ACARA’s Bent Spoon Part 3: around the twist

And then taught animals come in different 'kinds'.

Three’s a nice, round number. Three stooges, three blind mice, comedy’s ‘rule of three’. And given Australian Skeptics continue to present misinformation about education, I figure I might as well cover a third installment of this insanity.

If 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 the mince meat that was once a thoroughbred (well, at least a show pony)?

Yesterday, Australian Skeptics posted an article that in part covered the award. While they do concede they might have gotten it wrong, the same misinformation is repeated. As one of the critical blogs referred to (the other two of particular note are Deb Hodgkin’s ‘She Thought’ article and Bruce Everett’s ‘Thinker’s Podium’ article), I might have hoped for a link for people to determine the argument for themselves. After all, isn’t skepticism about evaluating all of the evidence?

In any case, it pays to keep in mind that this framework operates as a cohesive structure of skills and practices. Pulling one piece out and presenting it as content conflicts with how the curriculum operates. Most teachers – especially those recently trained or who have undergone recent professional development – understand this.

So, I feel since the same misleading information and abuse of facts keeps getting repeated, somebody should compare it with reality. Especially since I keep hearing from otherwise intelligent people how ‘Darwin has been removed from the curriculum’.

The Australian Skeptics claim:

The Science as a Human Endeavour strand of the curriculum specifically mentions dozens of scientists, including, in the biological sciences, the work of Linneaus, Mendel, Crick and Watson. But there is no mention of Charles Darwin or the co-developer of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Wallace. What?! Darwin, at the very least, is arguably one of the two best known and significant scientists in the last 200 years (the other is Einstein). So he’s left out?

The reality:

No, they haven’t been left out. And this has been pointed out.

Year 10, Science as a human endeavour – Collaboration in science (elaborations section): Investigating the often collaborative nature of the work of those credited with the development of major ideas (…the collaborative work of Darwin and Wallace regarding evolution).

This same bit of misinformation has made the rounds, obviously amongst skeptics who simply have not read the documents. Peter Bowditch, who admits to have voted for the award, states, “The complaint was that the proposed curriculum virtually ignored evolution and did not include Darwin in the discussion of significant figures in science, both of which give the appearance of either influence by creationists, appeasement of these clowns or simply fear of being controversial.”

The claim:

“While it is valid to view science in its cultural context, and compare science to other belief systems, the way the syllabus is written leaves open the possibility that decisions to use Chinese and alternative medicine (to be taught in Year 5) could be taught as being rational alternatives to science-based medicine.

The reality:

Year 5 Science and culture: Science and culture interact to influence personal and community choices (eg in making decisions about health and medicine)
Elaboration (i.e., suggested approach): Investigating choices made by people in many cultures to use natural remedies, with or without modern medical science, to manage their health
Wow. How would you interpret that? To me, it’s pretty clear that ‘investigate choices’, in conjunction with the skills taught alongside in evaluating evidence, is a good thing. Hell, I’d have expected Australian Skeptics would be clapping their hands with glee at this – it means they can provide resources targeted specifically at a part of the curriculum that is perfect for showing kids how natural medicine is risky business. Instead, it is misrepresented as if it is necessary content, with a sufficient dose of paranoia as it presents an opening for teachers to tell kids natural medicine is good science.

Let’s continue.

The claim:

“The examination of alternative belief systems begins before a full understanding of the scientific experiment method is taught, and thus leave students without the tools to adequately assess the alternative.”

The reality:

Depending on what exactly is meant by ‘a full understanding’, in year 5 (coinciding with the investigation of alternative medical approaches, not following) students learn under ‘investigation methods’: Contribute to decisions about the investigation method to use, including using fair tests, models, information research, surveys and data from secondary sources.

Again, what a perfect time for evaluating the evidence. I’ve done it successfully in terms of climate science with year 5 students, and believe me, they are quite good at discussing the pros and cons of a belief.

They claim it is a ‘backward step’ in the curriculum. However, while I’m not arguing it is perfect or not deserving of criticism (I have some myself, don’t worry), it is an improvement on the state curricula, at least as far as a focus on evaluative epistemology goes. The review process has been ongoing for some time, and ACARA have taken into account the criticisms in light of their review.

Astonishingly, it appears that the Australian Skeptics hope that ridicule such as the Bent Spoon serves as an adequate form of feedback:

“There is a review process for the curriculum as much as for any such document or decision (including the Skeptics’ awards), so if by making the award we have contributed to that review, then that is well and good, and proper.”

Unless I’ve misread this, it seems that they’re trying to say so long as the award has prompted ACARA to take another look at the curriculum in some way, it’s all good.

No. It’s not all good. There is a proper process which Australian Skeptics could well have participated in, where their claims might have been taken a little more seriously. But this is how they do things instead – ridicule and hope the world shifts.

There is an irony in this, as skeptics such as Bowditch claim that criticism is:

“driven by teachers who feel aggrieved that their opinions were not sought, have some animosity towards Australian Skeptics, believe that only trained teachers are qualified to comment on teaching matters or all of the above. I am particularly unimpressed by the claim that non-teachers should not be commenting because the matter is outside their expertise as it sounds very much like the whines I get from homeopaths who say that I can’t talk about it because I am not trained in it.”

Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever said non-teachers should not comment. Nobody, to my knowledge, is upset that their opinion wasn’t sought. I’d challenge anybody to find evidence to the contrary.

