Something we, as science teachers, observe and experience so frequently in and outside of the classroom is described spot-on by Carl Sagan:
“You go talk to kindergarteners or first grade kids and you find a class full of science enthusiasts. And they ask deep questions! They ask: “What is a dream, why do we have toes, why is the moon round, what is the birthday of the world, why is grass green?”. These are profound, important questions! They just bubble right out of them. You go talk to 12th graders and there’s none of that. They’ve become incurious. Something terrible has happened between kindergarten and 12th grade.”
So, the big and pressing questions are: What happened? Why did they become disinterested?
Compared to students who don’t ask questions, why are fewer students asking in-depth scientific inquiries? This is not an attempt to provide solutions to these concerns but rather an exercise in getting myself and others to give serious consideration to the issue at hand. Here are some recent, disturbing facts (extracted and analysed from the 2020 NSC Report) that illustrate the gravity of the situation:
Of the 578 468 matrics who wrote the 2020 NSC exam, only 174 310 wrote Physical Sciences.
Only 30,1% of all matrics in 2020 wrote Physical Sciences. Of those who wrote the subject, 114 758 passed the subject. Passed means they attained 30% or more for the subject. Thus, 65,8% passed. Of those matriculants who passed Physical Sciences only, 26 641 attained a 60% or more in the subject. Only 15,3% of Grade 12’s who took the subject knew at least 60% of the curriculum.
There is no doubt in my mind that there is a link between interest and performance in science (see this article), which leads me to conclude that the poor results in Physical Sciences in the 2020 NSC exams reflect a disinterested group of young people.
When we think of the term “interest”, it can be described in two-time frames: the now and the future. The interest we want our learners to develop (and maintain) in science must be located in both of these time frames.
Ideally, our students would take an active interest in the world around them and the work being done to improve it. Still, we hope they’ll maintain a lifelong fascination with science and its prospects for themselves and the world at large. If someone isn’t interested in science right now (i.e., in school), I highly doubt they will become interested in it later in life. A downward spiral of poor results is inevitable if a pervasive sense of apathy prevails.
Now we’re back to our original conundrum: how did our children move from being naturally inquisitive and interested in science to be among the 4% of South African matriculants in 2020 who achieved results that could lead to a career in science? If they even wanted to, that is.
I can only speculate on the answer to this question, but here are a few suggestions to think about:
- The stigma around science and its difficulty levels creates a fear of the field
- Accessibility of science and scientific knowledge in South Africa
- Schools’ ability to provide science education in terms of facilities and facilitation of the subject, such as availability of teachers and funding
- Shortage of adequately qualified science teachers
- Teachers and their way of communicating and teaching science
- Parents’ and mentors’ responses to science-related questions or their inability and reluctance to answer questions
- The fear of asking questions in science class or any science-related questions in everyday life
- The idea that science is only relevant to an elite group of people
- The time constraints teachers and learners have to complete the curriculum
- The curriculum’s design and content may be off-putting, especially for younger students, because of the lack of coherence within subjects, the lack of connection to students’ everyday lives, and the many different communities and settings found throughout South Africa.
There may be many other reasons why learners’ disinterest in science develops over time. Still, these are just some of the reasons or possible explanations I have come across in my teachings at Abakus Enrichment.
At Abakus Enrichment, we aim to create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable asking questions, exploring the subject, and discovering whether or not they share our certified teachers’ enthusiasm for the subject matter.
Our Abakus Enrichment science teachers are carefully selected to inspire students to pursue and excel in the subject. With enthusiasm, we plant the seeds of future success in the minds of our students.
For the love of science,