There is a right-wing media trope we might call “dumbed down weird syllabus stuff” that appears with monotonous regularity. Today in The Australian we have but the latest example from Justine Ferrari, Education writer.
NOBEL Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty has attacked the way science is taught in Australian schools, with some students studying the lyrics of classic pop songs as part of the subject.
In Queensland, the Cat Stevens song “Where Do The Children Play?” and Midnight Oil’s hit “River Runs Red” about environmental degradation are studied in Years 8 and 9 science classes as part of an examination of science and society.
Teaching resources prepared by the Queensland Studies Authority, responsible for the curriculum, include an analysis of song lyrics from the 1970s, 80s and 90s to explore “historical and cultural factors (that) influence the nature and direction of science which, in turn, affects the development of society”…
I greatly admire Peter Doherty who has signed up to many good causes, including opposition to nuclear weapons. However, in this case he may or may not be right; it could be he has fallen into the trap of many an academic in not appreciating the difference between science at the university or professional end of the spectrum and the needs of very average (or less) students at the age of thirteen or fourteen, where the choice may be between boring them to death so they will never exhibit any scientific curiosity ever again or starting them on a lifetime of interest in what science has to tell us.
I can’t really argue in detail about what those Queensland teachers are up to, but I venture to suggest they may know what they are doing and have good reasons for doing it. It might be wise to read Years 1 to 10 Science Syllabus (Queensland) carefully before taking this story as gospel. Take up a predetermined position, make an assertion (sensational if at all possible) then ask an expert is an old media trick. Almost any education story published in The Australian is likely to be lamenting the “dumbing down” of education; Kevin Donnelly is their guru, after all. We do seem to enjoy being told we are being ripped off or cheated of our birth-rights, even if that proves not to be the case. Righteous rage is a comforting emotion, it would appear: I seethe, therefore I am.
However, today’s story has prompted an entry on my new English and ESL site: How should I write up a Science experiment? which gives you some idea, and may reassure Professor Doherty, about what is essential in junior Science in NSW at least.
That new site is now one week old. It has had 176 views (not counting my own) in that first week. Not too bad.
Given the poverty of much education reporting in The Australian, the Murdoch press generally, and above all on commercial current affairs programs and talk-back radio, let me clarify, especially in view of a comment or two here, and on other sites:
1. Outcomes-based education has nothing at all to do with seeing the teacher as a “facilitator”; in fact the reverse is true, as OBE insists that teachers actually teach and holds them accountable for what students can actually do at the end of the process. The woolly idea of “facilitating” is 1970s feel-good stuff; OBE is hard-headed post-Thatcherite “quality assurance”.
2. OBE has nothing to do with the teacher as “entertainer”.
3. OBE is not a left-wing plot; initially it was more probably a right-wing plot. See the reference to Jim Belshaw in my comment on this post.
4. OBE does not predicate any particular style of teaching, traditional or otherwise.
5. OBE does not cause the curriculum to become less traditional. You can have an OBE course in Latin which will differ from Latin as taught in 1955 only in the way the program specifies what students must be able to do in Latin after a unit of work and then tests that they are in fact able to use those bits of Latin — in other words, will have achieved/not achieved outcomes. Any variation in the way Latin might now be taught in 2006 comes from changes in language teaching from a whole range of influences, many of them actually well considered.
6. OBE has nothing to do with the rejection of the pass/fail mentality. It is at least 30 years, long before OBE, since anyone passed or failed the NSW Higher School Certificate. What the candidate gets is a result and a rank which may be good enough to open certain doors or not.
7. In good well-written outcomes reporting parents get a plain English description of what their children have been assessed as actually achieving. This may or may not be accompanied by a letter and/or a number, the semantic content of which is, and always has been, a great mystery. At least a clear statement of outcomes has some meaning, even if it may make comparing your child with Susie next door a little more difficult.
8. The fact there is so much confusion about OBE (whether it is desirable or not is a separate matter) is the result of illiteracy on the subject perpetrated by the media and certain commentators who really should know better.
The main down-side of OBE, from a teacher’s point of view, is that it makes the teacher only too conscious of his or her success or failure as a teacher, with the proviso, of course, that is it absurd to expect all students from IQ too low to assess on the one hand (and I have taught such) to bloody genius on the other (and I have taught them too, if “teach” is the right word then) to achieve identical outcomes. Needless to say, no curriculum makes such an absurd assumption, but the general public often seem to.
A second down-side, which will not attract much sympathy, is that it makes programming and lesson planning more rigorous and onerous. No longer can we just write down the name of the text studied and vague wish lists.
A third possible down-side, and one which worried good English teachers a great deal, is that “outcomes” which can’t easily be defined or measured, such as “enjoyment of poetry”, might be squeezed out of the course in favour of what can be defined. I feared this, but it does not seem to have happened.
A fourth problem with OBE is that the number of real outcomes any given unit of work may have could well be legion; what appears on the program is a selection arrived at during the planning stage of that unit. On the other hand, when one considers the sum of units taught in a year, having to determine outcomes for each unit does at least offer some guarantee that the year’s work has targeted a range of things it is hoped students will master. In the past where the emphasis was on the content of the course rather than on what students might be able to do it was more likely that the program might become unbalanced.
Read Professor Roy Killen, “OUTCOMES-BASED EDUCATION: PRINCIPLES AND POSSIBILITIES” and then believe very little of what passes for “knowledge” on the subject through the media.
See also for richer models of teaching Quality Education in NSW which includes but takes us beyond OBE and further from the more dreamily romantic or hippie-like aspects of “progressive education”, and my post on scaffolding.