ACARA’s Bent Spoon – Part 2

I’ve received a few responses through various formats to my criticisms of the Australian Skeptic’s choice for the 2010 ‘Bent Spoon’ award for ‘the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle’. The majority shared my dismay, however a few voiced their support in favour of the ridicule of ACARA.

One response I’ve decided to address in detail, mostly because it presents the best and most coherent summary I’ve found to date of the pro side. Its author is Paul Willis, who I’ve verified as the science journalist who spoke at the conference.

I should also make it clear that I am – and remain to be – a great fan of Paul’s science communication work, even if I feel his grasp of science education is limited. I’ve addressed it specifically here not to make an example of him, but because so far, this is as close as I’ve come to a clearly articulated justification for the prize, besides the nomination itself.

In his comment, Paul writes:

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.”

Few would argue that there is a topic in biology that cannot be linked with evolution. It is like trying to understand chemistry without knowing the periodic table of elements – the context is essential to understanding the relationship between the content.

Yet the periodic table is also only covered once in depth in Year 10. Why? Because before you can understand the complexities of shells, atomic masses and electron sharing, you need to know some things about atoms, matter and reactions. That’s not to say it can’t be mentioned, or even presented before that point. Most teachers will gauge their student’s readiness in that regard.

Likewise, before natural selection can make sense, you need to know some things about evidence of ancient life (presented in year 3), ecological relationships (addressed in different contexts in year 6) and biological categorisation (year 4). That isn’t to say evolution can’t be mentioned, yet the details concerning the theory would be lost on a student who lacks such prior experience.

The question ACARA faces in creating a curriculum is therefore not whether the image of biology is consistently presented in a context of evolution, but rather how best to coordinate the teaching of biology (and other sciences) across the states to help evolution make sense when it is introduced as a theory, relying on the skills of the teachers to implement it best. Presenting a kindergarten student with an explanation of how a changing environment selects for inheritable characteristics in a variable population will not result in a deep understanding.

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.”

This belief that there is a bowing to creationists in the population, or to political pressure, verges on paranoia and smacks of conspiracy theory. I have little doubt that Paul might have to deal with a veritable tide of anti-evolution complaints whenever his program features evolution. But to claim it had a significant impact on the station’s choice of programming, I’d need to demonstrate that there would be more evolution content if not for such public pressure.

In this case, there is no evidence of a significant decrease in the amount of evolution being taught today when compared with past curricula. There is also no evidence of a substantial tide of public pressure calling for a decrease in the amount of evolution taught across the country.

While I don’t represent ACARA, in my experience I have personally received a total of two items of direct critical feedback, and four of indirect, in three years of writing to a national audience of tens of thousands of teachers, parents and students. That is in spite of mentioning evolution at least once every month or two. While that doesn’t mean some political lobby or influential politician could not have put pressure on the board, to accept it I would need some form of proof beyond conjecture.

This criticism also fails to take into account how the national curriculum doesn’t seek to replace existing frameworks, but attempts to bring them into line with those of other states. ACARA has made no such decision to reduce the teaching of evolution in the classroom as it stands currently, given it remains the discretion of state bodies and individual schools as to how they are to present their content.

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.

Considering five years of age coincides with the first year of primary school in many states (on average), I struggle to see how a curriculum might be expected to have covered ample content in kindergarten to be able to provide a comprehensive understanding of evolution in Year 1. Hence statements like this make me wonder how much thought is put into the criticism.

Nonetheless, I have little doubt that there are children capable of understanding it at a young age. On average, however, most young kids struggle with relating the abstract concepts needed to understand the implications of natural selection, beyond rote regurgitation. It seems that those who study education for a living agree.

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.”

The curriculum does not state that students ‘should learn from all sorts of people’. It states students ‘should learn that all sorts of people, including people like themselves, use and contribute to science.’ I fail to see how this is anything less than true.

And, ‘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.’

