Leaked curriculum proposal shows further degradation of science in New Zealand

July 5, 2023 • 10:30 am

UPDATE: (Read after reading what’s below the line.) NewsHub, which has seen the proposed curriculum document described below, also says that biology is largely missing from the proposed curriculum. For crying out loud! Click to read, and remember, I have not seen the confidential document but am reporting about it based on the statements of those who have seen it.

A bit of the article and some reaction from a NZ science educator:

Science teachers are stunned that a very early draft of the revised science curriculum makes no mention of physics, biology or chemistry.

Newshub has obtained the document, which was sent to a few teachers for their feedback.

Some of them were so alarmed they went public.

Doug Walker is the Head of Science at St Patricks College in Wellington.

“The moments I really thrive on are when you see that dawning epiphany on a student’s face,” Science Teacher Doug Walker said.

He has an absolute blast teaching science.

However, Doug is among a number of teachers who’re worried after seeing a leaked draft of the revised school science curriculum.

“I was quite surprised and concerned about what seems to be missing from the document,” he said.

That document proposes to teach science through five contexts – including the Earth system, biodiversity, and infectious diseases.

But nowhere in the draft does it actually mention teaching the basics of science, like physics, chemistry or biology.

h/t: Michael

Pardon me for writing about New Zealand science education again, but part of what I see as the function of this website is to serve as the voice of those scientists and science teacher in that country who are too cowed and fearful for their jobs to speak up against the dismantling os science teaching happening in their country. And I am encouraged to do so by many Kiwis who email me. So, here goes. . .

A draft of a proposed national New Zealand science curriculum was apparently leaked by concerned teachers to Dr. Michael Johnston, a senior fellow at the New Zealand Initiative. His bona fides are these:

Dr Michael Johnston has held academic positions at Victoria University of Wellington for the past ten years. This includes being the Associate Dean (Academic) of the University’s School of Education for the last 3 years.
Prior to his time at Victoria, Dr Johnston was the Senior Statistician at the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, a position he held for 6 years. Before that, he held positions at Melbourne and Latrobe universities.
Dr Johnston holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Melbourne.

The New Zealand Initiative, which published Johnston’s appalled reaction to the leaked curriculum, is described by Wikipedia as “a pro-free-market public-policy think tank and business membership organisation in New Zealand” whose areas of focus “include economic policy, housing, education, local government, welfare, immigration and fisheries.”

You can see Johnston’s outraged piece at the Initiative’s site by clicking on the screenshot below.  And below that is an article in the New Zealand Herald, the country’s biggest newspaper, that reports not only on the leaked document, which outlines secondary-school curricula, but also on the reaction of teachers and educators, which is by no means positive.

What’s missing from the new secondary-school curriculum is, well, most of chemistry in physics. Instead, these subjects will apparently be integrated into a “Big Four” holistic approach, which will teach all science under the rubrics of “climate change, biodiversity, the food-energy-water nexus, and infectious diseases.” (These are Johnston’s words.)  You can see that there’s no coherent coverage of a given subject, and I can’t even see how biology will be integrated into this framework.

Remember, this is just a draft, and perhaps public outrage will get the Ministry of Education to fix the curriculum, though I doubt it. But if it doesn’t fix it, the decline in New Zealand’s public education, as measured against comparable countries, will continue.

A few quotes from Johnston:

The Ministry of Education has recently produced a draft of the ‘refreshed’ curriculum for school science. But calling this document a science curriculum is far too generous. It is a blueprint for accelerating the decline of science in New Zealand.

Central concepts in physics are absent. There is no mention of gravity, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, mass or motion. Chemistry is likewise missing in action. There is nothing about atomic structure, the periodic table of the elements, compounds or molecular bonding.

These are key concepts for any student wanting to study the physical sciences or engineering at university. The universities will have to prepare themselves to teach science from scratch. If the Ministry gets its way, our schools will no longer be doing it.

What, you might be wondering, does the draft curriculum cover?

It seems that everything in science, from early primary school through to Year 13, will be taught through just four contexts: climate change, biodiversity, the food-energy-water nexus, and infectious diseases.

These are all important topics, but they do not comprise the general science education that is our young people’s birthright. In fact, to understand these things with any degree of sophistication, a solid understanding of basic science concepts and theories is required.

