ACARA’s Bent Spoon: A cowardly end

Adam and Eve

Human evolution 101 in the new Australian Curriculum...apparently

The backstory to this article is relatively simple in concept, even if complex in detail. For the details, please feel free to browse through ACARA’s Bent Spoon 1, Part 2 and Part 3. For those who feel it’s ‘tl,dr’; at TAMOZ 2010, the Australian Skeptics ridiculed the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for their draft proposal of the National Curriculum. I could summarise their initial reasoning, however it’s best to go straight to the source nomination made by English teacher Michael Adams.

In any case, on the back of this criticism the Australian Skeptics decided to review their decision. Four months later, they’ve come to a decision – it stands.

In their review media release, they acknowledge that criticism existed;

At the time, some bloggers and commentators criticised the Skeptics for this decision, citing the draft nature of the curriculum. Others responded with approval of the Skeptics’ stance.

There were three individuals who openly voiced their criticisms via blogs. Mine was one. Deb Hodgkin’s ‘She Thought’ article was another. The third was Bruce Everett’s ‘Thinker’s Podium’ article. There were other sympathisers, however for all purposes these are the three that address the decision to present the award to ACARA in detail with an explicit opinion. There are no other blog articles – supportive or critical – that I know of. And the criticisms went far beyond any concern for whether it was a draft or not. In fact, only one blog even mentions this – in an offhand set of parentheses – as a point of contention.

That there was so little response isn’t all that surprising. For one thing, it’s my view that few people would have a strong opinion on the matter either way. Although it’s education (which typically ranks highly in the concerns of the average citizen), the mechanics of educational policy and pedagogy is a field few people can discuss with citations, experience or clear understanding. Another reason is that the award has a low profile, with little to no media coverage, therefore not many people even knew of the ‘controversial’ awarding outside of those who attended TAMOZ or read the Australian Skeptics website.

In any case, within these three blogs can be found specific criticisms of the claims made by Australian Skeptics, which reflect what is felt to be a lack of understanding of the curriculum. None have been presented. No alternative links, criticisms or views have been quoted or even paraphrased.

Before I tease apart their media release on their review, I want to make clear as to why I’ve taken the time to address something few people know or care about. I don’t for a moment think it’s had any real impact on the decisions made by ACARA (in fact, from what I do understand, few – if any – within the authority – seem to even know of the award’s existence or seem to hold much concern for the views of Australian Skeptics), nor on the implementation of the national curriculum. It was a toothless exercise.

What does concern me is that where education is the key to developing effective thinking skills, Australian Skeptics have demonstrated no understanding of the system or practice they are criticising. Far from role modeling effective evaluation of a topic, presenting facts and data, engaging relevant experts, and directly addressing criticisms, they’ve arrogantly chosen to engage in ridicule without substance and avoid addressing the actual criticisms of their decision.

The media release states that the reviewers requested to remain anonymous. I have no desire to know who they are specifically, as it’s irrelevant. However in order to validate if they have experience which lends confidence to their contributions, their qualifications and relevant history would go far.

Australian Skeptics have chosen to make this decision public. If a media article supported a spurious claim by citing reference to ‘a number of experts’, I wonder how many of these skeptics would feel satisfied that it was so? Yet here, it’s acceptable.

Their justification starts with,

both in their appraisals and in the curriculum content that there is some confusion between a ‘syllabus’ and a ‘curriculum. The draft document is a curriculum that has the role of delineating topics to cover and basic premises inherent in those topics. As such, the draft fails on several fronts.

In general terms, a syllabus is the course material that is to be taught by a school, such as the actual content and assessment items required in order for it to qualify as a board subject. On the other hand, the curriculum informs this by way of providing a cohesive structure.

The claim that a national curriculum is supposed to delineate ‘topics to cover and basic premises inherent in those topics’, is overly simplistic to the point of risking being wrong. Since it forms a core reason for their award, it pays to examine this against a more involved explanation of what a curriculum does, as the difference makes it clear why their claim is without merit.