In other words, past cultures also had systems of science, mathematics and technology that developed towards our modern methodology. There’s no ‘creeping relativism’ here at all; it’s a sound understanding of the history and philosophy of science that is addressed in nearly any HPS textbook. It’s not saying that Aborigines were scientists in centuries past, or that modern science can be found in ancient China. It is saying that human history is relevant in how science developed as a culture and a methodology.

As a teacher I’ve taught that the Babylonians measured the world using systems of mathematics, that the roots of science (such as empiricism and logic) can be found in the philosophy of Ancient Greece, and that the Chinese had developed comparatively interesting technology. This isn’t ‘relativistic’, but rather conclusions based on historical facts.

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.

This is more or less a summary of the responses I’ve received. Baseless conjecture, misinformed assertions and a clear lack of understanding on what it is the national curriculum does.

Of course, ACARA’s framework doesn’t prevent a teacher from presenting creationism as truth, or stating that ancient Atlantians discovered nuclear power, or claiming that we’re all intelligently designed…at least, no more than current state curricula do so. Yet for this to necessitate such ridicule, it would rely on the assumption that most teachers and the systems in which they teach are not only incompetent, amateur and opaque to public involvement, but were conspiring to teach broken theories.

Why does this bother me so much?

Because by and large, many primary teachers do struggle with science. That isn’t a secret. Far from a conspiracy, there is the risk of the fundamentals necessary for understanding evolution being taught poorly or missed altogether. However, for people like Paul Willis and the Australian Skeptics to put the focus for this shortfall on the national curriculum, it fails to address the real issue.

The answer is not to burden the national curriculum with additional details, which is not just pointless, but risks it failing to perform as it should. It is for the community to engage with schools and create better resources wherever possible. It is to make information not just accessible, but to help give teachers the confidence to deliver it to their class.

Blowing a public raspberry at ACARA has done little to contribute to the needs of teachers, and instead has only served to make Australian Skeptics look even less like a potential source for good information than before. It was indeed a waste of a ‘golden opportunity’.

Published in: on December 3, 2010 at 3:27 pm  Comments (14)  

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  1. Can I just clarify that I am not attacking or ridiculing teachers or science educators; far from it. I know that they are under resourced and yet still do an amazing job of educating our kids. My hat goes off to them and I offer all the support I can provide. So it is unfair to widen my comments against ACARA and the curriculum that they have devised as an attack on science teachers. I’m sure that the Skeptics would also have a similar respect for science educators and in no way wanted to ridicule or criticize them.

    But a curriculum that purports to teach biology and restricts the teaching of evolution to a single class in year 10 is fair game. The whole of a biology curriculum ought to be infused with evolutionary theory if it is to give anything like a reasonable grasp of how modern biology operates. And you don’t have to be teaching Natural Selection, genetic drift, punctuated equilibrium or any of the more complicated concepts associated with modern evolutionary theory in Primary School to achieve this end. I’m fully cognisant with the education path that leads to these concepts discussed in higher years. But in order for that path to make sense, in order for the more advanced theory to be placed in its’ proper context, all the preceding years biology lessons ought to be enriched with ideas about the interrelationship of life, how life changes through time, how some species coevolve relationships of interdependence and so on; a rich seed bed of evolutionary awareness.

    When I said that I know of five year olds with an understanding of evolution I didn’t mean I’ve met a pint-sized Richard Dawkins clone who can reel off the mechanics of natural selection. These are kids who recognise and are conversant with the fundamental evolutionary concepts of life changing through time, of how the taxonomy of animals and plants is a consequence of common descent and that life has a long and complicated history. These, after all, are the most common ways that evolution weaves its’ thread through modern biology and it ought to be woven through the weft of a biology syllabus. To specifically restrict discussion to a single class in the syllabus is to show a lack of understanding of the fundamental nature of evolution to biology. To claim that our science teachers cannot deal with these ideas across the syllabus or that the kids cannot pick them up is an insult to both of them. The biology taught as a consequence of syllabus proposed by ACARA is an impoverished one. Their report card has to be marked ‘could do better’.

