinking skills here), but more of a teacher-led discussion throughout readings with the students’ input and questions aloud or in their own “SciPads” (NZ curriculum based books) or other e-books. The students are responsible for being engaged and jotting notes or highlighting in these sources of information for the topics, and for the classes that I have observed so far, all were! The information was also reinforced or sometimes through inquiry driven lessons through lab practicals. The lab practicals are done on almost a daily basis on their topics and are thoroughly carried out with deep layers of evaluation and  investigations by the students. This thought leads me to another incredible observation – that of what is known as the “technician” in each science department at each school! A technician is a person hired within the science department with the sole task of keeping track of the chemicals or supplies needed for each teacher for each lab and preparing those for each class on a daily basis. Some schools even have TWO technicians! This was absolutely phenomenal to me! An assistant in one of the science teacher’s greatest time mongers – preparing labs for students – and not just a Senior student that has an extra period to help out!? I was floored and the NZ teachers with which I spoke were equally floored that we do not have those in the U.S. schools in which I have been! Their immediate response was, “How do teachers have time to set up and do labs?” to which my response was, “Exactly my point.” Additionally, the NZ science department heads have a reduced teaching load to be able to schedule and address department concerns and needs.

These topics really stand out in my investigations of science teaching being an integral part of the success of the student scores in science on global tests like PISA. I am finding some of the greatest pieces to the successful puzzle is being able to provide the resources to the teachers (time, lab materials, equipment) which in turn enables them to do their jobs most effectively. The depth of the science topics that the students seem to be attaining is crucial, and I have seen some ways that they are making this happen in NZ. I know this is not across the board and is not a blanket for all the schools and all the teachers, as my interviews with some teachers indicated they are really concerned with students’ lack of problem-solving skills and application of science topics, but for the most part these assessment tools and teaching methods appear to be quite effective. I have a few weeks of observations to go, so stay tuned on how my research goes!




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