Why Kiwi kids punch above their weight in science

Kiwi kids are doing well at science, despite low funding. Why?

Kiwi kids are doing well at science, despite low funding. Why?

Bette Flagler


Like many Kiwi families, we spent the summer holiday in a house at the beach that bulged with people and too much food. Among the group were two toddlers who, through a tangled web of marriages, divorces, deaths and de-facto partnerships, I inherited in a great-aunt sort of role. Along with tricycles, books, puzzles, balls and stuffed animals, this duo of unabashed goofiness brought a good excuse to poke around in the sand. Off we trooped, equipped with pails and shovels, rakes and sifters. Bodies bent in ways that only two-year-old cartilage allows, kids can squat and stare at a shell for hours and smile with their whole faces when a crab walks past sideways.

In Idealog’sNovember/December 2007 issue, we reprinted a story that Tim Adams wrote for the Guardian (‘The new age of ignorance’, page 67). Adams talks about how lame most adults are when it comes to knowledge of science and goes on to suggest a number of reasons for our dreary disinterest, not the least of which is the dullness with which science is presented and taught. Among other things, Adams points out that as kids grow up, parents stop taking them to museums, science centres and zoos.

Adams’ article was on my mind as I dug my toes into the sand, along with a speech that was given in May 2005 by Bruce Alberts, the former president of the US National Academy of Sciences. Alberts, now editor-in-chief of Science magazine, criticised the way science is taught in the US. “Unfortunately,” he said, “most of our schools still focus on having students learn what science has already discovered, rather than having them take part in the process of discovery so that they can understand science as a special way of knowing about the world.”

It seems that when kids are little, when they are happy to explore, get their hands dirty and figure things out, science-y things are considered entertaining. But just about the time kids can start to understand some of the things that keep them in awe, they are no longer exposed to anything fascinating. Instead, science-y stuff is approached in the most boring and mind-numbing fashion, tossed heavily into the too-hard basket or relegated to a series of memorised facts.

But while the US and the UK (two of the historically heavy hitters in science) are struggling with teaching science, New Zealand is apparently doing better, rating seventh out of 57 countries in a recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report. Slotting in behind Finland, Hong Kong-China, Canada, Taiwan, Estonia and Japan, New Zealand beat Australia, the UK and the US—which came in at an embarrassing 29th place.

By having students answer both closed- and open-ended questions, the PISA survey assessed not only how much 15-year-olds know about science, but also their ability to extrapolate their knowledge to real-life challenges.

It seems we’re teaching our youngsters well. Kiwi kids are more likely to be given a problem and asked to use their brains to figure it out than students in lower-scoring countries, and our kids spend more time studying science than their OECD counterparts (nearly 65 percent of New Zealand students reported spending more than four hours per week on science lessons, compared with 62 percent in the UK, 57 percent in Canada and only 50 percent in the US).

And, while I certainly encourage more spending, New Zealand schools manage to succeed on an under-funded budget. According to the PISA report, as expenditure per student increases, so does, generally, the country’s mean performance. But New Zealand—which spends only 57 percent of the US level per student—clearly deviates from this trend.

So why do we score so high? The answer is as simple as digging in the sand: Kiwi kids have more hands-on opportunities to be involved with the ‘doing’ of science rather than, as Alberts describes the US system, the rote learning of facts. New Zealand kids still have to know the facts about science, but the trend in recent years is to make sure they can produce and manipulate knowledge for themselves. For New Zealand kids science is, indeed, a noun and a verb.

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