No doubt Ministry officials think that young people will find these topics attractive. They may be right. But if they are not systematically taught the basic theoretical content upon which study of these matters depends, they will never understand them. Initial attraction will turn to frustration. The likelihood of our best and brightest finding their places on the shoulders of giants like Rutherford and MacDiarmid will be diminished.

Nothing about gravity or the structure of atoms, nothing about the periodic table or mass and motion? What is going on there?

I won’t quote at length, as the article is free, but I’ll add that Johnston finds that the curriculum proposal distorts even the nature of science, making the curriculum seem parochial:

Just as disturbing as what is absent from the new science curriculum, is that the curriculum writers don’t appear even to know what science is. The document reads as if it was written by bureaucrats, not scientists. It opens with a ‘purpose statement’, outlining three overarching things that students are supposed to learn.

The first reads, “science is developed by people being curious about, observing and investigating the natural world.” That is true – curiosity is an important attribute of scientists. Observation and investigation are key elements of scientific methods. But these are not the things that make science unique as an approach to understanding the universe.

What makes science unique is its highly refined, methodical, approach to investigation, linked to the logic of theory testing. The experimental method is preeminent in this regard. But ‘experiment’ is another word that is absent from the Ministry’s new science curriculum.

And here’s the parochialism, which will be the death of science in this country:

Next, the curriculum tells us, students will “develop place-based knowledge of the natural world and experience of the local area in which they live.”

As Johnston retorts, “One of the beautiful things about science is that it takes us beyond the local.” I may be wrong, but I suspect this “place-based knowledge” comes from influence of the Māori, who are increasingly insisting that they must have control over their own scientific endeavors rather than integrate them into the whole of science. And Māori science is perforce local science.

The article below, from the New Zealand Herald, reprises what Johnson said (the paper must have seen a draft), but adds some comments. Click to read, and if it’s paywalled you can find it archived here.

A few bits:

Science teachers are shocked that an advance version of the draft school science curriculum contains no mention of physics, chemistry or biology.

The so-called “fast draft” said science would be taught through four contexts – the Earth system, biodiversity, food, energy and water, and infectious diseases.

It was sent to just a few teachers for their feedback ahead of its release for consultation next month, but some were so worried by the content they leaked it to their peers.

Teachers who had seen the document told RNZ they had grave concerns about it. It was embarrassing, and would lead to “appalling” declines in student achievement, they said.

More critics, some of them apparently big machers:

Association of Science Educators president Doug Walker said he was shocked when he saw a copy.

“Certainly, in its current state, I would be extremely concerned with that being our guiding document as educators in Aotearoa. The lack of physics, chemistry, Earth and space science, I was very surprised by that.”

New Zealand Institute of Physics education council chairman David Housden said physics teachers were not happy either.

“We were shocked. I think that physics and chemistry are fundamental sciences and we would expect to find a broad curriculum with elements of it from space all the way down to tiny particles.”

. . .Institute president Joachim Brand said he was worried teenagers would finish school without learning fundamental knowledge about things like energy and matter.

He warned the draft was heavy on philosophy and light on actual science.

“There is too little science content. Science needs to be learned by actually doing it to some degree. You need to be exposed to the ideas of how maybe atoms work, how electricity works, how electric forces and if that is not specified and you’re only given these broad contexts, then I’m really worried there will be huge gaps,” he said.

. . .Secondary Chemistry Educators New Zealand co-chairperson Murray Thompson said after he read the document he was left asking where the science was.

“The stuff in there is really interesting, but we have to teach basic science first. Where’s the physics and chemistry and why can’t we find words like force and motion and elements and particles, why aren’t those words in there?

“It’s the same mistake that they made with maths and literacy. They said ‘here’s the system, here’s the way’ and the maths was all about problem-solving and written problems and all that stuff without the basic skills,” Thompson said.

But of course given the fact that many educators don’t seem to care that much about a rigorous science education, you can find defenders of this plan, though only one is quoted:

One of the curriculum writers, director of the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research at the University of Waikato Cathy Buntting, rubbished suggestions key areas physics and chemistry would not be taught.

“Absolutely not. But they will be teaching the chemistry and the physics that you need to engage with – the big issues of our time – and in order to engage with the excitement of science and the possibilities that science offers,” she said.

