New Science Curriculum Under the Microscope

Michael Adams, a high school English teacher, explains why he nominated ACARA to the Bent Spoon Award.

In nominating the ACARA and the authors of the Draft National Curriculum Science document for a Bent Spoon, I was hoping to raise awareness about what I see as essential flaws in the document and encourage people to respond during the consultation period to strengthen the final document due to be released later this year. I am pleased to elaborate on my views for this purpose. I should point out that I am not very qualified to assess the Science Curriculum. I am an English/history teacher who last received any science education nearly 20 years ago in my year 12 physics and chemistry classes. I hope, however, that I may prompt others, more qualified, to view the document and either confirm my fears or judge me to be absurdly paranoid.

The Draft National Curriculum can be viewed on the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website at www.acara.edu.au acara curriculum. Anyone can register as a user and supply feedback in a number of ways. An e-mail response can be sent, an online questionnaire completed on the Science Curriculum or on the whole curriculum (English, maths, science and history), or feedback can be given by logging on, clicking the ‘explore’ tab, opening the ‘science’ tab and clicking on the comments icons that appear next to every content point. This will open a comments box and you can switch between commenting on the content and the elaborations.

My central criticisms of the Science Curriculum are that the teaching of evolution has been devalued and that the document allows the teaching of pseudoscience and could allow the teaching of creationism. I should point out, in fairness, that this is not the intent of the authors of the document and that this should not occur if the curriculum is interpreted properly. Nonetheless, I believe pressure from sectarian schools and systems has led to a document which is excessively vague and open to misinterpretation.

Briefly, to explain the layout of the Science Curriculum. (All page references are to the Draft Consultation Science Curriculum version 1.0.1 on the website when downloaded with all content). The Science Curriculum outlines content to be taught for each year group Kindergarten to Year 10 in three strands:

  • Strand 1: Science Inquiry Skills. This strand explores the skills of working scientifically and the basics of the scientific method. It includes content under headings such as Questioning, Investigation Methods, Analysing Results and Communicating.
  • Strand 2: Science as a Human Endeavour. This strand views science in a social context, examines the historical aspects of science, and allows students to explore ethical issues relating to science and compare science to other knowledge and belief systems with a particular emphasis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of viewing the world.
  • Strand 3: Science Understanding. This strand is the basic science content looking at the “facts, concepts, principles, laws, theories and models that have been established by scientists over time”. (p5)

Under each strand for each year group, a series of content statements are set out. Each content statement has one or more elaborations to illustrate how that content point may be taught. Presumably if implemented, the content points would be compulsory, i.e. all schools and teachers would have to demonstrate that these have been taught, while the elaborations give an indication as to how the content may be approached.

My greatest issue is the apparent devaluing of evolution in this syllabus. Although some topics indirectly approach evolutionary theory or complimentary science, it is specifically addressed only once. This is in Year 10 as the first content point under Science Understanding:

1. Evolution

Evolution by natural selection and the diversity of plants and animals (p50)

My first concern is that this topic appears too late for a number of reasons:

  1. This is past the compulsory age of schooling in some states.
  2. Evolution, as a concept, is relevant to topics in other subjects such as history, geography and sometimes English, well before Year 10.
  3. Given that the Science Curriculum is weighted heavily towards biological and Earth and environmental sciences, this content should be seen as core knowledge and at least be introduced by Year 8.

The elaborations raise more concerns:

Elaborations

Comparing the appearance of organisms of homologous structures such as pentadactyl limbs over geological time using fossil and other secondary evidence


Mapping tectonic plate movements to explain geographical location for related organisms

Examining case studies of evolutionary change in recent times such as the impact of cane toads on the evolution of Australian predators such as snakes

Modelling or simulating a change caused by natural selection in a particular population as a result of a specified selection force/pressure

Explaining the development of domesticated animals and plants through directed selection

Investigating the range of forms that exist for a particular structural, physiological or behavioural feature that is the result of adaptation due to different selection pressures (p50)

While each of these elaborations is a worthwhile study, it is clear that the curriculum avoids the most contentious aspects of evolutionary theory. The evolution of man should be a separate content point. That it is not even mentioned as an elaboration is surely indicative of a curriculum that has been affected by the pressures of the religious school sectors. Each of the elaborations listed could be comfortably taught by even the most ardent creationist. Even the first elaboration, surely clear evidence of evolution, has been used (or rather disgracefully misused) by creationists as evidence of an intelligent design (God repeating patterns).

