Charles Darwin - the perfect anti-creationist picture
Let me be upfront and honest about something – I’m no great fan of anti-accolades at the best of times. You know the ones; an ‘award’ for the worst dressed/stupidest/most laughable actor/book/production/product and so on. I simply don’t see the point, outside of a smug satisfaction that the awarder feels in superiority to the awardee. But, given human nature, I rarely say much as it’s hardly worthy of comment.
I didn’t attend TAMOz this year for numerous reasons. But I did hear on the grapevine that the annual ‘Bent Spoon Award’ was presented in absentia to the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for the imminent National Curriculum science framework.
And, frankly, I was pretty gobsmacked.
First, some background. The Bent Spoon Award is an annual raspberry blown by the Australian Skeptics at ‘the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle.’ As such, it must have been decided that of all paranormal and pseudoscientific acts, products and claims made in 2010, the National Curriculum must be the worst offender. Given I’d spent a good part of the year reading through it, I naturally presumed there was a sizable chunk of witchcraft, alchemy, geocentrism, voodoo or spiritualism I must have missed.
Fortunately that’s not the case. What was it that was so offensive in this draft framework? According to the nomination, it was for ‘devaluing the teaching of evolution in schools, allowing creationism to be taught, and for teaching alternative theories such as traditional Chinese medicines and Aboriginal beliefs as part of the Science Curriculum.’
Not for removing evolution altogether, and going down the dark path of Texan education. Not for putting creationism or intelligent design or Raelianism into the year 7 classroom. Nothing quite so definitive. It was a vague ‘devaluing’ of education that Australian Skeptics wanted to advertise to the world as the most deserving of scorn over all other media items, pseudoscientific products or audacious claims. One would hope that they had some pretty strong evidence to support the connection between ACARA’s choice of content and a loss of educational ‘value’.
Education is, of course, valuable. Anything that reduces the effectiveness of the system in preparing children and adolescents for their future should be addressed. A quick flick through my blog is enough to gauge my views as far as the topic goes. Indeed, it’s so important, I take claims that it is ‘devalued’ quite seriously.
Before we look at the criticism and ask whether the curriculum really warrants its prize, it might pay to quickly establish some context.
Australian education is a responsibility of the state level of government. As such, all states have an education act that prescribes what and how people will be taught important knowledge and skills. An example can be found at Queensland’s Department of Education and Training site. All states have similar documentation, which in part dictates the creation of units or subjects in schools that reflect a curriculum created by a state body. How this is assessed varies between the states, but typically includes the collection of student work samples along with a syllabus that demonstrates significant effort has been made to follow the curriculum’s framework.
It has been a concern for a long time that while there is strong similarity between all state curricula, order and timing of the skills and content taught has the potential to create difficulty for population movement. A student whose family moves from Perth to Sydney might face disadvantages by having missed some topics while replicating others. This led to growing support for a national curriculum.
In April 2008 a national curriculum board was put together with the purpose of meeting this challenge. In early 2010, ACARA released Phase 1 of its kindergarten to year 10 National Curriculum for feedback, which covered mathematics, English and science subjects. Later it opened Phase 2, covering geography, language and the arts for public review.
It appears that science is the field that will be revised most rigorously in the future, as the dominating criticism through feedback was that a sense of perspective was lost by focusing on certain details. To go into detail on my personal views on the strengths and shortfalls of the document would fall outside of the scope of this post. Overall, in spite of certain small reservations, I felt as far as science went it was a robust framework that balanced the diverse needs of the community it was serving.
Having been responsible for working on unit plans and analysing curriculum frameworks, I can sympathise with their creators, especially when faced with a wall of teachers and community members who feel their particular pet field is more important than the others. We’re all familiar with the ‘overcrowded curriculum’, and knowing what is vital for the future citizen to know is no easy task. Keeping everybody happy while delivering a working structure is a nightmare.
Which brings us to the nomination for the Bent Spoon. It states that the teaching of evolution;
‘become virtually sidelined, appearing in one section of Year 10 only.’
Evolution does indeed appear explicitly as the first point in Science Understanding in Year 10. I question the author where else he feels it should be. In my experience as an educator, covering it explicitly as a topic in its own right is difficult prior to a student’s ability to grasp abstract concepts, which more or less rules out going into much depth before years 6 or 7. I’ve never covered it as a concept before year 10. Of course, content based on biological categorisation – which is important for grasping evolution later – can be covered, and is in year 4. Physiological adaptations are usually covered in year 8 or 9, although fossils (and discussing ancient animals) is covered early in about year 3. Genetics typically works alongside evolution in year 10 (as is the case here). So while the word only appears once, concepts that are fundamental to understanding evolution litter the curriculum.