In fact, if anything, it is AS who maintain an argument from authority on the matter, stating ‘The bent spoon was awarded after consultation with qualified people.’ Qualified, perhaps. But while experienced teachers or resource developers might be considered to hold a better understanding of the curriculum, they don’t have a monopoly on how it works. Nor are they necessarily exempt from misunderstanding how it works, misreading it or putting their political agenda before critical thinking.

While this is a small wave in a big pond, it is a symptom of how a small but influential component of the Australian Skeptics engages with the public, especially on the topic of education. Most people are unconcerned either way. However, education is a significant tool in the skeptic’s arsenal. Knowing how to work with it could make all the difference in a person knowing how to identify nonsense.

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Published in: on December 8, 2010 at 9:21 am  Comments (7)  

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jack Scanlan, Mick. and tokenskeptic, Mike McRae. Mike McRae said: ACARA's Bent Spoon Part 3: http://bit.ly/feei63 (because you just know it should be a trilogy…and they just keep stating the same BS). […]

  2. Unbelievable! Seriously unbelievable. I really did expect more from Australian Skeptics and some serious thought and attention to skepticism and education and how they might compliment the curriculum by organizing speakers, designing units of work etc.

    As for qualifications and experience, well bugger me are they only important when they support ones own facts.

    I’d like to thank you TS for your patient persistence in trying to gently educate non-teachers on the curriculum and how education actually works(points to Bruce as well).

  3. Thanks again, it’s getting better and better. They have mentioned that there has been an ongoing review process for the curriculum but not whether they participated in it. I think that is a very pertinent piece of information, if this ‘award’ is their contribution it certainly is not proper. I don’t think they are being strictly fair to compare the curriculum review process and their own award review – ACARA published the drafts and invited submissions before finalising, the AS are responding to ‘a handful of bloggers and commentators’ after finalising the award. However I’m glad they have put up a statement acknowledging the criticism and are conducting a review.

    And since I’m probably who Bowditch is talking about I’ll clarify – in a comment on my original post I said “I would argue that the people with the ability to judge the curriculum fairly are those trained in writing and using curricula and familiar with pedagogical literature and policies – educators and specifically science educators.” I compare it to trained doctors or epidemiologists being the ones able to fairly judge medical papers. At no time have I said it is the exclusive preserve of educators, but personally I think the whole saga demonstrates that being a skeptic does not automatically give you those skills.

    As for comparing it to homeopaths, is he saying the body of educational literature, theory and practice is no better than magic?

  4. And here we have a case of “everyone’s been to school, so everyone’s an expert in education…”

    You’ve pretty much nailed it in all your posts. The most disturbing thing is even if all the criticisms were correct, which they are not, it’s on a draft… The actual curriculum was only published today. Here is is: http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au

    And, the bent spoon, as you also said, is for ‘the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle.’ That’s what the argument should be about. No problems with people criticising the curriculum, but how anyone thinks it meets that description is beyond me.

    But to the criticism. They show a fundamental misunderstanding of curriculum in general and the curriculum development process (it was the draft…). In particular the role of teachers as professionals who enact curriculum and create learning that suits the needs of their students and school context (to improve equity of educational outcomes). They also don’t note that complex scientific concepts are developed over time in curriculum. All the underlying concepts of evolution are clearly developed from F-10. Curriculum, also, only outlines what to teach, not what not to teach. That list, would literally be infinite.

    How does the process of the bent spoon research work? Did they ever get in contact with the science officers at ACARA…?

    This is an opportunity for the AS to demonstrate skepticism in action and retract the award and give it to the power balance people…

  5. “In particular the role of teachers as professionals who enact curriculum and create learning that suits the needs of their students and school context (to improve equity of educational outcomes)”

    That’s the part I find most concerning. It’s clear that the framework encourages evaluation of beliefs, something I would have thought would be celebrated by skeptics. Yet I’m sensing the skeptical community culture is trending towards a dogmatic enforcement of beliefs, relying on content-driven education to tell students what is truth and what is myth. There’s no concern or thought of an evaluative epistemology. Hence they have this abject fear that a significant proportion of teachers – given the opportunity – will simply communicate nonsense. It’s borderline paranoia and treats the teaching profession as a whole with absolute contempt.

  6. Existing NSW 7-10 Science curriculum (http://bit.ly/ewxxa9) :
    “The theory of evolution and natural selection…a) discuss evidence that present-day organisms have evolved from organisms
    in the distant past
    b) relate natural selection to the theory of evolution.”

    New Australian Curriculum Science (http://bit.ly/i4It36 ):
    “The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of living things and is supported by a range of scientific evidence…
    1. outlining processes involved in natural selection including variation, isolation and selection
    2. describing biodiversity as a function of evolution
    3. investigating changes caused by natural selection in a particular population as a result of a specified selection pressure such as artificial selection in breeding for desired characteristics
    4. relating genetic characteristics to survival and reproductive rates
    5. evaluating and interpreting evidence for evolution, including the fossil record, chemical and anatomical similarities, and geographical distribution of species.”

    Is the second quote a more downgraded treatment of evolution than the first?

    Has there been any previous claim that the NSW document (in use for some years) has permitted the teaching of Creationism?

    (Any views construed as having been expressed herein are my own and not my employer’s).

  7. Well said.

    Importantly, the skills needed to engage in science are emphasised in the new curriculum to a greater extent than before, as are the topics required to support an understanding of evolution.

    As I commented in response to your comment in Part 2’s post, the draft has since been updated in the previous month.


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