To me, the story was obvious. Whatever your view of the validity of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), there was clearly one newsworthy finding: the use of inquiry learning is associated with worse performance in science.
This is newsworthy precisely because it is the opposite of what we often hear in the media. If you peruse the many articles about how to improve Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) performance, they invariably promote ways of better engaging students with science. And the solution for better engagement is usually variations of inquiry learning.
Yet I saw no articles in the press that publicised the inquiry learning finding following the release of the PISA results. In fact, one piece in The Age actually promoted more inquiry learning as the solution to Austrialia’s PISA decline.
Professor Corrigan of Monash University is quoted as saying:
“While the facts of science are important, recognising the way that you do science is equally important and that leads to better performance in PISA, which is about scientific literacy.”
This is the opposite of what PISA found.
Why is this? What’s going on?
One clue is in the experts quoted in The Age. Journalists turn to academics to interpret things like PISA results and academics tend to hold to constructivist ideology in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
But aren’t journalists supposed to prove and expose faulty dogmas? Where is the challenge?
Laura McInerney perhaps revealed another clue when explaining why SchoolsWeek did not cover the inquiry learning story:
So McInerney thinks this story is only of interest to teachers and teachers don’t read SchoolsWeek.
This is intensely frustrating because the media at large tend to think that pro-inquiry stories are of interest to the wider population. So it seems that there is no way of channeling this narrative. The public must stay misinformed.
I have an hypothesis about what’s happening here. Many kids switch-off from maths and science at school but these subjects are also associated with being smart. There are a number of reasons students drop the sciences. Some simply find it really hard. It’s also true that doing well at science rarely involves getting everything right all the time. This doesn’t sit well with perfectionist students. There are also cultural factors around stereotypes. Scientists are frequently portrayed as nerds who lack sexual desirability. The common stereotype is also at odds with common notions of femininity.
I suspect that many journalists dropped science at school to pursue literature or history. The most comforting narrative to tell yourself – whatever the real reason – is that your teachers simply didn’t make it interesting enough. You were smart and resilient enough to learn science but the teachers were dull. It’s not your fault. Stories about engagement and inquiry learning are therefore very seductive.
It would certainly explain why science gets singled-out for this kind of treatment. After all, any school subject can be really boring, it’s just that it’s more socially acceptable to hang this criticism on science and maths.