“The evolution of man is not part of the syllabus, and all the examples of evolution given as ‘Elaborations’ in the syllabus deal with non-controversial or small scale applications of natural selection (e.g. ‘the impact of cane toads on the evolution of Australian Predators such as snakes.’)”
The evolution of man has never been part of the K-10 curriculum of any state to my knowledge (happy to be corrected) as it is covered in detail in senior subjects. One can argue for it being moved forward or made compulsory, and I can think of arguments for and against doing so. However, I can’t but help that this isn’t being argued with a pragmatic necessity in mind, but rather as a defensive posture against potential religious indoctrination.
But more on that later.
The elaborations in the document aren’t official necessities, but suggested guidelines on how it might be approached. They are typically suggested with relevance to prior knowledge in mind rather to make it easier for the teacher to determine a useful way to introduce the topic.
What of teaching that dreadful ‘Aboriginal’ science? What does the framework have to say about that?
Specific knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is incorporated where it relates to science and relevant phenomena, particularly knowledge and understanding of nature and of sustainable practices. For example, systematic observations by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures over many generations of the sequence of various natural events contribute to our scientific understanding of seasons in Australia.”
“Students should learn that all sorts of people, including people like themselves, use and contribute to science. Historical studies of science, mathematics and technology in the early Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Arabic and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures extending to modern times will help students understand the contributions of people from around the world.”
Given my upcoming book more or less goes into some depth on this topic, I’d like to think I’ve got something of an informed opinion. I feel the demarcation problem makes it difficult to describe precisely what science is and isn’t. Indigenous Australians have developed systems of describing nature, which might be viewed as scientific. They definitely created technology. Personally, I’m inclined to define science as values that described natural events in an impersonal fashion, so would see this as an interesting contrast, where I’d present to students the question ‘Is science the same as technology?’. Nonetheless, I think it’s a valuable contrast in the classroom, and one (when taught in accordance to the skills implicit in the curriculum) that would benefit student’s comprehension of how science isn’t simply defined.
“Thus the syllabus leaves open the option of teaching Creationism, while teaching just the basic theory of Natural Selection to Year 10 students only, omitting any reference to the evolution of man, and not mentioning Darwin once. This must be of great concern to sceptics as this document will form the basis of Science teaching for the next generation.”
Here’s the core of the matter. ACARA was found guilty of peddling pseudoscience because there it didn’t seal up the cracks, preventing the possibility of creationists slipping their venom into the ears of kiddies. That’s it – it didn’t account for the reds under the beds.
What troubles me most is that in spite of a greater focus on good scientific thinking, in spite of a move towards evaluative tools and promoting a critical epistemology more than any prior document, they got their wrist slapped because they didn’t put in enough Darwin. The assumption is that this is what impedes creationism in the classroom – evolution put in bold ink and underlined in a state-enforceable document.
There is a valid concern of pseudoscience slipping into the curriculum. I’ve encountered it all before – teachers who believe that the spin of a planet causes gravity; conspiracy theories; dolphins are a type of fish. But greater detail in the curriculum would not have made a lick of difference, given the existing documents failed to dissuade such errors or misinformation. Putting another evolution topic in primary school and adding Darwin to the list of great scientists will not safeguard schools against creationist teaching, and for that to be the focus of attack demonstrates a complete ignorance of pedagogy.
For skeptics, nothing should be more important than the arming of students with the fundamental skills that allow them to hear nonsense and identify it. This is not a question of content, but skills.
What does make a difference, then? A number of things. Better trained teachers. A school culture that reinforces cross-curricular skills. Improved career prospects for teaching and non-teaching staff. Good resources. Community involvement in the classroom. It’s not a simple solution, let alone one that can be addressed through a liberal dose of public mockery. Rather, differences are made by proactively contributing to the discussion with good information on pedagogy, cognitive psychology, best classroom practices etc.
The draft science curriculum is certainly not without its faults, and can definitely stand improvement. Nobody would argue otherwise. Informed and constructive feedback is vital and groups like the Australian Skeptics should well have pulled together a team of sceptical educators and produced well supported feedback grounded in research, which could have been promoted on its website to demonstrate its measured approach to education. Discussing how to go about this would be worthwhile.
Yet what is the likelihood of their being taken seriously by any curriculum council when its response is to instead ridicule ACARA, effectively calling them pseudoscientists because their conclusions don’t have enough evolution for their liking? Not great, I’m afraid.