ACARA’s bent spoon

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.”

And,

“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.

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Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm  Comments (18)  
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18 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for this analysis, Mike. It’s useful to hear the opinion of an expert.

  2. I wouldn’t even claim great expertise on this, to be honest. Which is the shocking thing – I know I’ve got a fairly basic understanding of the particulars of curriculum design, and that there are others out there who are true experts in the field, who study this for a living. Why AS has never bothered to sit and have a chat with them to adopt an official position on education is beyond me.

  3. Hopefully the recent formation of the JREF’s education advisory panel is something that organisations with similar missions, such as the Australian Skeptics, can learn from.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mick. and Jasmine Leong, Mike McRae. Mike McRae said: Aus Skeptics hand ACARA a bent spoon: http://bit.ly/fLnxt7 #TAMOZ How warranted was it? […]

  5. I’m disappointed. When I first heard of the nomination I started looking at the secondary National Curriculum. Previous to that I’ve mostly been working with the junior primary, and I should say my background is in indigenous education.

    As an experienced specialist Secondary science teacher I honestly didn’t see the problem. The curriculum is so generalised to leave specialisation in the hands of the teachers depending on their school and circumstances. There are bits I would like to change, but this is a draft document to cover all of Australia. Of course when you cover adaptations and classification in Year 8 or disease in Year 9 you are going to look at evolution, how else could a scientist approach it? Only a non-specialist or someone with an agenda would bring in creationism, and if a teacher in the classroom is determined to do something like that a curriculum document isn’t going to stop them.

    There has to be some acknowledgement that teachers are professionals and the curriculum is a guide, or you have to wonder why we are there at all. If there is a concern that non-specialists are being forced into areas they can’t handle or teachers aren’t performing, which I agree are legitimate concerns, then support the professional teaching groups and Principals trying to deal with this constructively.

    I wasn’t aware of the concerns about the Aboriginal sections and I’m even more disappointed. Working with the junior primary curriculum I’ve been very excited to see indigenous suggestions in the elaborations. As you say, the elaborations are suggestions only and my work focuses on the difficulties teachers have in remote settings, anything that helps make school more relevant and gives teachers ideas to engage these students is to be highly applauded. Teaching is most effective when it helps people move from the known to the unknown, the indigenous elaborations support teachers who are already working with a foreign culture when teaching indigenous students.

    I think this is linked to the the poor public perception of teaching as a profession and the perception of teachers’ themselves. In this respect teachers are their own worst enemies. There are many bad teachers out there, as there are bad lawyers, bad doctors and bad scientists. There are even more teachers who are drowning as they are forced to deal with areas and audiences they are not trained to handle. But that is not a curriculum problem, that is a systemic problem.

    The Australian Skeptics should be allies in trying to improve science education in particular and critical thinking in general. Unfortunately this ‘award’ makes them into an enemy. I took a break from writing a proposal about indigenous science education to write this comment and all I can think of is how much harder this is going to make my job, which is about improving science education and hopefully critical thinking skills in some of the most disadvantaged children in Australia. I hope the people who will read my proposal don’t hear of it.

  6. Thank you for the excellent summary of what’s going on with the AS. My first impression immediately after reading that AS had given a Bent Spoon to ACARA was precisely that Aussie education was going down the same road as Texas. It’s good to know that it’s nothing of the sort.

  7. “There has to be some acknowledgement that teachers are professionals and the curriculum is a guide, or you have to wonder why we are there at all. ”

    And here you’ve nailed it. Disappointingly, the nominee is allegedly an English teacher, so one would expect they might at least grasp that much. But the fact of the matter is that the curriculum is done a disservice by including a level of detail that removes the ability of the teacher to determine what is appropriate for their class. Sure, some will possibly teach the ‘c’ word behind closed doors, yet adding more to the curriculum will do nothing to prevent that.

  8. As a long term science teacher and writer, and hard core skeptic, I am now doing a doctorate on the way science is encoded in oral tradition, including Australian Aboriginal traditions, and can assure you there is a lot of really good science – it is just recorded and remembered in different ways to those familiar to those who use writing. I believe that including these alternatives can add an excitement to the way we see science. I can add lots of examples from a huge range of oral traditions. How sad to see the Australians Skeptics so lacking in understanding of science.

  9. To some skeptics, failing to prevent the possibility of something is the same as perpetrating the peddling of it. The world will flock to the cause of such people/sarcasm

  10. I am severely disappointed that AS chose to award the bent spoon for all the points you have listed above.

    I came up against the same thing when I posted on the history curriculum and my thoughts that any concerns were probably unfounded. Lots of comments from people who have a) no concept of the curriculum in practice b) no experience as a teacher.

    This to me is a colossal missed opportunity by AS, a chance to forge closer ties with a “national” curriculum body. To offer support where it would most effectively combat real threats to critical thinking in education.

    I hereby award AS the foot-in-mouth award for miscommunication.

