Sometimes, a debate over the school curriculum gets so heated, it is dubbed a ‘curriculum war’.

A new draft science curriculum has been the subject of a national conversation over the past week or so. Many commentators, including a number of science educators, have expressed surprise and concern that it does not mention any of the scientific concepts and theories that most people would expect to see.

There is nothing, for example, on evolution, atoms, molecules, gravity or electromagnetism. The document does not mention the gold-standard method of scientific investigation – the experimental method. There isn’t even any mention of the major sub-disciplines of science – biology, chemistry and physics.

Instead, the draft curriculum calls for science to be taught entirely through four topics: earth systems (which seems largely to mean climate change); biodiversity; infectious diseases; and the energy-water-food nexus. The curriculum writers present these as the main problems confronting the human race. They believe that the best use of science education is to prepare young people to address them.

While most reactions to the draft document have been sceptical, some commentators have defended this new approach to science education. The most full-throated argument in favour of the radical change has come from Associate Professor Sara Tolbert of the Faculty of Education at the University of Canterbury.

Tolbert argues that, in the past, science has been too focussed on “decontextualised scientific facts and theories”. She sees declining enrolment in university science programmes as a sign that we need a major overhaul along the lines of the draft curriculum.

For Tolbert, the way ahead with science is to engage young people in science through topics that matter to them, and to humanity. She calls for students to “critically evaluate and apply” science knowledge and to “make informed decisions and act on issues that matter.”

She wants to break down boundaries between the traditional areas of biology, chemistry and physics. This, she suggests, would allow insights from all three domains to be brought to bear on the big issues of our time.

Tolbert notes that “curriculum wars in science are not new.” She’s right. And, in fact, the long-standing dispute over the structure and content of science curricula is reminiscent of another “war” in education, known as the “reading wars”.

There is much to learn from the reading wars as we approach a national debate on the future of science education. It may not be immediately obvious, but many of the same issues are in play. Whether it’s science or reading, we must take account of how the human brain learns if we want to teach effectively.

From the 1970s on, New Zealand, like many other countries, began to move away from using phonics in the teaching of reading. Under the phonics approach, children are first taught some 40 mappings between spelling and sound. That enables them to ‘sound out’ words. If they master these mappings, they can recognise any new, regularly spelled word in print, as long as they have that word in their spoken vocabularies.

The arguments against the phonics approach were similar to some of the arguments Tolbert levels against the traditional approach to teaching science. Proponents of the alternative ‘whole language’ approach noted that the purpose of reading is to understand the meaning of the text. Phonics, they said, was decontextualised, disengaging, and just plain boring.So, for the next few decades, we used variants on this ‘whole language’ approach, under which children are expected, not only to read for meaning, but to engage ‘critically’ with texts from the very start. During that time, two things happened.

One was that the reading proficiency of young New Zealanders went into a long, ongoing, decline. The other was that scientific evidence began to mount against the ‘whole language’ approach, and in favour of a ‘structured’ approach, using phonics as a basis for literacy.

Now, at last, it seems that the reading wars are drawing to a close, with total victory to the structured literacy side. England and Australia have adopted structured approaches and are already seeing improvements in their data. New Zealand has been slower on the uptake, but we are now running structured literacy training for primary schools. Many teachers are changing their practice to a phonics-based approach.

So, what do the ‘reading wars’ and the ‘science wars’ have in common?Both debates are characterised by one side in favour of using ‘engaging’ and ‘contextualised’ approaches, and the other, of ‘structured’, approaches. On the face of it, the former philosophy looks appealing.

Why wouldn’t we want to teach in an engaging way? Surely the contexts planned by the draft curriculum writings will appeal to young people. Climate change, infectious diseases and biodiversity are all hot topics, and for good reason.

The problem with this approach is similar to that of the whole-language approach to reading. Using contexts from the very start will result in superficial understanding – at best – of basic science concepts, and of the discipline of science itself.Concepts like evolution, genetics, atomic structure, mechanics and electro-magnetism must be built carefully and systematically. They are complex and require a great deal of practice to master. When they are taught in a rushed, piecemeal or unstructured way, many students get left behind. If the core teaching focus is a ‘context’ like climate change, this is all too likely to happen. And there is nothing more disengaging than being left behind.

The same is true of reading. Trying to read for meaning before being able to fluently recognise individual words leaves many children overwhelmed, confused and demotivated.In both reading and science, learning must be staged, so that human cognitive limitations are managed by teachers. In reading, this means attaining a degree of fluency with visual word recognition before engaging in depth with the meanings of texts. In science, it means attaining fluency with core theoretical content before attempting to apply it, to ‘think critically’ about it, or to use it in ‘interdisciplinary’ contexts.

Until the core scientific theories relevant to climate change or biodiversity are properly understood, students will have nothing of substance to say about these problems, from a scientific perspective. Much less will they be able to take meaningful action.

Hopefully, the Ministry of Education will listen to the sceptical voices on their new draft science curriculum. If they do, we may avoid doing to science what we have done to reading. We may avoid three decades of declining educational achievement before evidence finally trumps ideology.

Dr Michael Johnston has held academic positions at Victoria University of Wellington for the past ten years. He holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Melbourne. This article was published HERE