Plus ça change…


Once more unto the breach?


I was drawn into considering the nature of curriculum reform when reading a recent BES blogpost looking at GCSE reform. The basic idea was that another round of reforms was on the way and consultation was afoot! What are you looking for in a science curriculum? In a way, it sounds almost biblical as Matriculation begat O levels and O levels begat GCSE and GSCE might (or again, might not) begat English Baccalaureate. Is this the re-arrangement of deckchairs on the Titanic or is there more to it? If, like me, you’ve spent almost half a career working in one system and look like spending the rest in another you can get some perspective on the issue. I’m not greedy – all I want is a syllabus fit for the world we live in that excites teachers and students.


The question seems to be ‘what do we put in a science curriculum’. Given that science seems to be fading as a popular subject (and that attitude seems to transcend time and space).  A useful research paper by the Wellcome Trust sets out a range of ideas. I was particularly caught by some of the conclusions:

  • “Young people in this study expressed a preference for more practical, hands-on activities, which they believed made learning science more interesting and subsequently easier to understand.
  • Science was seen as being content heavy with more work involved than for other subjects. Equally, the assessment strategy used in science was felt to be particularly examination focused and set at a very high standard. Young people indicated that more continuous assessment and feedback would encourage engagement and subsequently learning.
  • There was also a clear indication in the current research, that young people would be more engaged with science if it were more applicable and relevant to contemporary life. “

It’s clear, students like science if it can be put in a way that engages their interest. More than that, they need science in their everyday lives and not just the laboratory. Another Wellcome report notes the value of  informal education (that taken outside the school setting – which could include fieldwork). So, we have an interest and a set of solid reasons.

To what extent is this being catered for in modern curriculum reform? I suppose we could dive into two examples of modern reform – UK and Australia and compare the two (which we can do later).  Why not flip the whole idea and start with a wish-list and see to what extent it’s being met? There’s enough research out there to support fieldwork and the importance of environmental and ecological education (especially given the increasing focus on sustainability and ecosystem services). It seems to be where the main ecological organisations (like the BES and SCORE) are heading. So, what looks good on the wish-list?:

  • a focus on fieldwork – actually getting out of the chair and handling the real world. Sadly, an obsessive rise in “safety” concerns  have made this almost impossible but there are things you can’t get from virtual fieldwork and a computer console;
  • a link between field and laboratory as a way of combining practical research with science theory (and, again, “hands-on” is the way students engage with science);
  • a focus on application allied to a strong theoretical background. It’s clear that current students need to see the value of what they are learning, but often this is at the expense of theory (often creating a subject-lite approach!).  So, no! Let’s say we need both because the link is important;
  • a connection with current ideas on the “literacies”. There’s far too much information out there (yes, I know it’s not the same as knowledge but until you have the power  -literacy – to distinguish it’s all the same). So, we need information literacy to discover what is useful, critical thinking to discern the valid and scientific literacy to assess claims for truth.

Thus armed we can head off to the documents themselves! A lot has changed in the last few decades and I don’t mean the actual content! Coding and sub-divisions are the rage although what they bring other than some sort of quasi-organisation is never made clear.

The UK has two syllabi up for consideration: Geography and Science. As ecologists, we would expect both to contain some ecological/environmental knowledge. UK Science does start off well suggesting learning be accessed through four aspects: developing knowledge, nature of processes, learning observation and evaluating [scientific] claims. The modules within biology then veer off into some previous existence – cell biology, transport systems, health etc. There is some ecology but it comes in ‘materials cycles’ and so there’s little of the material that we might expect. That appears to be that! Further on in the document there is a unit on Earth and atmospheric science but that tended to be a study of greenhouse gases rather than broader atmospheric processes. At least experimentation is encouraged although the precise nature of that is not made clear.

Geography fares only slightly better. Fieldwork is expected as is the gathering of primary and secondary data. Content is slender in comparison to the Science syllabus. One of the three units covers global ecosystems and biodiversity so it would be possible to add some ecological principles. The only concern is that the focus needs to be space and place which does follow the debate in higher education but doesn’t really allow for a sound grounding to be given in school. It might be hoped that cooperation between subjects could leverage useful synergies but wouldn’t it be better to mandate it?

Moving to Australia the immediate issue is that only science has currently made it through the national curriculum system (which, for those outside Australia, doesn’t exist because it’s all mediated through the States!!). Early versions of Geography will mandate fieldwork from Kindergarten onwards which is a big plus. Science is not divided into separate subjects but four aspects – Physical world, Earth and space, Living World and Chemical world. Into these four are woven learning strands such as “working scientifically” which are common threads through all topics (easy – think of it as a spreadsheet and it makes sense!). The living world section does have some ecosystem concepts but mainly under the banner of sustainability (which cuts across all curricula as one of the three overarching themes). Think a spreadsheet in 3 dimensions! There must be something about Earth sciences because the ‘Earth and Space’ module is made up mainly of the study of contestable theories and facts with only plate tectonics (hardly a contested area) remaining!

If a student produced this it would be sent back, fully annotated, with a ‘could do better’ theme! No curriculum had everything I think we need to spread ecological and environmental understanding. A idea of fieldwork is good as is the idea you can question some scientific ideas. However, if you don’t have the background knowledge, how can you understand the relative merits of the competing ideas? It’s sad to think of the huge amount of effort that went in to designing this if this is all you end up with.

The call from the Australian National Curriculum is to devise a 21st century world-class system. Whatever one of those is (and the jury is still out), this isn’t it (I hope!).  I spend all day in classrooms – is it too much to ask for some decent material to work with?


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