    Yes, it is speculation that the main influence in the sidelining of evolution in the ACARA biology syllabus is a fear of defending modern science from the relentless and moronic attacks of the creationists, but I don’t think you have shown me a better reason why this avoidance of science has occurred. And the speculation is a reasonable one given my experiences with the tenacious if disingenuous creationists. If ACARA is not cowering to the creationist, why isn’t Charles Darwin mentioned in the syllabus? Correct me if I’m wrong (it has been some time since I read the documents in detail) but Newton and Einstein and many of the others in the pantheon of modern science rate a mention in the curriculum so why not Chuck?

    The science classroom should not be a battle ground for ideologies and our science teachers should not be press-ganged into being the front line troops against the forces of religious ignorance. Nor should they be cowered into avoiding the teaching of one of the most elegant and powerful bodies of human knowledge yet produced. In setting the syllabus it should have been ACARA who carried the fight and upheld the science. They failed.

    I’ve nothing more to add on the cultural relativism argument. If it isn’t science it doesn’t belong in the science class. If it is science if does get in regardless of who came up with it.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SeandBlogonaut, Mike McRae. Mike McRae said: TS – ACARA's Bent Spoon 2: Because some dead horses deserve to be flogged. My response to a prominent supporter. […]

  3. So it is unfair to widen my comments against ACARA and the curriculum that they have devised as an attack on science teachers.

    Fair enough. But remember the system which you are taking a dig(?) at here

    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.

    is made up of those educators. I would imagine (can you?) there would be skilled science educators advising ACARA on the science curriculum. Perhaps we can get a suitably qualified journalist to, I don’t know, interview them for their reasoning?

    As for this

    To claim that our science teachers cannot deal with these ideas across the syllabus or that the kids cannot pick them up is an insult to both of them.

    I think it is misconstruing or failing to understand what is being said above.

    May I ask what experience and/or evidence you have in science teaching to primary school students any education system, that supports your assertion that they should be able to pick up this information.

    Can you tell me how successful the teaching of evolution is currently in your home state and how that might be reflected in the state curriculum currently?

    May I also ask how you would design the science curriculum, and what you are basing this on?

    You see at the moment I am seeing very little understanding(or respect – not that people are being rude just that it seems everyone thinks they are qualified to speak about education) for the field of teaching/education.

    This is disappointing when coming from skeptics that should know better. Just because we can read and understand what the curriculum says, does not mean we are qualified to speak on how it might be/is implemented.

    I am seeing none of the rigour which we usually apply to other areas here.

    A far better option for skeptics and interested scientists would have been to become involved in the curriculum process, to have spoken to curriculum experts to gain a better understanding of how a curriculum works and then to have made an educated argument backed with hard evidence.

    But then they have just pulled off an amazing meeting and we are all volunteers so I can cut them some slack.

    I hear and share your passion Paul. Keep up the wonderful science communication work.

  4. I don’t mean to unfairly extend your claim to mean you’re asserting teachers are incompetent. And, given I was also using your statement in a generalised fashion, my apologies are double. However, on the basis of how the curriculum is used as a broad scope document, to claim it does not provide enough on evolution is to also assume those topics where evolution is associated – such as fossils, or categorisation – are probably going to be taught distinct from the features you mentioned that are related and fundamental to evolution.

    Of course, that does happen. Yet it happens not because it’s missed in the curriculum, but often because the teacher does lack the experience in that field. In cases where it is deliberate, no curriculum detail will address such dishonest teaching.

    You say ‘restricts’ teaching to year 10. This is an example of not understanding how the curriculum operates. It does no such thing. It is a guide that essentially states students should have learned evolution to a satisfactory level by then that they can be assessed on it. Covering related topics in evolution prior to then is not prevented by the curriculum at all.

