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Under The Microscope

CHALLENGING NEW ZEALAND SCIENCE EDUCATION by Michael Matthews; The Dunmore Press, 1995, 256pp, $39.95

You are on a boat and become convinced that it is heading for rocks. Your rational response is to raise the alarm in any way you can. You may yell loudly, or throw something at the helmsman -- careful choice of words and delicate nuances of speech will not be a priority.

Keeping the above scenario in mind makes it easier to understand Michael Matthews's latest book, Challenging New Zealand Science Education. While the context of Matthews's challenge is science education and constructivism, the real issue is general education and post-modernism. In the preface Matthews clearly warns that "the issues raised in the School certificate debate ultimately impinge on the whole of New Zealand society and culture". The concluding words of the book echo the same theme.

The style is brashly Australian, with a couple of under-arms thrown in. The book is lively, contentious, amusing (unless you happen to be one of the targets) and sometimes unscientific (assertions are made on anecdotal samples of one).

The alarm is raised in the first two chapters. Educators are, overtly or covertly, contributing to the rise in anti-science beliefs in the Western world and to falling standards in teacher education and education generally. The culprit is clearly identified as "constructivism" and this theme is developed in Chapters 3-5.

The specific problems that New Zealand science education has inherited from constructivism are set out in Chapter 6. Much of the blame is laid squarely at the door of the Waikato science education group (known to many for the Learning in Science Projects). The level of influence attributed to them might be flattering, but comments on their work are certainly not.

Of their research Matthews says "the flattering self-absorbed attention paid to each individual's smallest thoughts and feelings would lead to a Hawthorne Effect on a scale undreamt by those conducting boring old-fashioned social science or educational research". Such comment has led to an acrimonious debate, and has resulted in Waikato publishing a hefty monograph in rebuttal. (Available from Beverley Bell, University of Waikato.)

In contrast to most of the book, the last two chapters give a measured and reasoned outline of a liberal approach to science teaching and teacher training.

Ironically, there are more "isms" and "ologies" scattered through this book than there are in Matthews' previous book on history and philosophy of science. Since the misinterpretation of views lies behind much of the debate about this book, the following assistance is offered to readers.

There are two extreme beliefs about the nature of the world and how we might come to know something about it. One holds that there is an objective world of real objects and that through empirical observation of the world we may obtain unbiased and certain knowledge (positivism). The other holds that there are no absolute standards of truth and that modern science is but one of many ways of understanding and explaining the world (post-modernism).

In its extreme form, post-modernism has each person travelling in their own reality with no possibility of public knowledge. The belief held by most scientists is that there is an objective world and science does give the best understanding of it, but there is caution about claiming certainty (realism).

The main bogy in the book (constructivism) can be interpreted as a way of teaching (pedagogy) that treats the learner as an active element in the process, or it can be interpreted as a more general theory-about-everything that lends support to post-modernist views of the world. Most educators actually exhibit behaviours related to the first, mild notion of constructivism.

It is upsetting to be roused by an alarm, and this time Matthews's rocks may turn out to be patches of harmless seaweed. However, the book is worth reading and the warnings worth heeding, for who knows what may be round the corner!

John Longbottom is HOD Science at the Christchurch

John Longbottom is HOD Science at the Christchurch