Danger: flammable!

Oxgang+fireworks

These are heady days if you’re anything to do with education. In fact, it’s how I imagine it might be at a firework display where the pyrotechnics man absentmindedly drops his lighter and everything goes off at once, and in all directions. Education is like this now. There are things zinging past your head every two seconds and it’s hard to know whether to duck or run.

Now Easter is here there’s a break in the zipping and whizzing and I can step away from the bedlam to survey the damage. It’s sad, because all I can see are angry silhouettes in the darkness, with sharp jaws and pointing fingers, sneering at each other through the smoke, blaming each other for the chaos, for the lost opportunity to have something wonderful.

Education in this country is forever less than it could be because of politics. Whenever there’s an opportunity for positive change, it seems political motives turn the educational arena into a war zone. The right wing traditionalists dig their heels in, muttering about discipline, ‘proper knowledge’ and holding indolent teachers to account, while the left rages against the icy, blue leviathan that seeks to turn every school in the land into a profit making private enterprise where ‘those lazy teachers’ are hired and fired just like anyone else. I wonder how much they really know about each other? Those people who take the time to investigate are buried underground, with little voice, and even less power. I wonder how many politicians pause to think what it’s actually all about? How often do they look beyond the opportunities for political one-up-manship and see clearly through the political miasma? If they did, they might be inclined put down their weapons, climb out their trenches and find some common ground. Just imagine that? A government consultation being a real consultation. Think of the possibilities? Who  really cares, I mean really cares, about the child struggling to read and write in the classroom or the kid who leaves school with less than they came with, because when they started they were at least curious, when now they’re just numb and just want to be ‘famous’ or ‘win the lottery’.

Last week I got a little coverage in the Evening Standard when a journalist interviewed me about my views on the primary science curriculum. Friends patted me on the back, teachers congratulated me, and I felt like I’d at least done something positive. But it wasn’t long before the fingers came pointing at me through the smoke. One of the first comments on my article asked me to reveal ‘my political affiliations before any judgement could be passed.’  Granted, the journalist borrowed the ‘Swiss cheese’ comment from my blog, which created the mud-slinging tone the media like to encourage during these kind of political debates, but nevertheless my critique was about real things written down that will have real effects on real children.  So my heart sank. I realised then that education will never reach that state of equilibrium and perfection each education minister thinks they will achieve. This is because there are too many people holding the strings who put political ideology before reason, research and evidence. Education at government level today is more about making a reactionary political statement than solving a real educational problem.

In truth, the very second I put my head above the water and gave my critique it was destined to be viewed politically before anything else; a political motive would be slapped on it all straight away before most people even considered whether I was right or not. ‘Just another lefty teacher having a go at the Tories’ may have actually been a better headline even, why not cut to the chase?

The point is, did anyone who read the article go and read the new primary science curriculum? How many people really thought about what a poor science curriculum might mean to our country?  Did any of the politicians who might have read it think, ‘I know, I must read that science curriculum and see if she has a point?’  My guessing is very few, if any. And I’m not biased when I say that, setting aside reading and writing, of all the subjects in the curriculum science is the subject with the potential to make the world a better place in many different ways and for many different people. The development of science holds the key to the planet’s future in fact. The people who might accomplish something special here are the little ones playing with the sand in nursery now, not us.

As long as political ideologies from both sides smother very honest and open educational debate about what will work for our schools and young people, nothing will change for the better. There are those who will say that education by its nature is political and the two can never be separated. However, I have yet to witness a teacher needing to delve into their political conscience before intuitively acting in the best interests of the children they teach. Good teachers know what will work, what will raise educational standards for everyone, they just can’t always do it, or it’s made very hard, because of what politicians have stacked in their way. Teachers don’t need politics to tell them what works in the classroom, they just need their professional common sense.