ACARA describes a national curriculum as per the following;

The Australian Curriculum sets out what all young Australians are to be taught, and the expected quality of that learning as they progress through schooling. At the same time, it provides flexibility for teachers and schools to build on student learning and interest.

In a nutshell, it’s not just the content, but the expected quality of it presented in a way that allows teachers as professionals to apply it with an appreciation of their students’ diversity. It is not a ‘delineation’ of content into topics, so much as a collection of skills, values and contexts that insinuate and suggest ‘what’ to teach so children across the country are all at the same level of understanding.

For some points, specific content will be secondary. It won’t matter if a child from Queensland has read ‘Animal Farm’ while a child from Tasmania hasn’t (but who has covered ‘1984’ in detail), for instance, so long as they’re each capable of critically evaluating a narrative, or discussing the importance of effective governance.

In other cases, content is important. The periodic table of elements is vital for understanding chemistry in later years of science, so is included in the curriculum in year 9.

There is always going to be some overlap between a syllabus and a curriculum, as the syllabus extends the curriculum by way of providing a practical schema. A good explanation of the difference can be found here. So, to state there is ‘confusion’ between the two after boldly misrepresenting the national curriculum’s aims doesn’t bode well for our alleged experts.

Nonetheless, moving on…

The claim is further expanded upon by stating;

For example, evolution is mentioned for the first time in courses for Year 10, which is the final year covered by the curriculum. We consider that this fundamental concept is intrinsic to studies in prior years, and therefore should have been raised much earlier.

On one hand, they’re claiming that there is ‘confusion’ on the fact that the national curriculum is being presented in some ways as a syllabus, only to have them wish evolution was explicitly raised earlier. The fact of the matter is that aspects important to understanding evolution are common throughout the curriculum. What isn’t present is the word ‘evolution’, as that topic specifically covers some complicated material that relies on that prior knowledge. For it to be more explicit, it would start to represent a syllabus by describing the content in greater contextual detail.

For example, in year 5 biology students are required to understand ‘Living things have structural features and adaptations that help them to survive in their environment‘. Adaptation is defined as a ‘physical or behavioural characteristic which is inherited and which result in an individual being more likely to survive and reproduce in an environment’.

No, evolution is not mentioned as a phenomenon here. Evolution is more than adaptation, and explaining this is not the role of a curriculum document, but at best a resource or (on the outside) a syllabus. Yet adaptation is necessary in understanding how evolution works, hence this particular topic breakdown is important within the structure.

Going further,

There are many missed opportunities to explain how science works and address scientific method. Frequent imprecision increases the risk of the teaching of science being contaminated with pseudoscience.

I can find a large number of statements such as ‘Suggest improvements to the methods used to investigate a question or solve a problem’ (Year 5, Science Inquiry Skills) which makes me wonder if they’ve even read the same document as me. Could there be more shoved in? Possibly, however one of the concerns of teachers is the amount of material required to be covered in a school year, which led to a revision that caused substantial cuts (including, ironically, a mention of Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace whose alleged ‘omission’ initially formed a significant focus of the original award nomination) to lighten the curriculum.

It is presented as a major concern by critics that Australian Skeptics were criticising a ‘draft document’. Perhaps some did. I didn’t. Deb didn’t. Bruce mentioned it once in brackets, admittedly. I was more concerned that there was no suggestion of their engaging in the review process beyond an exercise of ridicule.

We acknowledge this observation, but point out that a draft curriculum is an important position statement on course development and content, and even at that stage is presumably not without considered and considerable input.

If the Australian Skeptics were so adamant that the draft is an ‘important position statement’ and that it required ‘considered and considerable input’, why didn’t they do just this? Why use mockery, when involvement in the actual consultation would have been far more productive?

In summary, the review substantiated the original decision using the same vague, unsupported justifications;

Overall, the reviews substantiated our own assessment that the draft curriculum was weak. A curriculum should set minimum standards, but this draft created too many openings for less able teachers to make errors or to introduce pseudoscientific concepts as proven; there were too many missed opportunities to establish correct methodology; and there were not enough mentions of important tenets of science, including scientific method and evolution.

