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Of babies and bathwater

The new NESA Stage 4 and 5 Science syllabus is a great opportunity to critically evaluate the what, how and why of some elements in our school science programs.

Every school I have taught in has a unit for Year 7 about "scientific" drawing. We diligently teach the exact way to draw a beaker, bunsen, tripod, and gauze by following the "rules" of scientific drawing. I have seen a beautiful 8 page booklet scaffolding this skill, along with matching transparent marking overlays to ensure the student's beaker spout line is within the Goldilocks length and angle. They only get the mark if it falls within that zone.

Why? No, seriously.... why?

Visual abstracts are becoming popular in peer-reviewed scientific journals and these wonderful form of visual communication have not emerged from a development of the Year 7 drawing rules(TM) - they generally violate every rule! Closer to home, what is taught in Year 7 is even largely irrelevant in Year 9, 8, 10 (11, 12, university, beyond)! When students report on their SRP (now Depth Studies) the best method visuals bear little resemblance to these magical rules - and neither should they!

Somewhere, in a mix of pedantry and, "always been this way" we have lost the underlying purpose of what we are teaching.

From textbooks to worksheets, the focus is on the magical rules which apply is in this tiny, artificial bubble of "science drawing skills".

Some teachers I have spoken with push back (sometimes firmly) against my "heretical" questioning - and I get how much of a sacred activity this is. Maybe, though, it's a chance for us to model that critical thinking we want to instil in our students.

However, before we all throw out the baby with a carefully measured amount of bathwater, maybe we can rediscover the purpose, reverse engineer the big picture, track back to The Why?

What modern scientific visual abstracts, circuit diagrams, chemical reactions and notations, (the list goes on) have in common seems to be this: highlighting the germane while diminishing the unnecessary details. Now that IS a skill worth teaching- that ability to judge the most relevant aspects to your message and ignore the irrelevant. To communicate your central message, visually, with as few elements as possible so that your audience can quickly understand. Think about a circuit diagram compared to a photo of wires, a switch and bulb. All those irrelevant details like the actual path the wires take, their colour, length, the shape and branding on the bulb - all this is reduced to the essential message (how things are electrically connected) framed in a paradigm (the hypothetical constructs in Ohm's laws) and from that make predictions of behaviour. Or consider a food web - the purpose is to consider an ecosystem through the paradigm of energy and through that comprehend and predict interactions which text alone would have obscured.

Great scientific visuals:

  • Have a clearly defined purpose (the message)

  • Are framed within a scientific paradigm.

  • Creatively reduce the essentials to the simplest iconic representations, excluding non essentials

  • Avoid ambiguity and/or highlight key aspects relevant to the message with elements like labels, etc.

How would you refine the above list?

Students learn best in concrete contexts, especially at this age where abstract reasoning is still emerging. We can do this, though, without reducing it to a farcical exercise- instead making clear the trees are part of the forest. By highlighting the principles and championing creative ways to achieve them, we can replace rules with purpose. Doing that boosts student autonomy, which itself brings rewards worth reaping.

Let's invite our students to evaluate novel visual communications against the core principles and worry less about whether the boss-head on their tripod matches the legally accepted rendition.

And later when we introduce chemical formulae, Indigenous science-in-art, Lewis-dots, circuit diagrams, etc, make sure we link them back to the core principles. Let's give students rich and authentic ways for them to develop and demonstrate their emerging ability to refine the pertinent from the dross using that vital literacy of scientific visual literacy.

Better yet, how about mapping this core skill across the compulsory science years so it is explicit for our students and teachers. Then we have a chance of nurturing a skill that will enrich and empower them - not just in later science but on any journey their life takes. So yes, I will continue to teach my Yr7 how to draw a beaker (especially when it is on the test they have to pass) but the framing, and the WHY, make all the difference.

What else needs the scrutiny as we prepare for the new Science Syllabus?

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