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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Re-engaging disadvantaged youth through school science

David Lake
Kellie Stemp
Andrew Malloch

A forthcoming research project in Townsville, northern Queensland, will investigate ways to re-engage disadvantaged students with their schooling. The study, will focus on science, a subject that can raise particular problems for lower secondary students who are already disengaged from school. The project is a collaboration between academics at James Cook University and staff of the Edmund Rice Organisation’s Flexible Learning Centres (FLCs), and will run from the end of 2006 until the end of 2009.

The Edmund Rice Flexible Learning Centres

The FLCs system offers educational pathways to young people who are at risk of falling through the education system. Education Queensland estimates that in Townsville there are over 120 students below the compulsory school leaving age who are not enrolled in compulsory junior secondary education (personal communication). These young people risk joining some 10,000 young people throughout Queensland who are not engaged in training or employment, and who face poor employment prospects (Dusseldorp Skills Forum 2002).

The students at the FLCs are drawn from a variety of language, cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Flexible timetabling, smaller class sizes, strong staff and student relationships and a relevant curriculum enable the delivery of creative teaching responses at these sites. The new, coeducational FLC campus in Townsville complements existing sites in Brisbane, Deception Bay and the Sunshine Coast.

The project will explore ways in which science can be used in the FLC network, and in particular on the Townsville campus, to re-engage these disadvantaged youths.

Teaching science to disengaged students

Even many ‘mainstream’ students can struggle with the theoretical and abstract content of school science (Kozoll & Osborne 2004). Teaching science to disengaged students can be particularly problematic.

There has been a tendency for ‘remedial’ science teaching to revisit the same material that disengaged students have experienced at some previous time – rekindling feelings of failure – or to oversimplify materials in a way that can further alienate students. An innovative approach to the teaching of science is seen as critical at the FLCs.

The project aims to prepare curriculum material and to design teaching methods which present students with science that is useful and appealing to them, as well as being relevant to the content and process requirements of the science syllabus.

Often these young people shy away from tasks that require long periods of planning and experimentation, especially when they have no feedback along the way. School science sometimes works in this manner. Yet this process is rarely reflected in actual science research laboratories where large projects draw on small exploratory forays, or in business and the IT industry where prototyping provides continuous feedback to developers. The project will seek to adapt these forms of ongoing feedback to school science.

Many (but by no means all) of these students have low literacy levels and disengage from the subject when faced with the ubiquitous ‘prac write-up’ or technical jargon within the reading. The project is investigating ways for students to develop and demonstrate performance in science without a heavy reliance on literacy skills. In this manner it is hoped that literacy will be improved during the science work rather than the science being hampered by limited literacy.

The use of ICT for dispersed sites

The project will examine how the material can be presented to the young people in geographically dispersed sites, and will record their engagement and reactions to it.

The FLC network throughout Queensland provides an ideal opportunity for the study of how computer-mediated learning can be used to reduce isolation and facilitate communication among students at distant campuses. The research team will have access to all parts of the network to observe and compare responses of students at different campuses.

Through the use of ICT, the FLCs can combine geographically distant students in collaborative investigatory groups. The young people involved have often experienced major upheavals during their lives, and often multiple failures within the school system. This can lead to a withdrawal from all collaboration, or a tendency to be disruptive during group work in order to protect their self-esteem from further damage. Networked groups can provide a safe work environment where the student is protected from the expectations of failure among peers and is free to create a new, more positive identity.

The theoretical model behind the project

The 'Radical-Local Teaching and Learning Approach' of Hedegaard and Chaiklin (2005) provides some useful insights for the development of a model to structure flexible learning in science. It calls for:

  • an understanding of the motivations and interests of the learners, and how they think about the subject,
  • innovative and non-threatening techniques whereby students are able to express their way of thinking and appreciate the changes in their understanding through a program of science study, and
  • a means whereby diverse and isolated students can gain input from culturally relevant others outside the immediate school community, as collaborators and as an audience for their performance.

The project will examine how teachers might use the Hedegaard and Chaiklin ‘Double Move’ approach as a model when selecting and developing science curriculum materials. This approach emphasises ‘the relations among children’s already acquired everyday concepts, subject-matter concepts, and local knowledge’. It aims ‘to create learning tasks that can integrate local knowledge with core conceptual relations of a subject-matter area so that the person can acquire theoretical knowledge that can be used in the person’s local practice’. (Hedegaard & Chaiklin 2005, p 69)

This analysis of content will focus on how teachers determine what is appropriate to the cultural backgrounds and emotional needs of the FLC students, and how teachers develop material into a form that is relevant to the content and process requirements of the science syllabus.

The ARC Linkage grant funding the project is valued at $92,000. Linkage grants allow higher education researchers and industry to collaborate on research projects which benefit regional and rural communities.

A number of key academics will be working on the project. They are Associate Professor Sue McGinty, School of Indigenous Australian Studies, Associate Professor Neil Anderson, School of Education, Associate Professor Glenn Dawes, School of Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology, and Professor Nola Alloway, School of Education. They will be joined by Dale Murray and Paul Ainsworth from The Edmund Rice Education Flexible Learning Centre Network.


Dusseldorp Skills Forum 2002, Realising Australia’s Commitment to Young People: Scope, benefits, cost, evaluation and implementation,  Dusseldorp Skills Forum, Ultimo, NSW.

Hedegaard, M & Chaiklin, S 2005, Radical-Local Teaching and Learning, Aarhus University Press, Aarhus.

Kozoll, M & Osborne, D 2004, 'Finding meaning in science: lifeworld, identity and self',  Science Education, 88, 157–181.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Distance education
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Secondary education
Science teaching
Socially disadvantaged
Aboriginal students