Thoughts on the new science curriculum

Today, Diane Grayson gave a talk at UCT on the new Physical Science curriculum being delivered in South African schools. Diane discussed the curriculum, its structure, features, teacher's complaints and gave some of her views on the various topics and issues.

The new curriculum, and its implementation, is noteworthy because it is quite differently structured to the old curriculum, requiring different teaching approaches and content knowledge from teachers. It is also proving to be a challenge to deliver for many other reasons. Diane was one of the physicists who gave input, albeit at the eleventh hour, on the curriculum before it was rolled out.

The curriculum itself seems quite defensible as it (at the very least):

  • emphasises conceptual understanding and application of the scientific principles more than the old curriculum
  • touches on important industries in South Africa like the mining and minerals and well as the chemical industry
  • brings notation and usage inline with current international standards
  • develops concepts and ideas across themes within a grade and across multiple grades

This bodes well for the quality of students entering university once the new curriculum is being delivered properly.

However, no meaningful teacher development took place before the curriculum was implemented. Teachers who had been teaching the old curriculum could quite conceivably have known nothing about the industries whose processes now need to be taught. Couple the lack of training with the fact that the average science teacher does not have a university qualification and the promised and often ordered textbooks are not being delivered to schools and we have a real issue.

Teachers who are well-qualified and well-resourced are also struggling with the new curriculum. Two of the complaints I have heard most often are that the new curriculum is too congested and that the curriculum is not well-defined. This was confirmed by Diane.

On the first point of overloaded material, Diane believes that teachers are often teaching too much in grade 10 and then not linking concepts effectively. If teachers were more qualitative in grade 10 it would reduce their load. In addition, linking important concepts like fields between different themes would reduce the amount of time required to cover the second or third instance of the concept.

As far as a well-defined curriculum is concerned there is definitely a problem! The teachers, teaching grade 12 physical science, who were in the audience and Diane could not agree on whether material was being left out of grade 12 for only 2008 or whether the curriculum would stay the same till 2010 as the teachers claim Penny Vinjevold, Deputy Director General of Education, had assured them. I was in the meeting where Penny said as much but the real issue is not who is correct but that 5 months into the delivery of the new curriculum for grade 12 everybody is NOT on the same page.

Diane did say that tertiary institutions need to help develop teachers content and conceptual knowledge, that textbooks are necessary and that we need to be coordinated in our efforts. The good news is that Siyavula is definitely going to have a widespread, positive impact!


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