However, Buntting said the document was intended to encourage change.

“What we are pushing towards with the current fast draft is more of a holistic approach to how the different science concepts interact with each other rather than a purist, siloed approach.”

Bunting is not a scientist but a specialist in education, and her concentration appears to be largely on “citizen science”.  (By the way, I’ve realized that the word “siloed” should raise a red flag, as, when used as a pejorative as above, it’s the opposite of “holistic”, another red-flag word, as is “stakeholders.”)

I should add that Wikipedia notes that the founders of the University of Waikato “From the beginning. . . . envisaged that Māori studies should be a key feature of the new university. It appears to be the center for Māori studies among New Zealand universities, and its webpage says this:

The world is looking to Indigenous knowledge to solve modern-day issues. Rated as one of the leading Mātauranga Māori centres in the country, we represent innovation and tradition in teaching and research, and provide global leadership in sustainable development and Indigenous issues. Our students are armed with the knowledge and attitude to advance Indigenous peoples and provide cultural perspectives in contemporary environments. Create positive change. Learn from the best.

No, the world is not looking to Indigenous knowledge to solve modern-day issues (I’ll name two of these issues: development of vaccines and global warming). Indigenous knowledge, if relevant, can surely be folded into the science mix to solve problems, but it’s usually more tradition-based than forward looking. And the mention of Mātauranga Māori (MM), or Māori “ways of knowing” is a bit disturbing, for MM that’s more than just empirical, trial-and-error based knowledge that can be taken as part of science. MM includes, as I keep saying, religion, ethics, morality, tradition, and superstition. It is not a “way of knowing” but a “Māori way of living.”

At any rate, although the leaked document was a draft, it doesn’t bode well for Kiwi science education. The only two readers’ comments on the NZ Herald page show that at least some of the public isn’t fooled:

43 thoughts on “Leaked curriculum proposal shows further degradation of science in New Zealand

  1. Are New Zealanders allowed to home school?

    The four areas of study are likely geared towards instilling in students a sense of fear about all the existential threats that are going to kill us any day now, and excluding anything that might encourage skepticism or rational doubt.

    1. I think it’s more to instil a sense of guilt. It will be all about how humans* are responsible for all the things going wrong in the World.

      It’s a classic ideological tactic. You tell everybody how evil they are and how they deserve to be punished and then they will be amenable to your path to salvation.

      *white humans of course.

    2. Home schooling opt-outs are well-supported by the NZ govt. However, the ‘degradation of science’ in NZ has multiple causes, not least the general cultural level which is largely anti-intellectual even in the cities, and much of the media.
      As Exhibit A :
      For many years, the glossy monthly ‘Metro’ magazine had an annual bestseller, its best high schools issue, which had about the same cultural significance as the US News US university rankings. It presented info for its bourgeois buyers in typical quasi-pie chart fashion. Note the main subjects areas for ranking. This was amended during the final years of this annual issue, to give Maori studies the same weighting [ 2 full sections ] as maths and physical/biosciences [ 2 full sections.] Note how English language and literature was downgraded to less than one full ranking– being merged with ‘communications’ !

  2. Many years ago when I first started exploring topics related to skepticism I came across an essay that made a big impression on me. The writer was a professional scientist who wrote about what motivated her to study science in the first place: a firm conviction in the value and efficacy of Alternative Medicine.

    As a young woman living in (I believe) California of the 1970’s, she had become deeply embedded in a community steeped in the idea that modern medicine was stubbornly ignoring holistic methods of healing. Homeopathy, Energy Manipulation, Natural Herbal remedies, etc had all been tested in practice by indigenous cultures and ordinary people. Rebellious, she decided to enter a university and get the necessary background for doing the tests that would definitively establish the fact that Alt Med worked. No reason science couldn’t be employed here. She’d use science for good.

    The writer began by studying the basic building blocks of reality — and how we knew them. Physics, chemistry, biology were all eye-opening; she’d never approached knowledge like this, from the ground up, and hard won through a rigorous process of weeding out bias and error. She also learned what it meant to “test” something from a scientific perspective, as opposed to trial-and-error and passing on your “discoveries” of personal experience. And at some point, when she looked back at what had seemed like a solid wall of theory and evidence in Alternative Medicine, it all crumbled. She had learned why it couldn’twork.

    It’s possible that the education administration in New Zealand is simply hoping to use science for good. But it’s also possible that they realize that the boring details can destroy what the good intentions are promoting.

    1. Your reply reminded me of the Tim Minchin joke that goes, “What do you call alternative medicine that works? Medicine!”

      1. I don’t remember. About 10 years ago I tried to find it again and failed. As I recall she had written several things for a small skeptic magazine, as had her husband.

        1. That’s ok. Honestly a great story though.

          As for the herbal stuff, some of it can be legit. There is a certain multi-pointed leaf herb that has some great pain and nausea control! I won’t say how but it is given the blind eye for terminal cancer patients.

  3. Back in prehistoric times (the 1970s), programs called “Women’s Studies” were created in many of the groves of academe. These programs never included a Biology course. In time, many of these programs changed their name to “Gender Studies”, and still never included (or even paid any attention to) Biology. The basic attitude involved, stemming unmistakably from post-modernism, is this: knowledge is not about phenomena that occur in the physical world, but about the words used in connection with the phenomena.

    This attitude has reached the Schools of Ed, and thus the wizards who write proposed secondary school curricula. After all, who needs to know any Physics to use agitated words about climate change, or any Biology to throw around the word Biodiversity? We can soon expect draft curricula like this New Zealand specimen in the US as well. (In fact, a California draft “framework” for math teaching already has properties of the same kind.) New Zealand is just a little ahead of us.

  4. I have never heard of a case where a “holistic approach” to education ever turned out well.

    The bottom-up approach to teaching about the nature of Reality may seem old-fashioned, but there is no better way that I know. The bottom-up approach has to start with laws of physics, atoms, and chemistry before it eventually moves on to cute furry animals and ecosystems because their ain’t no way to explain furry mammals and ecology without physics and chemistry!
    When I started out in grad school, I worked for a time as a teaching assistant in our freshmen biology labs. We were strongly encouraged to attend the lecture for that course as well, but that semester we had an Eager Young Assistant Professor teaching it who somehow got it into his head to start freshmen biology in the more exciting middle without all that boring chemistry at the start. So there he was trying to explain cell structure and function. DNA. Golgi. Mitochondria. So how is a gene expressed? What’s all this about hydrogen bonds? How does a mitochondria pull chemical energy (whatever that is) out of oxidizing molecules to build ATP, and why even do that? All that had to hand-waved away as almost phenomenological magic because he hadn’t yet gotten to basic chemistry, yet alone the nature of organic molecules. Imagine trying to explain a ribosome without ever first teaching about RNA and proteins!
    After a time the students began to actively rebel as they were realizing that they were being cheated out understanding much of anything. The more senior TA’s were also very upset and were talking about having an intervention. That’s about all I remember of the sad scene, but it left a solid impression on me that if and when it was to be my turn to teach freshmen biology, I would definitely do this: Start At The Beginning.

  5. It’s heartening that this time there seems to be more widespread concern about this here in NZ, but weird it’s taken so long for people to wake up to it. People like Nick Matzke and Paul Kilmartin have been talking about the mauri in matter fiasco for months, and the disastrous Te Mātaiaho, discussed on this site, has been available since the beginning of the year: https://curriculumrefresh.education.govt.nz/te-mataiaho

    David Lillis, who comments here, wrote an article back in June on the new draft, but I saw no mention of it anywhere:

    Part of the problem may be the polarisation in political discourse here, and the fact the the left tend to have an attitude of smug dismissal to any criticism not coming from the right sort of people. So the fact that Michael Johnston, for example, is associated with the New Zealand Initiative, means that his article can be dismissed without reading it. Examples of this sort of mindset can be seen in some of the comments on this Twitter thread started by Richard Easther, a fairly woke professor of physics at Auckland, who is now starting to become concerned, but still feels the need to take a gratuitous swipe at Richard Dawkins with the ludicrous suggestion that he is just trying to increase his follower count: https://twitter.com/REasther/status/1676317178461814784?s=20

    1. That is a point that I also share, which is that the response from the far left progressives is to simply dismiss Johnston’s points because they see him only as someone from the other side. Therefore anything he says is automatically disqualified.

