Monday, June 21, 2010

Teaching what we know

I am quite worried by the apparent relish our current government (UK) has for "outsourcing" education; it seems to be a recipe for fragmentation, misinformation and prejudicial selection to me, or at the very least encouragement for  certain (religious) organisations to assume that anything goes so long as A-Level grade averages are maintained; nowhere it seems is this more true than in the teaching of the Biological sciences, specifically evolution and sex education.

I remember back to when I was at school (a "Christian" school), particularly in the early years and even up to what used to be called "O-Levels" (15-16 years old) we learned nothing of the details of evolution except its historical context, practically nothing about genes, DNA or even natural selection even though all of these critical things had long since been established as foundational to modern Biology. Sex education at our school simply didn't exist and the age old tradition of learning about the birds and the bees from playground rumour, clumsy bike-shed fumblings and smutty magazines prevailed.

Biology for us was two hours a week in a shaky old pre-fabricated classroom and seemed to be mainly concerned with drawing the contents of cells (by rote), talking about osmosis and dissecting hapless frogs. We were however forced to sit in church for an hour and a half every day and even longer on Sundays (about 40 whole days worth per year) where frankly we learnt nothing more than how to stare into the middle distance and conceal playing cards whilst engaging in games of black-jack, in all that time I honestly can't remember a single word that was ever said there. Additionally we had official "RE" lessons for about an hour a week. Harmless I suppose but wasted time I will never get back. Now you could argue that this was somehow "character building", or perhaps the supposed "moral" lessons of Christianity were absorbed subliminally without me realising it (although I couldn't tell you what they were), maybe, maybe not, what I can say with certainty though is that years of schooling left me with a critical gap in my Biology education.

In a recent letter to Michael Grove (the education secretary) 26 high profile scientists including 3 Nobel laureates have expressed concern that the teaching of evolution is not a compulsory part of the primary curriculum and that certain religiously inspired Christian and Muslim schools were able to simply air-brush out this foundational scientific theory since it doesn't correspond to their respective ancient creation myths.

The notion of compulsion and education almost sounds like some kind of oxymoron, in an ideal world education should be desirable and compelling on it own, a carrot without the need for a stick but I realise that sometimes you may need a stick to make up for a inequality, poor teaching, boring subjects or a lazy pupils, this was certainly true in my own educational experience (the last item in particular!). So if we are going to have compulsion in education then surly there should be a level playing field between all schools otherwise there is no point in having the compulsion at all. Why should religiously backed schools be allowed to disadvantage pupils (like me!) by mandating certain subjects (like the Anglican religion) and yet tinker around with others (like Biology), why the special case?

It seems to me that there are only two fair solutions to this, either have a 100% secular education system (i.e. take all racial, religious and cultural references out) or tolerate educational segregation but insist on a minimum fixed curriculum for all, i.e. a sub-set of content that cannot be tinkered with. This sub-set should contain all foundational subjects such as English and Maths as well as main-stream science and comparative religious studies. Teaching Biology without Darwin is like teaching physics without Newton, music without Mozart or Chemistry without Mendeleev, i.e. at best incomplete at worst utter nonsense, pupils who don't learn about evolution properly are disadvantaged.

I'm not particularly wedded to either approach, although on reflection this feels a bit like the choice between having a drink-drive limit or simply saying you can't drink and drive, one path potentially leads to confusion and the other perhaps more clarity.

Has segregation ever led to more fairness?

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