Studying climate's ok (probably); but studying climate change definitely isn't

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

In an interview with the Guardian, Tim Oates (Chair of the national curriculum review expert panel and director of assessment research and development, Cambridge Assessment) has called for the national curriculum

"to get back to the science in science.  ...  We have believed that we need to keep the national curriculum up to date with topical issues, but oxidation and gravity don't date," he said. "We are not taking it back 100 years; we are taking it back to the core stuff. The curriculum has become narrowly instrumentalist."

Oates is reported as saying:

it should be up to schools to decide whether – and how – to teach climate change, and other topics about the effect scientific processes have on our lives.

In the piece, in order to provide some context for Oates's comments, the Guardian quotes the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, as saying the national curriculum was:

"too long ... patronising towards teachers and stifled innovation.  ... Its pages are littered with irrelevant material – mainly high-sounding aims, such as the requirement to 'challenge injustice', which are wonderful in politicians' speeches, but contribute nothing to helping students deepen their stock of knowledge."

Well!  Where to begin?   Perhaps by wondering what the purposes of the science curriculum (and the national curriculum) are in Oates' and Gove's views.  Curriculum is concerned with how we think about the social purposes of education.   If we think one way, we will have a certain kind of curriculum; if we think differently, the curriculum itself will be markedly different.  Grammar and secondary modern school curriculums were different because those schools had different social purposes.   Schools in the Soviet Union had compulsory courses in Marxist-Leninist theory and the History of the Communist party for a very clear purpose.   And our primary and secondary school curriculums are still quite different reflecting their distinct populations and purposes.

Curriculum is always a selection from culture, and by its very nature involves a compromise between competing social goals (eg, cultural transmission (or rejection) / social change (or not) / employment and employability / personal fulfillment and well-being).  Wise societies choose carefully and re-think their choices from time to time, especially when faced with social or economic challenges.  The need for sustainable development is thought by many to be such a point of choice – though not, I suspect by current ministers.  The DfE website has a video of Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister Nick Gibb at Twyford school, launching the review.  Watching this, the purpose of the review seems to be to raise standards and promote knowledge and content, as Mr Gove puts it:

elevating our sights, raising aspiration, daring to imagine the new heights that children might scale.

Here, it seems clear that the need to address employment and employability issues is paramount as we struggle to compete economically with emerging economies (and Finland) whose PISA scores show how badly our schools do by comparison.  So, that's the review, which says something (actually "rather narrowly instrumental") about the purposes of the curriculum.  But is that the only purpose?   I thought that watching the video of the advisory panel explaining what they were up to might shed some light on this.  But it didn't, apart from Dylan Wiliam's cameo which did at least show that he understands what curriculum is.  The others (Oates included) seemed too willing to push their particular hobbyhorses (clear content, logical progression, or subject teaching in primary schools, for example).

It's the Government's intention that the National Curriculum should be slimmed down so that it"

properly reflects the body of essential knowledge which all children should learn and does not absorb the overwhelming majority of teaching time in schools. Individual schools should have greater freedom to construct their own programmes of study in subjects outside the National Curriculum and develop approaches to learning and study which complement it.

But what's it for?  The DfE website devotes 10 pages to the review, and says the National Curriculum should have the following aims at its heart:

  • to embody rigour and high standards and create coherence in what is taught in schools;
  • to ensure that all children have the opportunity to acquire a core of essential knowledge in the key subject disciplines; and
  • beyond that core, to allow teachers the freedom to use their professionalism and expertise in order to help all children realise their potential.

That's it, it seems.  So how are schools to judge how to fill up the 50% [?] of school time that remains when the national curriculum part is finished?  It's hard to say; perhaps it doesn't matter provided it helps all children realise their potential.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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  • Oates's comments gave me a strange feeling like I'd ingested something I shouldn't have. The reason is that I seem to agree with some of the broad sentiment about the over-crowded curriculum and teachers being able to link science to local conditions (perhaps a chance to revive Cheshire College's 'science of common things' approach that was stamped out by inspectors in the late Nineteenth Century). Against this, Oates does seem to pull the rug from under years of effort to have sustainable development addressed seriously by schools. If ever there was an acute case of failure to separate babies from bath water, this is it.

  • I to agree on there being more autonomy on teaching, but with some of the sentimetns expresed by Oates, I have copied in a short section I had written previously on the dangers of just teaching science, without recourse to values and context, during the 1990s in the UK. There seems to be some parallel, not in the applciation of the NC, but in our relationship to science, and forgoing that contextualisation and critique which aides ESD. We should all have a good maths and science platform, but I think it is wrong for it to be left simply without discussion. We need active learning and to make the connection to the world that has formed, and is forming around them. I'd like to see the Place-Based Education (PBE) and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) into Education for Sustainable Development (ESD):

    In the latter days of the last Conservative government, Littledyke surmised the key obstacles in the National Curriculum which prevented 'effective environmental education' (1997, p.643). Principally, environmental education suffered as 'a cross-curricular theme' in a system that had long held prestige for traditional discrete subjects and as such 'may be squeezed out by the demands of the extensive knowledge-centred and assessment-driven content of core science and other subjects' (Ibid). Additionally science was being taught in a valueless vacuum without awareness of what drives our views and definition of science, knowledge and nature partly down to the enforced impartiality of teachers. The danger then is that 'modern science within a fragmented school curriculum reflects values which are alienated from nature and can perpetuate attitudes which are environmentally damaging' (Ibid). A Canadian study concentrating on the successful Integrated Curriculum Programs (ICPs) found that whilst the isolation of their program in the school gave them autonomy, it also reduced support and understanding from peers who taught in more traditional ways (Sharpe and Breunig 2009). This displays the tension between the gold-standard norm of classical subjects and the remediable path-dependency of this form of discrete curricula, and a more holistic approach.

    From the standpoint of teaching, Littledyke's research showed that for teachers who taught with confidence and positive attitudes and had strong scientific backgrounds, they recognised that science was not value free and that the best method of learning was 'enquiry through asking questions' (Littledyke 1997, p.651). Further, the teachers who fell into this categorisation tended to relate environmental education to their own personal lives to higher degree than other categories of science teachers. In contrast, the 'positivist' group of teachers tended to, in deference to their grouping title, see science as value free and essentially a fact finding mission (Ibid)

    Littledyke, M., 1997. Science Education for Environmental Education? Primary Teacher Perspectivesand Practices. British Educational Research Journal, 23 (5), pp.641-659.

    Sharpe, E., and Breunig, M., 2009. Sustaining environmental pedagogy in times of educational
    conservatism: a case study of integrated curriculum programs. Environmental Education Research, 15
    (3), pp.299-313.

  • Thanks Bill, Paul, Jonathan for some really helpful comments on what is proving to be a bit of a kerfuffle.

    I totally agree about the need for clarity about curriculum aims and values, which is a point that Robin Alexander has made many times, and working groups at Tide~ have debated at length.

    For now, and this is a personal view, it seems to be that the best course of action would be for DfE to be persuaded to make a statement of clarification [as they did with sustainable schools], saying that Tim Oates' comments should in no way be seen as a prohibition on teaching climate change [in Science, Geography or anywhere else], and that they would absolutely encourage schools to address real world issues like this where they offer meaningful contexts for quality Science [etc] education. Moreover, there will be plenty of good practice about to draw on [and Gove et al seem to like 'good practice'].

    Of course, Jonathan, that leaves us with the problem of the 'positivist' teachers ... I am challenged by that description of pragmatic teaching, and I am not sure that all teaching by people with eg a tick-box approach to curriculum coverage addressed climate change adequately anyway.