  6. Perhaps scientists in other parts of the world should start sending ‘In Deepest Sympathy’ cards for the ‘Death of your Science’ to the Ministry of Education and the Prime Minister?

  7. I am very much hoping that a significant uprising among concerned parents can be triggered by this leak. Besides European descended westerners, I understand there are also many people from Asia living in NZ. New Zealanders who are not supporting this movement (and I’m hoping that is most of them) are seeing the fruits of their strategy for keeping their heads down.

    1. Um. That worked pretty well, actually. NZ had and has an extremely low death rate from covid (and deaths from flu also fell) and people didn’t end up corralled in apartment blocks for weeks at a time. You seem to be confusing NZ with China.

  8. Among other things it’s the parochialism of this whole approach that stuns me. The narrow-minded and deliberate choice to ignore other aspects of the natural world or other places in the world. An unstated assumption is that NZ students will never confront or exchange views with someone whose “place-based” science training conflicts with the teachings of MM. Like Sastra’s description of the alt med seeker who goes to med school, it will be shocking to young Kiwis trained this way when they bang up against universal rather than local Maori truths about how the world works. Something like the shock I imagine was experienced by indigenous people everywhere when the colonizers arrived with tech they’ve never seen before (queue that long list from “Life of Brian”).

  9. Much will depend on how competently this is implemented, but I’m not as negative about this as some (most?) here. There’s a lot of physics and chemistry in understanding the causes of climate change, and in approaches to dealing with it, so I could see how it could be a fertile way to introducing those sciences.

    The greenhouse effect alone requires understanding the electromagnetic spectrum, radiation, energy conversion, the kinetic energy of moving molecules (for which you need to understand molecules!) etc.

    Understanding how solar panels work requires electromagnetism and quantum theory. Understanding how wind power works requires fluid dynamics, which in turn requires an understanding of forces, masses, and accelerations.

    The fundamentals of science is a bit like an alphabet. Just like alphabets came long after the words they spell, the basics of science were formulated to explain real phenomenon. In a way, this type of curriculum models how we use science as a tool to discover and explain observed phenomena.

    1. But are they supposed to pick this stuff up on the fly while solving climate change? It seems to me wiser to master the fundamentals first, and then apply them to the problem at hand.

    2. See my longer comment above about how this approach works. I expect that people mean well, but right away they will find that for honest and complete coverage, they will need to frequently loop out to explain laws of energy, basic chemistry, diffusion, and so on before going back in to whatever was the subject. It becomes very flaky very quickly. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work.

      1. To both Mark and PCC: I don’t disagree with either of your concerns — they are absolutely legitimate. Notwithstanding anything I said, an obvious issue is how to break such a problem up into grade-appropriate concepts. Like Mark said, the “building block” metaphor of basic science education has a good track record and you mess with that at your students’ peril.

        I’ll still reserve judgment until I see the actual curriculum firsthand.

    3. I agree that this could be a furtile approch. It could be a way of engaging students in current science problems that are relevant and perhaps passionate about and they can see the purpose and utility of good science.
      Bio diversity / speciation / biology / Darwin something like that. Those students who don’t carry it forward to study then have an appreciation (something that is in dire need of)while those whose interest are piqued take it further.
      I had a music teacher at high school and for a year not one musical note was played but reems of history notes, it was depressing.

    4. Yeah, but the analogy is flawed, in that we are evolutionarily equipped to understand and speak natural languages, but our built-in intuitive physics and chemistry are woefully insufficient to deal with stuff at the level of “climate change”. To get a good grasp on that, you NEED to learn and digest the fundamental concepts (energy, atoms, molecules, light spectra etc. etc.) systematically for years.

  10. No need to feel bad about going on about us. If it weren’t real, it’ll be a comedy and sometimes it gets so silly I can’t help but not laugh at times, albeit in a cringy way.

    My advice is teachers simply refuse to teach it, leave, go on strike, simply teach the old stuff behind the governments back.

  11. I’ll read this later but I already know I’ll be yelling “OH FOR F’S SAKE!” in the middle of the night when I enjoy WEIT in peace and quiet. With my DOGGIE! hahaha

    Seriously though, there are so few voices against this horror so it is VITAL that PCC(E) keeps up his efforts. He has an asymmetrically large influence being a Big American Academic. People in small countries take incredible notice of that sort of thing.

