Scientist Michael Fenton has been
pleasantly surprised and desperately disappointed, heartened and then
heavy-hearted. Now he feels powerless.
This range of emotions stem straight from
his year-long Ministry of Education e-Learning Teacher Fellowship.
The conclusions in his 111-page
report about his research, which took him out of Inglewood High
School for a little more than half the year, are grim, with glimmers of
hope. Summing up the year, verbally, Fenton holds nothing back.
"We're in trouble," he says.
"We're in trouble in the education system for science and I think it's
going to take a crisis before we invest the money or the training or
the resources in high schools."
Fenton believes most secondary school
science laboratories look like something dating back to 1905. Big
investment is needed in equipment and teacher training. He wants
science teachers to think and act like scientists again.
"It would be more fun and there would be
more interesting discussions in the staff room."
The fellowship involved taking a year out
to investigate an area aimed at transforming the recipients' teacher
"The research was for us as teachers rather
than government policy. My individual goal was trying to make maths and
science more meaningful for my students more connected with the real
His e-learning concept wasn't about sitting
children in front of computers and sending them into cyberspace.
Instead, he equipped them with a computer device that put them into the
real world. Using his record-all education tool, the Real-world
Interactive Games and Electronics Link (Rigel) system, Fenton got
four Year 13 calculus students and a primary school class to devise
their own science experiments. Fenton won't say what schools he used
for his tests that's not ethical but he is happy to share his delight
in the results. It wasn't so much about how helpful the Rigel system
was, but how the students used it in their studies.
"It was transforming; it changed the way
The calculus students used
the sensor box for a CSI project about time of death and others
designed Martian robots. The younger students used the sensor in an
Olympic project, setting up their own games. One of the eight groups
hid the sensor and created a tracking device to find it. This had them
running all over the school. Fenton says the primary students showed an
astonishing amount of hidden knowledge about science and technology.
"They may not be able to say the right
terms, but they clearly understood the scientific principle behind it.
"I think we are in trouble as a nation for
not recognising the huge hidden potential of our students, both boys,
girls and those who have so-called lower ability."
He experienced the latter first-hand,
finding himself astonished at the knowledge one youngster had about the
difference between land-line telephones and cellphones. That same child
followed a whole line of thought akin to a Mission Impossible plot.
"The ideas came from the students just rich
Perhaps the most exciting outcome was seeing
everyone engaged in learning, even students who weren't interested in
Survey and interview results showed that:
- 100 per cent of the class enjoyed the
Rigel-based science lessons
- 85 per cent changed their views on the way
- 85 percent said they were more interested in
science than before.
"They were learning the true nature of
science, using investigating and inventing."
Fenton says the youngsters were involved in
authentic research, a phrase he brings up again and again.
"My year 7 and 8s were far better
scientists than the majority of the high school students in any school."
He put that down to having the time and
being fully engaged in creative learning and problem-solving.
"Assessment wasn't the focus."
Having said that, Fenton did test them and
was surprised to find out how much they knew.
"I interviewed them and verbally asked them
questions that I knew might come up in tests at high school. They
scored very highly and yet I had not done one single lesson on sensors
or circuitry. That shows that with authentic activities, they learn and
absorb and will still do really well in exams."
Fenton would love to see that replicated in
"It seems one of the basic tenets of
science to question and test ideas has been ignored and replaced with
rote learning of facts and concepts for exams," he says in his report.
However, Fenton says the new science
curriculum does encourage authentic research and going deeper into an
area of inquiry. This is not reflected by the stringent assessment
regime of NCEA. There needs to be a way to bridge that gap.
"It's disappointing that as much as I know
and as enthusiastic as I am, you feel powerless to do anything about
it, especially when you have a love of the subject.
"I'm just lucky that I've taught all the
different sciences and I'm glad I've got my shed, because I've got all
sorts of fun things I can do and test on my own."
Despite sounding glum and even a touch
defeatist, Fenton hasn't given up in his science-minded pursuits,
though he may have passed at least one baton to his daughters. Jamie,
15, and Mikaela, 12, both now at Inglewood High School, are going to
revive and run Nexus, a student science group that does research for
real. The group has been in a five-year recess. Nexus has been involved
in "do it for real" research, and has even studied Aids. Nasa scientist
Sir William Pickering, who has since died, was the group's patron. This
year, Nexus will engage students from other schools through a computer
game design competition and probably a robot wars project. In the
meantime, Fenton will be back in the classroom full time teaching maths
and calculus with a definite "real life" twist.
"I don't have a problem with truancy in my
Also, he will be setting up a new
modular-type course for next year involving game design and robotics,
in which students will get NCEA credits for maths and electronic
"It's a course that will follow the
intention of the new curriculum."
And Fenton's passionate push for real
science and inspiring young people to think for themselves. Michael
Fenton's full report can be found here: 2008 eLearning