    You mention that while evolution does not have to be taught explicitly by way of natural selection and convergency etc., related topics should be covered. Indeed, ‘interrelationship of life, how life changes through time, how some species coevolve relationships of interdependence and so on’. Paul, with all due respect, have you read the curriculum, or are you relying on second hand knowledge? These topics are in fact covered. I admit the word evolution is not embedded in each section, yet again, that is not how the curriculum framework operates.

    Your examples of what younger students should know is a good example of what I’m referring to. They are, of course, essential. And the curriculum does require such topics to be covered. The details of how they relate to evolution are important, of course, but it is not the scope of the NC to dictate this, but rather the resources states approve for covering the specific concepts.

    I admit, bad resources leak in. I’ve seen plenty in my day. It’s my view that AS should work on their reputation amongst educators and address their concerns on this front, rather than jousting windmills that do little to help the cause.

    On the cause for the reduction: first of all, you still haven’t shown that there is one. For instance, the claim that Darwin and Wallace aren’t in the curriculum is false (they can be found in Year 10 ‘Science as a Human Endeavour’). It could be argued that they should be found elsewhere, and I wouldn’t disagree. But the recommendations are what are termed ‘elaborations’, and aren’t exactly official statements that must be taught, but are based on possibly prior knowledge and are examples for the material.

    Second of all, it’s little more than an argument from ignorance. Not having evidence for something does not make something else more likely. If you claim that there is a pandering to a religious element, you need evidence for it.

    On the last statement: I’m glad you’ve got the demarcation problem solved. 😉 Many other philosophers have tried and failed…

    We’ll just have to disagree on that point. Personally, I think describing why science has become such a useful tool requires a look at how we arrived at it, and how other cultures describe and analyse the world. I believe it would do students a great disservice to ignore Aristotle, or Babylonian mathematics, or discuss the difference between technology as science and as trial and error, or investigate where astronomy is distinct from star maps, all because they aren’t modern science.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to respond. I still can’t help but wonder how much of the documents you’ve personally read, and how much is repetition of another’s opinion. In any case, I hope I’ve at least challenged you enough to consider that while ACARA is deserving of criticism, it is not deserving of the ridicule that has been leveled at it.


  5. […] (Paul Willis at Tribal Scientist, 2010) […]

  6. I think we are largely violently agreeing with each other on many issues here and pretty much reduced to some significant details for discussion. However, I don’t have much more to add and think there’s nothing gained in simply reformulating what I’ve already said.

    Yes, I have had experience teaching dinosaurs to K-6 which included a heavy dose of evolution. I’ve also had a lot of exposure to first year science students at uni who have completed the full high school biology syllabus and think that evolution is only some kind of supplimentary or optional idea that doesn’t need to be taken seriously. I honestly can’t see the the new syllabus will redress this deplorable situation.

    Thanks for the civilised debate – we all think this is important and constructive discussion can only help build a better future.

    Long live great, dedicated and creative science teachers and viva evolutionary biology!

  7. Isn’t it always the way? Ditto on the polite discussion – it’s clear we’re both passionate about the same thing here. The difference is that in my experience, the attack is misplaced and risks drawing attention away from what might really help in achieving what we both want. The curriculum’s role is not to provide those details, but to provide a framework for them. When misinformation is spread about a shared goal (i.e., clear nonsense about Darwin not being mentioned), I feel I have a responsibility to address it.

    Hopefully in the future we can work together at producing solutions that might really help to address the issue.

    Thanks again, Paul. You’ve prove to me that I can vehemently disagree with somebody and still hold immense respect for them.

