MSc (Melbourne), DipEd, LLD (Honoris causa) (Monash), PhD (Bristol & Cantab), FRACI

(Deceased), 2021-08-23


Until the 1960s, departments of Education in Australia’s universities focussed on pre-service training of teachers, and had few higher degree students and small research outputs. In 1967, with intent to change this, the Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, Louis Matheson, and its Dean of Education, Selby Smith, appointed Peter Fensham to its foundation chair of science education, giving him the remit to promote scholarship. Peter had the high rank of Reader in Chemistry at the University of Melbourne, and his move to the fledgling faculty of Education in a university that was only seven years old astonished many, but was consistent with his deep concerns with equity and social justice, concerns shared with his wife Christine across the full spectrum of their lives. The roots of this lay deep in their Christianity. Peter had long demonstrated this faith not by words but by many and varied deeds; for example, involvement in the Pugwash movement and World University Service (of which he was president for a time), annually Walking Against Want, contributing to refugee organisations. His many acts of kindness, including selfless hospitality to many people in need, reflected his humility and open generosity to all. He saw education, especially in science, as a means to promote his social aims. 

Within four years of Peter’s appointment, he, Selby Smith, and the other professor, Sid Dunn, were joined by further foundation professors who were prominent researchers: Ron Taft (psychology), Peter Musgrave (sociology), and Dick Selleck (history) who, like Dunn and Fensham, were or were later to become Fellows of the Academy. All were young – the two elder of the now six were just over 50 – energetic and keen to establish the Faculty as a centre of scholarship. Peter led the way, recruiting bright young science teachers as lecturers and research students. He was their role model, encouraging them to be collaborative and share their ideas and to make links with major international scholars. He fostered their visits to international conferences and to sabbaticals in overseas universities, and brought visitors to Monash from the United Kingdom and the United States. There were few months without a research seminar led by Peter or one of his colleagues or a visitor.

Before Peter came to Monash, the Education faculty had only three staff with doctorates and no higher degree students. When he retired in 1992 almost all full-time staff had doctorates. At the time of his death in 2021, 12 staff and former doctoral students had become Fellows of the Academy in the discipline of Education (when the total number of Fellows in Education was 36). Six other former staff are Fellows in other disciplines (one in Psychology and five in Sociology).

In 1970 Peter made a major contribution. He invited all the people in Australia he could identify as interested in research in science education to a meeting at Monash to describe their work, or more accurately as little had yet been completed, what they might do. Around thirty came. The meeting led to the establishment of the Australian (later to be Australasian) Science Education Research Association, one of the first research associations in education in Australia, narrowly predating the Australian Association for Research in Education. ASERA galvanised research. Peter guided it to an informal structure that had much to do with its success. It had no constitution, no president or secretary, just a business manager to handle correspondence, an editor of the papers presented at its conferences, and an organiser for next year’s conference. Peter promoted a handful of key principles: no keynote addresses, equal time for all presenters, financial support to attend to be given only to people giving their first-ever conference paper, discussion of papers to be constructive, never destructive, and there to be no prizes or awards. It ran smoothly. It became increasingly influential internationally, attracting visitors from many countries. Today these principles remain and the association retains the genuinely supportive character that marked Peter through his life. ASERA is one of Peter’s lasting legacies.

Much of Peter’s own research was about curriculum and educational policy. He advocated a socially responsible science with greater public understanding. Globally, he was best known for his theme of “Science for All”. This involved a shift in the focus of school curricula to give less weight to preparation of future scientists and more to general understanding and the preparation of future citizens. In this he contended with ingrained attitudes of many university scientists, and curriculum bureaucrats. In books, journal articles, and conference addresses he argued for gender equity in education and for environmental studies to have a prominent place in curricula. He was also influentially involved in the development and implementation of the two major international programs to compare student achievement in science (PISA and TIMSS).

Away from his scholarly work, Peter’s many interests included a love of bushwalking (preferably of an adventurous nature). Among his ambitions were a trek to see the tallest tree in the world, in northern California, which involved fording icy rivers and clambering over fallen trees (achieved in 1986), and to climb Mt Latrobe in Wilson’s Promontory – where the density of the bush was one of the few obstacles to defeat him.

Written by Professor Richard Gunstone and Professor Richard White

  • Peter J Fensham (2004) Defining an Identity: The evolution of science education as a field of research. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers (now Springer).