Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Weird and wacky but not terribly scientific

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Monday, 22 May 2006

Much of the education debate in these pages in the past year has focussed on how subjects such as English and history have been dumbed down at the school and tertiary levels. Theory, political correctness, outcomes-based education: take your pick.

At the school level, outcomes-based education is attacked as drowning teachers in hundreds of vague and faddish learning outcomes that are impossible to teach and report on to parents. Outcomes-based education's anti-academic and anti-competitive ethos is also condemned.

The impact of theory - ranging from critical theory, where Shakespeare is on the same footing as Australian Idol, to postmodernism, feminism, marxism and constructivism - has also been criticised as ideological and misdirected.


Although the debate has focussed on the humanities, it is equally important to know that the hard sciences have also fallen victim to the weird and the wacky represented by theory and outcomes-based education. It's not difficult to find evidence that chemistry, physics, mathematics and, at the tertiary level, medicine are being watered down and made politically correct.

The Australian Doctors' Fund submission on Australian medical education to the federal government provides a comprehensive account of the way medicine is being transformed. Not only have core areas such as anatomy been downgraded as prospective doctors are taught to be culturally sensitive, but students complain that lecturers "facilitate" instead of teaching and there is too much emphasis on problem-based learning.

As the ADF paper concludes: "There is sufficient evidence for a major rethink of the move away from basic sciences in medical undergraduate curriculum. The criticism of the application of 'problem-based learning' cannot be ignored. While self-directed learning is highly desirable, abandonment of a duty to teach is not."

Science at the school level has also fallen victim to theory and outcomes-based education. In the same way that English has been taken over by critical literacy, with its emphasis on politically correct values, so too have subjects such as physics and chemistry been subverted.

In Western Australia, the draft Year 12 physics paper asks students to comment on the "ethics of making airbags compulsory" and in the chemistry paper students are asked to analyse "the relationship between attitudes, values, beliefs and chemical knowledge to account for the development of the cosmetics industry over time". As noted by several teachers on the WA anti-outcomes-based education website PLATO, such questions have more to do with sociology than science and they take valuable time away from teaching the core elements of the relevant subjects.

A further concern about the way science is now taught, as noted by Adelaide academic Tony Gibbons in his book On Reflection, is that school curriculum documents argue there is nothing objective about science and that Western science can no longer be privileged.


The South Australian curriculum states: "Every culture has its own ways of thinking and its own world views to inform its science. Western science is the most dominant form of science but it is only one form among the sciences of the world." The Northern Territory science curriculum adopts a similar approach; it speaks of a "social-constructivist perspective" and one where "science as a way of knowing is constructed in a socio-cultural context".

While some, such as the chairman of the Western Australian branch of the Australian Institute of Physics, Igor Bray, believe that in science there are right and wrong answers on the basis that "if we don't get the mathematics right, bridges fall down and aeroplanes fall out of the sky", the WA curriculum argues that our understanding of the world is culturally determined: "People from different backgrounds and cultures have different ways of experiencing and interpreting their environment, so there is a diversity of world views associated with science and scientific knowledge which should be welcomed, valued and respected. They [students] recognise that aspects of scientific knowledge are constructed from a particular gender or cultural perspective."

The contradictions in arguing that science is relative and subjective are manifold. One of the defining characteristics of Western science, as opposed to witchcraft, is the belief that it is possible to test different versions of the truth as some more closely approximate reality.

It is also the case that if, after suffering a heart attack, you visit your local doctor, no amount of cultural sensitivity will help you if your doctor does not know the rudiments of human anatomy.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

First published in The Australian on May 15, 2006.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

24 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Kevin Donnelly

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Kevin Donnelly
Article Tools
Comment 24 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy