Understanding science doesn’t guarantee an understanding of how science is taught…

Way back in 2005, Paul Willis of the ABC’s Catalyst presented a story considering the prospect of Intelligent Design being taught in science classes. The form the story took, as is seemingly the pro forma for Willis’ take on any similar issue, is to simply ask the question ‘is Intelligent Design science?’

It’s a question with an uncontroversial answer; ‘no’.

It’s also a problematic question, although for anyone who isn’t an Edu-wonk (0r a teacher or an education academic), this may not seem obvious. Let me elaborate.

***

Kids don’t rock up to classes in a state of intellectual vacuum. They have prior understandings and interests, some needing to be challenged, others that can facilitate learning. They aren’t empty vessels you just pour knowledge into – whatever they learn, good or bad, children are active in learning and this occurs in conjunction with what they already think and believe.

Any sound pedagogy needs to teach to this reality.

Take ecology for example. You could just teach it from a textbook, reciting it in the general direction of students.

Or you could take the kids out on field trips to their local area and get them monitoring parts of the ecosystem that impact upon their local culture or directly on their person. The livelihood of their families may depend on the local environment, or ecology could just be an obsession. It could equally flow from a love of the work of David Attenborough, as it could from a family eco-tourism business, as it could from a traditional cultural attachment to the land.

If you were teaching ecology at the mouth of the Murray River, you could (and I hope would in such a scenario) grant students access to resources detailing the historical Ngarrindjeri use of fire in shaping the landscape, and the related implications of introduced flora in the area (a trip to Camp Coorong would be good for this). This is of course in addition to matters such as the flow of water from upstream, the water quality in the lakes, subsequent effects upon invertebrates and bird life, and the impact upon traditional and modern uses of these natural resources.

In this scenario, you’d also want to explore what the students’ individual interests are. It may seem like a diversion from science, but really it’s the difference between meaningful learning and students sitting on their hands and absently nodding. It’s not time wasted.

Any good teacher can tell you which is better between culturally relevant field trips, or rote learning from a book, or disengaging abstraction.

Relating back to the question ‘is ID (or creationism in general) science?’, the problem this poses may now be apparent. What if you’re teaching students from a highly religious culture? What if you’re teaching to students who are enthralled with a recent, popular discussion about the latest creationist shenanigans?

‘It isn’t science’ isn’t at all informative because if you’re a science teacher, you already know that it’s not science, and it’s not exactly instructive in these types of situations.

What if you tied the study of evolution to the history of evolution as a theory, say against the backdrop of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate (with perhaps a re-enactment in Drama classes as well)? A lot of this isn’t science (it’s history), but it wouldn’t be at all a bad way to teach evolution to kids engrossed with a church-state controversy! ‘It isn’t science’ tells us nothing in this respect and the implication that non-science should be isolated is in fact counter-productive.

On the one hand you have an approach with learning areas compartmentalized, and hence abstracted beyond relevance, while on the other you have students being engaged.

Of relevance to the Bent Spoon Award is both the difference in pedagogical effectiveness between these two types of approaches, and the lack of difference in what science is being taught in either approach. Both being the kind of material detail overlooked in the recent issuing of the Australian Skeptics’ Bent Spoon Award.

***

Making science curriculum relevant and engaging doesn’t just involve linking science to students’ cultural backgrounds as mentioned above, but also to other forms of knowledge.

And NO!

This IS NOT the same thing as saying that these other disciplines are equally valid ways of knowing scientific facts either! It’s not like saying you can test a hypothesis with poetry, rather that it may just be that writing about the poetry of science in English may be the only way to get some students interested, active and participating in science.

Einstein becomes more relevant against a backdrop of the history of science (a humanities subject!) including Newton onward. Fire ecology becomes more relevant against a backdrop of Aboriginal fire stick farming – that’s Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE). Marsupial taxonomy and anatomy gets a lot more interesting and engaging with an Aboriginal backdrop as well!

The Arabic world provides a historical backdrop for an array of science topics, particularly those saved from oblivion during the Dark Ages – but this doesn’t involve reading science fact from the Qur’an.

There’s content in biology – skeptical content – that should be of interest to students obsessed with performance in a local sporting team (that’s Health and Physical Education). Are you catching on?

Unless you are willing in the face of this reality to say that ‘speaking-abstracted-facts-at-students’, or ‘just-read-the-state-approved-textbook’, or ‘follow-the-prac-instructions-and-fill-in-the-answers’ is as engaging as science-in-context, you’ve got problems defending ACARA’s Bent Spoon. If you’re willing to hold adopt this position in the face of this reality, you’ve got a problem calling yourself an advocate of quality science education.

The choice remains between chosing science education advocacy, or choosing to back the Australian Skeptics’ uninformed attack on ACARA.

***

Integrated curriculum is often derided  as a kind of relativistic-bogey-come-ideological-in-road (usually by people with a tragic combination of not-knowing-why-or-what-it-is and Dunning-Kruger effect.) Seriously though, how often does science operate in a vacuum? Anyone working with animals at a reputable University can tell you about their interactions with their ethics panel (philosophy in schools!)

In SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment) you can have students critically question the ethics of the introduction of a controversial drug, while also having them learn the relevant biology. You can have them studying a project-based-learning unit distributed across SOSE, General Science and English classes, adopting the roles of the court system, while engaging in self-directed research into forensics and writing prose to explain the venture to parents and public.

(Anyone have a budding science journalist as a rug-rat?)

This is what integrated curriculum looks like and it works better than learning science abstracted into administratively convenient, compartmentalized learning areas. It also more closely resembles what happens in “The Real Worldtm“*. Remember when people used to demand that from schooling?

In such an arrangement, SOSE and English don’t suffer from shared time with science, they benefit from it. The same is true for science. The sum of integrated learning areas is greater than their parts.

It’s not about relativism. It’s not about pandering to political pressures.  In science education it’s about relevance, engaging students and getting them to learn science by doing science with purpose.

Yet…

Recently, Paul Willis tells us in discussing the supposed “creeping relativism” that gained ACARA the Bent Spoon…

“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?”

and…

“If it is science if does get in regardless of who came up with it.”

(Paul Willis at Tribal Scientist, 2010)

Willis is being silly when he suggests he’s being heretical. Nobody’s persecuting him. They’re just pointing out that he’s wrong. Boo-bloody-hoo!

At the core of Willis’ misunderstanding is the dual notions that if it’s not science, then somehow it damages the teaching of science, and that curriculum documents produced by the likes of ACARA are only interested in what is taught, not how. This may be true if you measure your success in the quantity of material you direct at passive minds, but that’s not how a successful science class works, and it’s not how curriculum frameworks are geared.

It’s the same mistake made by former Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop, when she went after the “post-modern stew” and “political science” supposedly fouling-up history classes. The end result of her inquiry by her own hand-picked experts (with no education “ideologues” on board), were a series of recommendations much along the lines of what was already taking place in history classrooms.

Julie Bishop saw political-ideological pandering where there was none. An unnecessary process that could have been mitigated by a basic understanding of what she was criticising in the first place.

Of course if integrated curriculum (a particular bugbear of Bishop’s history classes non-controversy) was removed that would be giving in to political pressure. The same would be true of ACARA abandoning pedagogical frameworks just to appease the confected political anxieties of the likes of Willis, and the relevant portion of the Australian Skeptics.

Odd then that Willis makes the accusations that he does.

“That this was apparently done to appease religious and other non-scientific factions makes them the perfect recipients for the Bent Spoon.”

(Paul Willis at Tribal Scientist, 2010)

What’s the point of handing out a Bent Spoon if not political pressure? And what’s a (supposedly) skeptical organisation doing handing out such awards on the basis of what is “apparently done”, especially when there is a super-abundance of other potential recipients who are more than just “apparently” wooish?

***

What people need to get a handle on when dealing with curriculum frameworks**, is that they aren’t just a shopping list of things to pour into kid’s heads. If you read them as if they are, then you’re bound to arrive at error.

In addition to setting the underpinning content, they’re also a framework for how to teach it; to be adapted to particular student needs, in particular schooling contexts, over the entire diversity of students within the jurisdiction the document applies to.

For example, you can’t just look at the mention of an Aboriginal Australian perspective in such a document and rightly conclude that in science classes, Dreaming stories are being mainlined into students’ brains as alternate explanations, equivalent to science.

This is not, nor has it ever been, nor is it proposed to be, nor is anything like that, the purpose of any modern public school science curriculum in Australia. The Rainbow Serpent is not going to be taught as an alternative to geomorphology!

If this is what you’re reading out of the supposedly controversial ACARA (draft!) documentation, then you’re reading it wrong!

Perhaps governments are to be chastised for not producing a public-friendly, jargon-free version of curriculum documentation. But that’s a question of open governance, not a question of some “creeping relativism” conspiracy.

The problem is one of tilting at windmills. Which is of course systemic in the kind of woo skeptic organisations are supposed to be railing against.

The irony is palpable.

***

But back to 2005.

Not entirely satisfied with the coverage of Willis’ ID-in-schools story, having had no pedagogical content at all, I fired off a polite email to the folks at Catalyst asking if there was any content that hit the editing room floor that may be of interest; unused interview material and that kind of thing.

It took a long while for a reply, and the response was disappointing to say the least. It was a formulaic response that informed me that my complaint (I didn’t complain!) had been formally filed for processing (presumably with all the creationist whining the story was bound to generate – which as someone with a science degree steeped in evolution, is a pretty unpleasant insinuation!)

Again. Tilting at windmills. This time pretending that any critical inquiry is somehow able to be automatically categorised with the rabble. Paranoid even.

I responded that I wasn’t complaining, that I didn’t want to take part in any such formal process, and that I was just seeking more information. To this I got no response at all. A “no we don’t”, or we don’t reveal that kind of information would have better than a cold shoulder.

To say that the Catalyst household may have been hounded and rattled by creationist loons to the point of defensive paranoia, does nothing to detract from the fact that this is defensive paranoia. It does nothing to detract from the fact that it’s not my, nor any other viewer’s problem. It was a failure of process for Catalyst (a science program on a public broadcaster) to cater to cataloging vexatious creationist emails at the expense of genuine requests for newsworthy information relating to science! It’s a failure of their raison d’etre!

This is a siege mentality which rationalists need to abandon lest they become conspiracy theorists, much worse conspiracy theorists self-alienated from education professionals, even worse again, conspiracy theorists, self-alienated from education professionals yet somehow able in the fits of such marginal paranoia to be mistaken for people possessing an air of authoritative seriousness. This hinders science education, and enabling this wooish, hyper-suspicious hostility towards sound pedagogy is bad for organised skepticism as well for obvious reasons. 

***

So how can this problem be resolved or at least ameliorated?

I’ve already suggested better public-friendly information, so there’s that. But that’s not enough, obviously.

While I think from this exchange amongst others, Paul Willis has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that while he is obviously qualified to cover science as a journalist (something I have no wish to see him stop doing), he’s got bad form when it involves science education. I don’t want to make Willis out as some kind of litmus test, but his record stands out as typical of the essentials of the problem, even if not the worst case. (Paul Kelly at The Australian on history education and integrated curriculum during the reign of Julie Bishop is I think worse, albeit not about science education, and if you want to see something truly pathetic, let this be a starting point for inquiry.)

The problem remains that if the ABC wants to be informative on matters of science education, especially through its flagship science program, some attitudes and abilities, or even faces, need changing in-house. Not a political purging, just a dedication to a basic standard of competence.

The point is that science, science journalism and science education are different fields with different demands upon professionals. Being good at science doesn’t mean you’re good at teaching it, or even understanding how to teach it. Conflating serious discussion in these different fields of expertise for the sake of trends, fashion, administrative convenience or whatever, is to transform the otherwise professional into the over-glorified hobbyist.

Unless Willis and others in the same boat can’t learn to read educational jargon, they’d be better off – and we the general public would be better of – if they stuck to their respective “rocks, fossils and poo.”

Then there’s the skeptic organisations themselves.

It may go some way in fixing the breach of trust if the 2011 Bent Spoon Award were to be given to the Australian Skeptics for excellence in the field of pretending to know stuff. And if the organisation isn’t to be widely written off as quackish, which after this performance isn’t something it could rightly complain about, they could start by involving and empowering people who can at least read a curriculum document, rather than raising the profile of education’s peanut gallery.

Skeptical organisations have quite understandably taken efforts to distance themselves from climate change denialism – and it’s not just an exercise in othering. Denialism is precisely the epistemological approach that differentiates a climate change denialist from a genuine skeptical scientist. This is entirely reasonable, respectable and responsible.

Members of organisations like the Australian Skeptics need to get their heads around the fact that the same bull-headed, uncritical, chauvinistic approach to climate science, is the same attitude being taken by the Australian Skeptics towards sound pedagogy***. Seeing a relativist bogeyman behind every confirmatory, select quote, is in no way meaningfully different from seeing the Green Mafia behind every select quote in the ‘ClimateGate’ non-controversy.

It would seem that the responsible course of action in relation to ACARA for skeptical organisations to take, is much the same as with other woo-in-drag-as-skeptic.