    NYC (formerly of Remuera, Auckland, NZ)

  12. Such a lost opportunity to re-tune the biology curriculum around evolution. In fact, I don’t see a single mention of the central idea of biology. Does fully implemented MM=creationism ?

  13. My 12 year old granddaughter can see through this facade! When I asked her what they did in science her answer was “we don’t do science, you have to go to a private school for that. We do discovery”.
    One result of this will be a push for schools to teach to one of the international exam systems – as several private and state schools already do.

  14. We have problems here in New Zealand and we must fight the current degrading of both science and education.

    We must look to genuine experts in education, who know the literature on what works and what does not work in the classroom – people such as Elizabeth Rata and Michael Johnston.

    For those who may be interested, Michael and I were colleagues for several years, both of us statisticians and quantitative researchers in education (in my case, having worked in research evaluation for Government for many years before that).

    It is my opinion that Michael and Elizabeth are our two leading thinkers in education. We should listen to them and push aside those who are only interested in pursuing political agendas and forcing one brand of traditional knowledge on all children, all schools and all teachers, and who want one form of traditional knowledge to be accorded equality with world science and to be resourced equally. Similarly, be very afraid of those who are lobbying for traditional medicine to exist outside of health legislation.

    That we have got to this stage in a twenty-first-century nation is beyond astonishing.
    David Lillis

    1. Well said. It *is* astonishing that debate over principles, and proposals to weigh up the measurable outcomes of learning should be consider outside of discussion. Especially when the topics are education and science.

  15. It’s interesting to re-read a report from April 2011 on the future of science education by the then NZ Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman: https://www.dpmc.govt.nz/sites/default/files/2021-10/pmcsa-Looking-ahead-Science-education-for-the-twenty-first-century.pdf

    He identifies the need for two types of science education, and expresses doubt as to whether both can coexist in a single curriculum:

    “As I have already stated, there are at least two distinct objectives of science education at secondary school – the first is that of pre-professional education which is traditionally for careers needing science, usually arranged around mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and perhaps general science. The second is the citizen-focused need for all children as they mature to have a clear understanding of the complex world of science that they will confront as citizens over the next 60 years of their lives. Whether these two sets of objectives can be met with one pedagogical approach and one curriculum is uncertain.”

    My perception is that the first objective, of pre-professional eduction, is in danger of being abandoned altogether, and the second is being adulterated with a mixture of matauranga Maori.

  16. You are going to love this one.

    LOL the misspelling in the link.

    Noted quotes: Put away your astronomy text class and get out the astrology book.

    ” “Everything is attached to maramataka,” says Rereata Makiha, a renowned Māori astrologer and leading authority on the maramataka. “Tohu te rangi, tohu te whenua, tohu te moana (signs of the air, signs of the land, signs of the sea).”
    Makiha calls the complex maramataka system a template for survival.”

    And This guy won the “Science communicator award”:

    “In 2020, Dr Rangi Matamua won the prestigious Prime Minister’s science communicator award for his work on raising awareness about Matariki.
    He says Matariki is spiritual, in terms of remembering those who have passed during the year and releasing their spirits.”

    Releasing spirits of course being a noted science principle.
    Science education is definitely being corrupted in New Zealand.

  17. Here’s something about it from a less widespread paper, probably already said though.


    It does imply something I think we all need to talk about as well. It says they may teach the aspects of chemistry, physics and so on needed for that subject, but that is it. I’m not entirely sure what that means but may mean they first simply start with “this is what you’ll hear in this subject, so I’ll say what they are”, I don’t know. And when studying any new subject, one should freshen up on the fundamentals related to the subject I get the impression the fundamentals won’t be a separate subject in their own right.

    A house needs foundations and in science, it is the basic fundamentals, even is more advanced subjects may only use aspects of said fundamentals, one must learn them first.
    Often in life I encountered something big that caught my interest but left my totally clueless.
    Then later on while learning other stuff, usually several I then looked at it again and after combining elements from the earlier simpler subject understood that big mystery. A big thing to me is nothing but a collection of little things.

Leave a Reply