After detailed expert review, we have concluded that the 2010 Bent Spoon award to ACARA was justified and should stand.

Far from demonstrating an understanding of how the education system works, they refer to nameless ‘experts’ while presenting a simplistic view of what they’re criticising. And rather that present the criticisms clearly and plainly, they’ve chosen to generalise and evade.

There is little more than can be said on the topic as it draws to a close. Australian Skeptics – or, to be fair, a small but significant representative panel of this community – have chosen to distance themselves from the politics of our education system rather than engage with it. It is a unfortunate act of short sightedness on their behalf, yet one I can only be grateful for since this embarrassing behaviour sadly represents their view of what constitutes good critical thinking on matters that they are emotionally attached to.

Published in: on April 6, 2011 at 9:09 pm  Comments (9)  

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  1. This debate strikes me as very weird. In Canada, to the best of my knowledge, we only have a single jurisdiction (Quebec) that requires the teaching of evolution outside of elective advanced biology courses. So, the Australian example is actually rather progressive (and laudable). I am also not sure (as someone who professionally works on evolutionary problems) that explicit evolution instruction even makes sense before learning the fundamentals of biology. My partner and I designed set of ecology lesson plans for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources that satisfied the Grade 2 and 4 biology curriculum. Emphasis was, like the lower level Australian curriculum, on concepts like ‘adaptation’, ‘ranges’, ‘invasive species’, and ‘trophic levels/community structure’. These are all intimately related to evolution, but there is no explicit mention of Darwin. Could there have been? I suppose so, but it wasn’t clear to us that it would help the students understand the material at that level (and it wasn’t in the revised provincial science curriculum). Honestly, I think the choice to include at that level (assuming that it is being included later) is more ideological than pedagogical. Unless one can demonstrate that it is a necessary conceptual framework for understanding course material at the lower levels, its inclusion at all levels would seem more obviously to advance an agenda than its exclusion.

  2. “I am also not sure (as someone who professionally works on evolutionary problems) that explicit evolution instruction even makes sense before learning the fundamentals of biology.”

    This was one of the claims I made, which was never addressed. The word ‘evolution’ and its mechanisms are, indeed, absent until mid-high school. But the stepping stones are well and truly in place. The word ‘evolution’ is being regarded as some sort of ward against the intrusion of creationism, unfortunately, as if by having it explicitly mentioned it will ensure that pseudoscience doesn’t creep in.

    “These are all intimately related to evolution, but there is no explicit mention of Darwin.’

    This was actually one of the core issues raised by the nomination, that Darwin and Wallace were absent from the curriculum. That mention has strangely disappeared from the review. The truth is that in the draft at the time of the nomination and awarding, both figures were mentioned. The following draft and final curriculum document saw them removed, however, due to cuts made based on feedback that required the curriculum to be further streamlined.

    “Honestly, I think the choice to include at that level (assuming that it is being included later) is more ideological than pedagogical.”

    As is the entire witch-hunt here. There’s an ideological hatred of the very possibility of creationism to seep into the classroom that is bordering on pathological. Rather than look at this as a pedagogical issue, working with the curriculum to provide teachers with adequate support and resources, there’s a paranoia feeding an over reaction that inspires a desire to ridicule rather than actually do something productive.

  3. I responded to the earlier posts, supporting your objections, as I still do, for all the reasons you give. As a foundation member of the Australian Skeptics, I communicated my concerns personally in an email exchange with members of the committee. I am disappointed with the stand – the Skeptics have had a reputation for clear-cut rational analysis, and this award seems to diminish that standing. My particular concern was to the objection in the original nomination to indigenous sciences being included on the grounds that it is not science. As I am doing my doctorate on the way science is encoded in oral cultures – and I am doing so from a very strong science background – I was keen to point out that there is a great deal of valid science which can be taught in a really engaging way from an indigenous perspective. I fear that some on the committee may still be in the old mold that sees everything indigenous as somehow swathed in a fog of superstition. Survival in often harsh and unpredictable climates for tens of thousands of years indicates a high degree of pragmatism and a great deal of rational knowledge of the natural sciences is maintained by our Aboriginal cultures.