Sadly, education will continue to be bombarded with policies that are created by people who have never stepped foot in a classroom, or have not done so for decades. The only chance to save education is to clear the deck of the politically ambitious and fill the operation room with people from any old background or persuasion, but who more than anything else, know about learning and teaching and possess an informed passion for them both.

I only wish there was more science involved all round, where opinion is irrelevant against evidence and proof and what really effects children’s learning  is what counts above all else.

Trust teachers…

Here’s a thought: if all the doctors in the land started jumping up and down warning the government against a new drug they wanted to give children, what would people do? Would people just ignore them? Would people even notice?

Why don’t people want to hear what teachers want to say about educating children? What motives do teachers have for not wanting children to succeed?

It’s time to trust teachers and take education away from politicians. I don’t know any teachers who would put politics before what’s right for the children in their care. We need to be trusted.

Swiss Cheese starting to melt?

I hope more teachers speak out if they feel strongly about the new curriculum. There are plenty of people with more know-how and experience than me who should:

Gove and his Swiss cheese

(Journalist got my maiden name tangled up with married name it seems)

…And I’m not a Marxist either, as Mr Gove likes to call all teachers who disagree with him. I wish the Tories would just create a good curriculum so I could turn my attentions back to learning and classroom practise! 

Cool science

It’s always worried me that science might be less attractive to young black people, after all the stereotyped images of a dusty, old white man with mad hair seems to be what every child sees when you ask them to visualise a scientist. And while we might have moved on from science being akin to a white man’s esoteric club, young black people still need to feel they belong if they’re going to choose science as a career path. Brains and aptitude are one thing, but identifying with a field isn’t easy if you don’t often see at least a glimmer of yourself there somewhere.  The statistics only confirm this too as only 4 percent of African-American seniors  were proficient in the sciences, compared with 27 percent of their white peers. I have the feeling that our UK figures, while hopefully higher, might reflect a similarly depressing differential too. There are times when I think we need to blow the dust off science still further.

So I was hearted to hear of a black Professor named Christopher Emdin of Columbia University providing some much needed inspiration to the young, black people of Harlem by synthesising science learning with the rhythm and groove of New York hip hop.  Soon Professor Emdin will join forces with a popular hip-hop lyrics  web site to pilot a project to use hip-hop to teach science in a number of  New York City public schools.

I’m not going to claim to know I that much about hip hop, but I’ve listened to a fair bit and enjoy it. I might appear to be a silly, middle class, white woman trying, and failing, to be cool (my teenage children remind me of this all too often) but  I do know that hip hop is a great way to communicate. As Professor Emdin says himself, ‘“a hip-hop cypher is the perfect pedagogical moment, where someone’s at the helm of a conversation, and then one person stops and another picks up.”  So like this, ‘hip hop science’ will encourage young people to embed  science knowledge as they rap out their ideas and understanding of science, and then others interject with their own interpretations back and forth.  This is no different from young people demonstrating the science they know in presentations or discussions, and there’s no better way to secure understanding than to explain to others. Try creating a poem about the different forces acting on you as you read this blog for example, you’ll soon find out if you know your forces or not! It’s probably a lot more fun than copying up a page from a text book  too or drawing arrows on a diagram. While not all black people like hip hop of course, many do and this seems an inspiring way to raise the status of science in an interesting way.

I’m also glad to say that a man called Jon Chase has been trying to do this kind of thing too here in the UK, but Jon takes this a little further into what he calls  ‘street science.’  I love this because science should be exactly like this. If we want a scientifically literate nation, we need people like Jon to make it relevant and interesting. Just watch ‘Jon Chase Street Science’ on YTube  to see a natural interest appear on all the young faces he talks too. I like this approach. As long as science upholds its integrity and its meaning isn’t lost, I think different ways of teaching and learning science should be investigated. Learning is making meaning of something and meaning is made in many different ways.

Right, I’m off to write a poem about fossilisation to impress my eight year olds on Monday…

There once was a beast called a dino,
Who went into sharp declino…

Reclaim that which belongs..

