Friday, October 06, 2006

Bishop's no ideology… ideology

From today's Australian - Canberra to seize syllabus from states:

Education Minister Julie Bishop will attack state education bureaucrats and accuse them of hijacking school curriculums:

"Some of the themes emerging in school curriculum are straight from Chairman Mao. We are talking serious ideology here," she will say.

In this one sentence we have a Straw Man, Unfounded Generalisation and False Attribution, - up there with the fallacy meister Phillip Adams - not bad! I have some sympathy with this view, but to put all state curricula into one basket is simplistic, to say the least. And Chairman Mao? (It's also rather disingenuous for Bishop to accuse current school curricula as being ideologically driven, as if she, a conservative politician, isn't.) Not once has Bishop backed up her claims, as far as I've seen (I looked through her recent press releases), by citing any syllabus statement verbatim. Pat Byrne, federal president of the Australian Education Union, makes the same point:

"She (Ms Bishop) is starting from a premise which simply does not exist," Ms Byrne said.

"She has no evidence to make such assertions.

I'm not saying Bishop isn't partially right, but she ought to give us some evidence. I'll help her out. Jef cited an example from the South Australian Science curriculum a while back:

Viewing experiences, ideas and phenomena through the lenses of diverse cultural sciences provide a breadth and depth of understanding that is not possible from any one cultural perspective. Every culture has its own ways of thinking and its own world views to inform its science. Western science is the most dominant form of science but it is only one form among the sciences of the world.

The Queensland Years 1-10 syllabus isn't quite that bad:

Humans are innately curious about their world. Science as a ‘way of knowing’ is used by people to explore and explain their experiences of phenomena of the universe. It is a process for constructing new knowledge. Science is part of the human quest for understanding and wisdom and reflects human wonder about the world. The study of science as a ‘way of knowing’ and a ‘way of doing’ can help students reach deeper understandings of the world.

This is all actually quite sound. However, if it's not taught in the right context (and historically), the message can be lost and students can be left with the wrong impression; they may even become irrational, pseudo-intellectuals. Science is a 'way of knowing' and 'doing'. As far as epistemology goes, it's the only rational way of knowing the real, physical world. I'm more than happy to compare it to other 'ways of knowing'.

From the same document:

Learners critically reflect on ways in which gender and cultural, racial and economic status affect access to information, careers, life chances and opportunities in the fields of science. They actively participate as informed citizens, exercising stewardship of the environment and acknowledging human responsibility for the impact of the practices of science.

This is right too. There are still issues with equality in science, such as publishing papers, funding and employment. (I teach in a girls' school, so I'm doing my bit.) Science (through technology) does have an impact on the world - just ask Kim Jong-il.

In saying all that, to fully understand this requires fairly advanced ideas in the history and philosophy of science. This can be done with students to a certain extent, at an age appropriate level, so long as the teacher has the required background (I do of course...). (BTW - teachers are very much pragmatists. I've taught in the UK and Australia, and the way I teach potential difference, say, or Newton's laws, hasn't changed one iota except from experience - what works, and what doesn't - and the need to adapt to different clientele.)

Moving back to Bishop, I particularly enjoyed this:

"How is that we have gone from teaching Latin in Year 12 to teaching remedial English in first-year university?" she says.

Don't you love it when people pretend a rhetorical question actually makes a good point? (Irony intended.) Anyway, wats rong wid dat? Eye meself neaded hepl wif me inglesh… quod erat demonstrandum (yet more irony).

Bishop does raise this point which I agree with:

"The curriculum must be challenging, aiming for high standards, and not accepting the lowest common denominator.

"It seems we are lowering the educational bar to make sure everyone gets over it, not raising it to aspire to excellence."

And this too:

This would also remove the duplication of effort and resources currently spent by states developing individual curriculums.

She says the states and territories collectively spend more than $180 million running their boards of studies and curriculum councils to develop very similar curriculums in identical subjects.

"There are currently nine different year 12 certificates across Australia, each backed by separate curriculum developed by eight different education authorities," she says.

"Is it necessary for each state to develop a separate curriculum?

"Do we need to have a physics curriculum developed for Queensland, and another, almost identical physics curriculum for Western Australia?

No we don't, (one would hope they're almost identical) but they should use our (Queensland) syllabus… which leads me to a slight problem Julie's overlooked. My school is currently running the Trial Pilot syllabus for Physics, which has required a great amount of work from myself and the other physics teachers (the work program, assessment items, unit outlines, etc.) - in particular the Head of Department. (Not to mention the other senior science subjects and the junior program.)

If a national syllabus was to come in, in the next 5 years or so, rather than have to go through all that work again I will simply quit and become an electrician or something (they make about twice as much as me anyway). Reinventing the wheel occurs far too frequently in education. I'd be willing to bet that many other teachers feel the same.

On top of that, the work program and assessment we do is of a very high standard. All senior assessment and work programs in Queensland go to 'the panel' for monitoring, moderation and verification. The work produced by my students is excellent. They are required to delve far deeper into practical and conceptual aspects of physics than I ever had to, 'back in the day'. And I'll beat anyone down who says otherwise…
Here's the full transcript of the speech Bishop gave today.