    Disappointing, but probably of no effect.

  4. I agree totally. I would have liked these particular points to have been addressed, yet instead their review seems rather dismissive without a rational argument being presented.

    It is a great shame that a community of people who are passionate about thinking skills are being done a great disservice by a minority when it comes to influencing the education of children in Australia.

  5. Thanks for the follow up. Funnily enough one well known skeptic was actually heavily involved in the preparation and coordination of a state submission to the science component of the National curriculum. To my knowledge their input wasn’t sought before or after the initial embarrassing debacle.

    The push for Darwin to be explicitly mentioned has me concerned that at least some version of organised skepticism in Aus is becoming ideological. Which is more important that children understand the process and the evidence supports it or that Darwin and Wallace unravelled it first? Strikes me as similar to an argument being had over facts vs understanding and interpretation in History.

    Aus skeptics lost me over this issue(not that I think that they’d care/worry)but then there’s plenty of other skeptics quietly working away who I can lend support to.

    Keep up the good work

  6. Thanks Sean. 🙂

    I actually wonder what would have happened if the AS had have approached this reasonably when the time called for it. A well constructed submission that supported the significance and relevant importance of Darwin in the curriculum might (IMO) have had enough of an impact to have retained the outcome he was initially linked to.

    I can only speculate, but I still find it such a missed opportunity when they chose late-stage ridicule over engaging with the process in a respectable and timely manner.

  7. I can only see it as a missed opportunity to expand their profile from taking on some of the lower hanging fruit and carving out some credibility with education departments.

  8. Thanks for the update. The reason my comment’s taken a while is I had a long screed written based on the curriculum which is really quite irrelevant. I’m frustrated because I actually work with the science curriculum document on at least a weekly basis and, as commenters above explain, what I’m seeing is a misunderstanding of pedagogy and a need for ‘EVOLUTION’ to be in flashing neon lights at the front of every classroom.

    Basically it underlines that the Australian Skeptics are not interested in working with teachers or the education system, preferring to stand to one side and pursue their own agenda. Which means in terms of education in Australia, they have just made themselves irrelevant.

    I see this very much as an attack on teachers. Let’s not forget that the ACARA document was written, reviewed and trialled by teachers. While I agree that there are substandard teachers, as there are in every profession, and even teachers with an ideological agenda, the AS is not helping to address this. Their response appears to be that teachers got it horribly wrong (the most preposterous pseudoscientific piffle)so they need some outsiders who understand better to lay down explicitly what they should do.

    In terms of skepticism, I’m seeing what amounts to a strawman characterisation of the criticisms and an implied argument from authority, although neither the terms of reference nore the authority is ever given. How would AS react if Power Band responded to them by saying ‘well our well qualified experts have tested it and agree with us.’

    And we have a delicious irony. I am both a science teacher who rejects the AS stance on the curriculum and a prominent member of Stop the AVN. Therefore it appears I hold the distinction of receiving both the Bent Spoon and Skeptic of the Year in 2010.

  9. That’s certainly an interesting irony. 😉

    I might just point out, however, that teachers are by no means a monoculture. Don’t forget, the person who made the nomination is an English teacher (no, not in science, but nonetheless one would hope they would have some familiarity with how a curriculum works).

    But you do make a very valid point about the perception of a group of ‘outsiders’ without a clear representation of educational experience telling a professional body how it should be done, without reference to research or data.

    I have no doubt at all that this criticism – like the rest – will be dismissed as merely whinging by some ‘shit-stirrers’ with a bone to pick by the AS. Given my target isn’t them directly (experience demonstrates they’re unwilling to address specific criticism anyway), but rather serve as source detailing how incompetent they are when it comes to education, I think it’s an issue that we can close the book on and concentrate instead on how to deliver good resources for the new curriculum.

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