Can I urge all teachers to read the curriculum that they will  have to teach.  Read it and think about what it really means to you. Don’t concern yourself with the politics over it, but think about the classroom. Will this work? What will this really mean to your school? If you think it’s a good curriculum then say so. If you don’t, you need to say that too. Education should be about enquiry and truth, not politics and power. We must be the ones to speak. We are the front line who will ‘deliver’ this curriculum. Teachers know best. This is their time and it should be taken. Read up on your proposed job spec my friends, and whatever you think, respond to the DfE online consultation. Forward this to the many.

The myth of freedom: the new science curriculum for primary schools.

For those interested in a class teacher’s view of the new curriculum: 

          A Review of the Proposed Primary Science Curriculum   March 2013

                          

  • The imbalance of the Key Stage 1 curriculum: Recently HMI and Ofsted reports both highlighted the bias towards biology in the Early Years curriculum.  Why then does the new Key Stage 1 curriculum lean more heavily than ever towards biology with sometimes more than 50% given over to biology topics like Plants, Habitats and Living Things?
  • The decrease in rigor and content in Key Stage 1: The Key Stage 1 Programme of Study now has ten topics where previously there was more – Light, Sound and Electricity have been moved to Key Stage 2.  The infant programme of study was already considered by teachers to be over simplistic, largely reflecting bodies of knowledge the children might know outside school anyway. The serendipity and joy of discovering new things seem stifled in the infant curriculum.
  • No consideration of content against teaching time: As the Key Stage 1 bodies of knowledge have been decreased there will not be enough science to teach across all six half terms. This could mean the profile of science will be lessened within schools and there could be terms when no science is taught at all. For some of the Key Stage 1 topics, there are only one or two bullet points in the statutory requirements for the programme of study. For example, Year 2 – Movement, “pupils should be taught to notice and describe how things are moving, using simple comparisons such as faster and slower” and “compare how different things move.” These two points are the proposed knowledge content for 6 and 7 year olds for a whole topic. Many teachers will not have the time, or know-how, to expand these areas of science sufficiently; the pressures on teachers are unlikely to allow for this. It is possible that these teaching objectives become simple sound bites taught without any depth. Previously, the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) wrote the curriculum and also accompanying teaching units which expanded the knowledge areas giving teachers the means to deepen the teaching and learning. The QCA is now closed and all materials are archived.  The teaching and learning opportunities for 5 to 7 year olds are therefore minimal because the statutory requirements proposed are so basic and there appears to be no corresponding support materials. The minimum entitlement to school children should not be set at such a low level.
  • Curriculum flexibility: it is suggested that “schools have the flexibility to introduce content earlier or later than set out in the programme of study.” However, if schools choose to add rigor to earlier years by teaching more of the later content, this will simply leave the latter years without content. The solution from the start should be a fuller content for the earlier years.
  • The lack of authentic progression between some topics: the progression between topics is at times limiting and tenuous. For example, Year 1, “pupils should be taught to identity and describe the basic structure of a variety of common flowering plants, including roots, stem/trunk, leaves and flowers”. Then in Year 3, “pupils should be taught to identify and describe the functions of different parts of flowering plants: roots, stem, leaves and flowers”. Effectively, this means that Year 1 pupils can point to and describe a leaf, stem or root, but should not be taught what these phenomena do. This means that a root can be described, but not its function?  If teachers do happen to teach the functionality, then one of the four requirements for Year 3 will have been already covered. Would it not have been wiser to include the basic functionality in Year 1, then in Year 3 revise and extend this? If this is perhaps the intention, then it should be explicit. This is one example of the progression between topics being vague.
  • Confusion and lack of parity in content: The level of knowledge content in some Key Stage 2 programmes of study does not show parity. For example, in Year 4, “pupils should be taught to observe and name a variety of sources of sound, noticing that we hear with our ears.” This is the old content for 5 and 6 year olds. We would hope by 8 and 9 years old English school children would know that they hear with their ears! At the same time, Year 4 will be introduced to ‘Evolution and Inheritance’. This is a very complex concept for this age group to grasp without some discussion about genetics, which is beyond primary science. Primary teachers may also not have the subject knowledge to teach this and so misconceptions are possible. Other anomalies exist, for example,   in the Year 3 Rocks topics, ‘igneous’ and ‘sedimentary’ are “simple physical properties” that should be taught, but ‘metamorphic’ should not be taught? Why would only two of the three rocks types be introduced? If there is a good reason, then it should be made explicit. This could cause confusion later to pupils who have been taught only two rock types.
  • Limited scope for young children to relate their lives to science and scientists: There is no statutory requirement to relate any science to real scientists or everyday people in young children’s lives who are ‘scientists’ ‘working scientifically.’ Scientists are mentioned in the non-statutory guidance, however they appear to be largely white males and most are historical figures from the past. There also seems to be no reference to current scientific innovations either. This only serves to embed the idea that science is for clever, old, white men.
  • Ambiguous wording in the statutory guidance for ‘Working Scientifically’: For Key Stage 1 it states that pupils should be “carrying out simple comparative tests.” Later in Lower Key Stage 2 it states that pupils should be “carrying out simple fair tests,” and in Upper Key Stage 2 it states that pupils should be “carrying out fair tests.” This means there is no mention of a fair test in Key Stage 1 yet the present Key Stage 1 curriculum states that pupils should “recognise when a test or comparison is unfair.’ Therefore, it is unclear if the new terminology relates to fair test comparisons or other types of comparisons pupils might make. Such things need to be made explicit,

