Vale Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham AM (1927 - 2021)

A lasting legacy for equity and science education – Tribute

Vale Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham AM
Vale Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham AM, 1927 - 2021
(source: Monash University Archives, IN256)

Monash University is deeply saddened by the death of Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham AM, on Monday 23 August, 2021 aged 93 years.

Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham AM held a Chair of Science Education in the Faculty of Education at Monash University from 1967 until his retirement in 1992. A popular and influential Dean, he was a world figure in science education and is remembered for his intellectual curiosity, compassion and integrity.

Professor Fensham held a Master of Science (Chemistry) from the University of Melbourne, a PhD in Chemistry from University of Bristol, a PhD in social psychology from the University of Cambridge and a Dip Ed from Monash University.

He was a pioneer and leader. He was the founding Professor of Science Education at Monash University, the first Chair of its kind in Australia, and was deeply involved with UNESCO and the International Organisation for Science and Technology Education.

He has left a lasting legacy for education. In 1971 he founded the Australiasian Science Education Research Association (ASERA) and was the first national President of the Australian Science Teachers Association (ASTA) and of the Australian Association for Environmental Education (AAEE). He was also a fellow of the Academy of Social  Sciences Australia.

Professor Fensham was a writer and deep thinker, the author of several influential books in science education including The Content of Science, but is perhaps best known for his ground-breaking 1985 paper Science for All. He worked tirelessly on projects to make his vision of schooling a reality.

Professor Fensham led a strong and deeply collaborative research group for 25 years at Monash. His research interests ranged from equality in education to conceptual learning in science. Professor Fensham has been described as a modest man but is remembered for his energy, enthusiasm and infectious personality. His collaborative approach and encouragement of research helped position Monash as one of the most eminent centres for science education in the world.

He served as Dean from 1981-1988.

He played a major role in development of curriculum reforms recommended to the Victorian Government in the 1985 Blackburn Report which led to the creation of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). A year later in recognition for his service to the community and to education he was awarded the Order of Australia, AM.

An advocate for teachers and teaching, he was influential in working with then Education Minister John Dawkins to provide 5000 HECS-free places for teachers.

Professor Fensham was deeply committed to social justice and equity.  He was part of the immigration reform movement and was involved for many decades in the campaign for nuclear disarmament.

In 1968 the Faculty held an important series of seminars on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was highly regarded and resulted in the book Rights and Inequalities in Australian Education, which he edited. Later in 1973 another successful seminar was held on the new Schools Commission.

He served as an Adviser of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) project in the 1990s, on the OECD's PISA (Science) project and was patron of the Science Teachers’ Association of Victoria in the 2000s. He was involved with science teachers in every Australian state and served on several curriculum committees and reviews.

In 1998 he was awarded the Distinguished Researcher Award of the North American Association for Research in Science Teaching.

Upon his retirement he moved to Queensland and became an adjunct professor at QUT and an Emeritus Professor at Monash. At the end of 2003 he was appointed Science Education Ambassador for Queensland. He returned to Melbourne several years ago and continued his close links with the science education group at Monash.

As part of Monash University’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham was granted a special award in recognition of his outstanding research achievements. He is one of only fifteen distinguished academics acknowledged for their exceptional research contribution and the only awardee in education.

In 2015 the Faculty established a PhD scholarship in his name, in recognition of his contribution to science education. Two have been awarded and ensure a continuing legacy.

Emeritus Professor Richard (Dick) Gunstone says Peter was a remarkable educator and scholar with an ability to bring people together to collectively move ideas forward and make positive change.

”While Peter was preeminent among the international science education research community he remained self-effacing and fully committed to issues of equity and social justice.

“It has been my most extraordinary good fortune to work closely with Peter for decades, and to be able to count this remarkable person as a very close friend.”

Dr Alan Gregory AM, who documented the history of the Faculty of Education (1964 - 2014) in his book, The Surprise Rival, says that Peter Fensham was “probably” the greatest Dean in the history of the Faculty of Education and also one of our greatest scholars.

“With an assured future in Chemistry he shocked many by opting for Education. Such was his dedication to what he felt education could accomplish. It was also typical of his humility that he chose to do a Dip Ed himself while not required to doing one and it also enhanced the prestige of the Dip Ed.

“He had an amazing energy to serve so many good causes and to help so many individuals. A person of exceptional warmth and quality. His contribution to Monash, to science education and to education generally had been outstanding and profound. He leaves a truly remarkable legacy.”

Professor Deborah Corrigan, Professor in Science Education and a former PhD student of Peter Fensham says that Peter was a wonderful colleague who was genuinely interested in people and what they thought.

“While I was the last of his many PhD students, all his students could attest to the interest, support and challenge he provided in making them the best scholars they could be.”

Monash Education Dean Viv Ellis says that Emeritus Professor Peter Fensham’s legacy will be long-lasting.

“Personally, I feel very lucky to have met Peter earlier this year in the company of one of his sons. He was one of those rare people whose powerful but gentle humanity surpassed even the sum of his multiple substantial achievements.”

Peter is survived by his wife, Christine, his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.