  8. Ditto!

  9. […] Another iffy moment for me was the awarding of the Bent Spoon Award to the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority for being the ‘perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle‘ in 2010. The award was theoretically given to the ACARA because the National Curriculum science framework ‘sidelines evolution’ and teaches ‘alternative theories’ such as Chinese medicine; the reality of the situation, however, appears to be quite different — Mike McRae has done a brilliant job of discussing the issue here and here. […]

  10. […] you’ve missed the story so far, the first article covers the essential details and the second article addresses journalist Paul Willis’s defence of the award. So, why a third flogging of […]

  11. If ACARA has “devalued” anything then presumably this must be in comparison to some existing situation. The difficulty in making the comparison is that we need to compare a single draft document with 8 existing documents (presumably) from the different States and Territories. I don’t know whether anyone has done this exercise.
    I can point out from a brief examination of the NSW case, that the word “evolution” does not appear in the existing K-6 Science and Technology syllabus. The support materials for primary teachers do however refer to “changes that have occurred over time” and make reference to “fossils” and “dinosaurs”.
    The word “evolution” does appear in the year 7-10 Science syllabus but only for Stage 5 (which is years 9 and 10). It is quite explicitly referred to as a compulsory topic in the syllabus, given similar importance to the structure of the atom and chemistry.
    I have looked at the ACARA website and cannot find a document entitled “science curriculum” or draft science curriculum. There is a document titled “Shape of the Australian Science Curriculum” ( May 2009, which describes its purpose as “guide the writing of the Australian science curriculum K–12.” Is that the paper being complained of? (I assume not, given the 2009 date).
    If not, where is the paper for which ACARA received the award?
    Is it possible for someone to post the original document for which ACARA received this award in the thread so we can make a comparison?

    (Any views construed to have been expressed herein are my personal views only, not those of my employer).

  12. Excellent points, Michael. If there was a sign of this level of investigation or defence, I’d have no cause to question their judgment. I might not agree, but at least it would be an indication of their having done their homework. Given a key argument is that an alleged reduction in the amount of evolution in the curriculum is religiously driven, there should be evidence of a before and after. There isn’t.

    The latest k-10 science curriculum documents can be found at It’s important to note that there have indeed been some changes, some of which I think are for the worse, to be honest. The most relevant is the removal from year 10 of ‘science as collaboration’ from the ‘Science as a Human Endeavour’ section. With it went any mention of Darwin, Wallace, Newton and several other notables in its elaborations (which aren’t required teaching, but suggested contexts for the objective), whose work was referenced. Ironically, it now puts truth to AS’s claim that Darwin is not in the curriculum, which was based on previous drafts that did indeed contain mention of Darwin. Mayhaps they’re psychic? 😛

    Yet given there is also a reduction in other names, I still don’t think this is grounds to blame religious intervention. There is room for discussion as to whether objectives should include particular names (none do currently), however so far the debate has not moved beyond paranoia of creationist material now having a greater chance of making it into the classroom.

  13. Interesting. I did a quick search for “Einstein” which revealed no returns.
    However “Galileo” is there along with “Copernicus and Khayyam” in the section dealing with scientific contributions from different cultures.
    While it seems difficult to complain about the exclusion of Darwin if Newton and Einstein are also out, the inclusion of Khayyam is strange in this context. It appears to be making only a cultural rather than scientific point.
    Is there further scope to have this revised?

    PS I had not read your 3rd part when I posted above so was not yet aware that the document was posted in that section.
    (Again, my own views, not my employers).

  14. Personally, I think it’s a good thing there’s some mention of the Islamic scientists. Part of my inspiration behind my book is the tendency we have to personify science in individuals, often attributing single discoveries to historical scientists like Newton and Einstein while missing the surrounding sociocultural contexts that led to them. The Islamic era of science discovery rarely rates a mention in secondary school, in spite of its immense impact on the ‘European greats’.

    In any case, the role of the curriculum isn’t to determine the particulars of the content but to provide a solid framework. The elaborations are suggestions on what such content might look like, and nothing more. So I’m not overly worried at the lack of mention of notable names, given that the wealth of available learning resources provide plenty of historical perspectives.

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