Ultimately, the mistake wasn’t in the uninformed selection of ACARA for the Bent Spoon, it was the enabling of people who for whatever reason couldn’t put in the necessary legwork to make the Bent Spoon of 2010 worth paying attention to, other than as an icon of smug ignorance and inability. If the Australian Skeptics are to be taken seriously, this attitude needs to change.

~ Bruce

(Picture Source: Tilting at Windmills – Gustav Doré, 1863.)

* Although integrated curriculum tends to get phased out before the final two years of highschool where students begin to specialise for University entry . But by then more academic study has become personally relevant to students, so it’s not such an issue in getting them worked up about the content.

** ‘Curriculum framework’ is the technical term (or at least one of them); if you correct me by calling it a syllabus then you’re only highlighting that you don’t understand what the document is.

*** For anyone actually interested in the history and theory of, and empirical research into integrated curriculum, your best starting point is James A. Beane’s ‘Curriculum Integration‘. I say ‘starting point’ because there’s an awful lot of research on the issue, enough for there to be several different takes on the theory; far too much to summarize in this post. Given that criticisms of integrated democratic curriculum (and similar pedagogies) rarely manage to even define what integrated curriculum is, much less address the research behind it, I have for the purposes of this post assumed that the research isn’t in contention. Perhaps the critics could put down the lance and pick up a paper if they want to be serious about it?

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9 thoughts on “Understanding science doesn’t guarantee an understanding of how science is taught…

  1. I have heard that AS are looking into the award and their decision making process around it. I hope that the same due diligence that is generally applied to assessing other woo claims will be demonstrated.

    We’ll see.

  2. Nicely written, Bruce. I’m not surprised that the system by which education is delivered in this country is so poorly understood. There are even a number of teachers who seem to think the curriculum is a detailed document that provides the minutiae of a unit plan (although usually it’s the complaint that they have to teach X because it’s in the curriculum, and they feel overburdened by it).

    State curricula have evolved considerably over the past few decades on the feedback from educational academics, teachers, parents and other stakeholders to devolve much of the detailed responsibility to the schools themselves. Once, few students studied science. Being disenfranchised meant you simply left school and got a job, creating an academic ‘elite’ and a public who had lay little science understanding.

    Obviously – and people like Paul and the Australian Skeptics would undoubtedly agree – this isn’t acceptable. All people need to connect with science in a way that makes sense. The old systems weren’t just failing to achieve this, they simply would not cope with where science was heading.

    Nobody says ACARA have it perfect. But they are working on years of progress in a direction that aims to take into account past failings while meeting the demands of numerous invested parties. Simply put, there is zero evidence that religious groups are one of those parties. The arguments of ‘reduced evolution’ and ‘removal of Darwin’ are not just false, it doesn’t even require an understanding of jargon to see where it is misinformation. Just a pair of eyes and time to read the draft and existing curricula. What’s more, those challenges I spoke of are well met. There is an increased emphasis on scientific thinking, creating a solid framework in which appropriate material can be selected. If and when it is followed properly, it is difficult to teach biology on any level without it leading to evolution.

    I must praise Paul for his time in responding and politeness in his attitude. While I still believe he is merely rabbiting what he has been told (repeating that Darwin isn’t in the document demonstrates he hasn’t read it, in my view), and I don’t think he understands what the curriculum does, I think he has handled the discussion with greater diplomacy than the Australian Skeptics.

    • I agree with all but one point; the ‘nicely written’ bit. 😉

      I hit publish a little early, a little late last night. A few slight revisions have been made, and typos stamped on.

      While I’m extremely critical of Paul’s handling of the matter, I’ve got a fondness for Catalyst that prevents me from wishing him ill. And yes, he has been quite diplomatic despite being misinformed, and I hope this episode translates into a learning experience for all concerned.

  3. “Skeptical organisations have quite understandably taken efforts to distance themselves from climate change denialism”

    Not if you’re the WA Skeptics, with guests consistently pushing just one (denialist) line: David Archibald, Jo Nova, and the president himself.

    Personally, the Bent Spoon (if it had to go to a government authority) would have been better presented to the toothless tiger that is the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

    • True of course, about WA Skeptics. Was thinking more generally, but I probably should have noted an exception.

      And oh, the TGA. Not only toothless of course, but misleading, claiming that Australians can rest assured that if it’s on the shelf, efficacy is established; the exact opposite of what an awful lot/most of the lines on health food store shelves can claim! Tested and debunked!

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