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’.