  11. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SeandBlogonaut, Alom Shaha. Alom Shaha said: RT @SeandBlogonaut: Silly Australian Skeptics, very silly ACARA’s bent spoon « The Tribal Scientist: http://bit.ly/fjc6iE […]

  12. As a teacher and a skeptic I agree with the disappointment expressed at the Australian Skeptics’ bent spoon decision this year. The breakthrough of the Stop the AVN group was worthy of praise, but two years of bent spoons for Dorey would have been redundant and it was good to hear that the focus was moving from anti-vax. The Powerband has been a major focus through the year, and an area where Oz Skeptics had achieved some public success. I fully expected they would be the leaders for a bent spoon and was shocked that ACARA was even in the running.

    Anyone who involved in the development of curriculum knows it is a long-winded, political football which will never please all of the people who want a part in it. Oz Skeptics say they accept that being Skeptical does not exclude people of faith, but I think this is an over-reaction to the draft and says much more about the political leanings of Oz Skeptics than it does ACARA or the draft science syllabus.

  13. Braydan, I completely agree. There is a lot of potential in the benefits that are provided by a skepticism community in this country, as you highlighted.

    Unfortunately I feel they are being let down by rather amateur (and dare I say in some ways, even immature) representation at the helm. I’m disappointed on behalf of skeptics across the nation who seek not only guidance but properly evaluated information on how they can effectively make a difference in other’s lives. If it’s respectful engagement AS desire from the community, this is the worst way of going about it.

  14. I was at TAMOz and enjoyed it immensely, but did not attend the Bent Spoon award session. I think putting ACARA in the same category as Meryl Dorey is a mistake and an analysis of past Bent Spoon recipients makes a body like ACARA seem somewhat out of place. The ACARA process allows public input at several stages and any refocussing of the curriculum occurs with the consideration of this input. That science and evolution may have slipped a little in the focus of the National Science Curriculum framework is more the failure of us skeptics to organize and engage in the process than it is a failing of ACARA. If we allow religion and pseudoscience to have the louder voice themed should not complain when they are heard.

  15. Thanks for the reply, Grendel.

    “That science and evolution may have slipped a little in the focus of the National Science Curriculum framework is more the failure of us skeptics to organize and engage in the process than it is a failing of ACARA.”

    I agree with your principle (that if Skeptics want to see a greater focus of something, they should engage in due processes rather than engage in post-hoc mockery), I’m still yet to hear any substantiation of the claim that there is a need for more explicit mentions of evolution.

    To do so, other components would need to be reduced to make room. Which ones? Why? The only sense I can gather (given the silence on the matter from advocates of the award) is that there is the presumption of more evolution equaling less possibility of Creationism. Is there an equal concern that not enough chemistry could open the way for homeopaths to preach? Not enough on immunology could pave the way for AIDS denialism? Where does it stop?

    In short, there was no thought into this beyond a knee-jerk, emotion-laden reaction. And they are the role models of skepticism.

  16. I was there and I agree with the awarding of the Bent Spoon to ACARA. As a biologist, palaeontologist and science reporter I am appalled at evolutionary theory being stuck anywhere in the curriculum other than at the very core of the biology syllabus. Evolution is the central thread that ties all biology together and yet the proposal is to teach it in one class in Year 10 of the biology syllabus? This is a failure of ACARA to present a fair and accurate image of modern biology to students via the proposed curriculum.

    And why is evolution being sidelined by ACARA? The most obvious conclusion is fear of engaging in a social and political discussion by upsetting creationists. ACARA has a golden opportunity to present a fair and honest portrait of modern biology to students and they blew it presumably to avoid conflict with a religious minority. For that alone the Bent Spoon was appropriately awarded.

    I don’t buy the argument that evolution is too difficult or abstract to teach more broadly. I’ve met 5 year olds who have a good working knowledge of evolution. It’s a shame that they have had to learn this outside of the classroom, one might even say in spite of the education system.

    As for the creeping relativism that students should learn from all sorts of people, including Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Arabic and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; may I be suggest something heretical here: How about we keep science in the science class and non-science out? I’m not dismissing the knowledge and insights into various phenomena offered by different cultures as being garbage or irrelevant, I’m sure that they have a place elsewhere in the curriculum, but if it isn’t science it doesn’t belong in the science classroom.

    If the job of ACARA was to design a syllabus that introduced our kids to the world of science and biology, they clearly failed by eviscerating evolution and introducing relativistic weaselling. That this was apparently done to appease religious and other non-scientific factions makes them the perfect recipients for the Bent Spoon.

  17. Thanks for the response, Paul. While I disagree with you whole-heartedly, I sincerely appreciate that you’ve taken the time to present a justification for it.

    I’ve responded to it here: http://bit.ly/fRgCp3

  18. […] you’ve missed the story so far, the first article covers the essential details and the second article addresses journalist Paul […]


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