When one examines the Science as a Human Endeavour strand, the case against the curriculum becomes stronger. The parallel content in to Evolution in this strand in Year 10 is as follows:

Science as a Human Endeavour

1. Nature and history of science

Ideas of the world change as scientific theories and models develop (50)

Given this content one would surely expect to see reference to Darwin and On The Origin of the Species in the elaborations; after all, few works have changed our ideas of the world so profoundly; and from a purely history of science point of view, the importance of the work cannot be underestimated, bringing together, as it does so convincingly, the rational and empirical traditions of science which had too often been seen as incompatible up until that time.

What does one read in the elaborations, however?

Elaborations

Debating the ethics of some selective breeding outcomes (eg dogs that can only give birth by caesarean, rats that rapidly develop tumours for use in cancer research)

Investigating specific applications of genetic manipulation which have become possible because of advances in knowledge and technology (eg DNA profiling, gene therapy, production of transgenic plants)

Exploring the history and impact of developments in genetic knowledge through the discoveries of scientists such as Gregor Mendel, Erwin Chargaff, Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick and James Watson, Marshall Nirenberg, H. Gobind Khorana, Hamilton Smith and Kent Wilcox

Evaluating the impact of DNA profiling on understanding evolutionary relationships between groups of organisms and on classification of organisms (p50)

The absence of Darwin seems like the unmentioned elephant in the room, especially when so many scientists are specifically named throughout this strand. (Interestingly, Galileo fails to rate a mention either.)

The Science as a Human Endeavour strand, by inviting comparisons with other belief systems and including such topics as Science and Culture, does leave open the option of teaching creationism or intelligent design as alternative ‘theories’ (the creationists’ favourite word) to science. While such an approach would be against both the intent and spirit of the curriculum, it would be possible to do and still meet all curriculum requirements. Thus I feel confident in asserting, as I did in my Bent Spoon nomination, that the curriculum leaves open the option of teaching creationism, while teaching just the basic theory of natural selection to Year 10 students only, omitting any reference to the evolution of man, and not mentioning Darwin once.

While this would not happen in public schools, with so many Australians now attending private, sectarian schools, it is clear that the curriculum needs to be strengthened. Darwin must be included as must specific mention of the evolution of man as a Content point. Teaching of creationism must be specifically prohibited in science classes.

There are other concerns with the Science as a Human Endeavour strand, particularly when it comes to comparing science and the belief systems of other cultures. As a history teacher, I believe it is valuable to study the history and philosophy of science, and to view science within a social context. Care, however, must be given to avoid confusing pseudoscience and non-scientific beliefs with science. While again the intent of the curriculum is fine, its potential misuse is worrying.

For example, in Year 5 there is a Content point:

5. Science and culture

Science and culture interact to influence personal and community choices (eg in making decisions about health and medicine) (p24)

The elaborations are as follows:

Elaborations

Investigating choices made by people in many cultures to use natural remedies, with or without modern medical science, to manage their health

Researching the influence of Chinese medicine and natural remedies from a range of cultures on people’s personal health decisions and on Western medical science

Investigating choices of materials in the production of various technologies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Researching how different cultures explain day and night, particularly the movement of the Sun (pp24-25)

While, if taught properly, there would be little problem with this as a social study, given that this is to be taught in science, in primary school, without a qualified science teacher, the potential for this content to be mistaught is substantial. One could imagine, for example, a Year 5 teacher who was an ardent anti-vaccination proponent, presenting information from the 2009 Bent Spoon winner, Meryl Dorey and the deceptively named Australian Vaccination Network, and claiming legitimately that it fell within the scope of the curriculum. There are other scattered examples where this strand could definitely be used to promote non-scientific ideas.

There is much to be valued in this document but, I believe, much to concern sceptics and those worried about scientific literacy in today’s society. We must act to resist the insidious influence of the sectarian schools and strengthen this curriculum before it is finalised.