        In addition, there is no mention of predicting until Key Stage 2. In the present Key Stage 1 curriculum it states that pupils should “think about what is expected to happen before deciding what to do” (page78). Why would such an important aspect of science be omitted?

  • Weak consideration of content and progression in vocabulary: It states that pupils should “build up an extended specialist vocabulary.”  However, there is no specific vocabulary given. This is seemingly left for largely non-specialist primary teachers to determine from the short guidance notes and their own understanding.

        Furthermore, the progression in scientific vocabulary is crude. In Key Stage 1, “pupils should read and spell scientific vocabulary”. In Lower Key Stage 2, “pupils should read and spell scientific vocabulary correctly and in Upper Key Stage 2, “pupils should read, spell and pronounce scientific vocabulary.”  In effect, this suggests pupils will only be taught to spell and say words properly later. This is nonsensical. Pupils should be taught to say and spell the appropriate science vocabulary correctly from the outset.

          In addition, important vocabulary has been omitted without good reason. For example, in the entire primary science physics curriculum ‘push and pull’ are not mentioned once, despite these being the accepted terms for forces.

  • No means to assess science teaching and learning: As there are no longer attainment targets, assessments or levels there are no specific outcomes for teachers to gauge primary science learning. This will mean there is limited accountability and less incentive to ensure children learn science effectively. This could downgrade science teaching and learning still further. For primary teachers the main focus is on English, Maths and Reading, if there is no accountability for teaching and learning in science there is less incentive to teach it well, nor ensure it is learnt well either because teachers are under too much pressure elsewhere. This is the nature of generalist teaching, when everything is taught by one teacher.

 

The proposed primary science curriculum is not more rigorous as purported, it is less rigorous.  It is vague in many instances and has large areas that will be confusing to non-specialist primary teachers. It is not appropriate to give primary teachers less information and support for science in the name of greater curriculum freedom and flexibility. Primary teachers are generalists. They need detailed guidance and support for specialist subjects like science. If the points above are not addressed, and the curriculum is rushed through to suit political aims, science at primary level is in danger of becoming a third rate subject, often taught poorly, and at times perhaps even not at all. Will this help pupils begin the secondary science curriculum? Is this in turn going to help produce a generation of scientifically literate people, let alone working scientists? I believe in its present state it cannot.