A history littered with discarded strategies

8th June 2001 at 01:00
Environmental studies is worrying some teachers of geography, history and modern studies. They are unhappy about plans for one teacher to be responsible for the delivery of all three subjects at S1 and S2, and have made the usual noises about diluting subjects and falling standards.

Normally I would dismiss their protests. But on this occasion the social subjects teachers may have a point, even if for the wrong reason.

Subject dilution is not the problem. Their concern should be that present advice about the only way to teach environmental studies will soon be replaced by quite different advice about the only way to teach environmental studies. Secondary teachers are new to this area. But many of us in primary schools have spent a working lifetime developing policies and topics for environmental studies, only to find the goalposts moving regularly in response to a new project or someone's latest theory of learning.

The constant confusion makes me nostalgic for my own primary school days in the 1950s. By the time I left I had a good knowledge of my own country and the world beyond thanks to tattered textbooks, interesting teaching and "Exploring Scotland" on radio.

The textbook, "No Lumber Geographies" - and I still don't know what the title means - brought us knowledge of rubber from Malaya and cocoa from The Gold Coast at a time when much of the world was still coloured pink. I learned the Scottish rivers from a dog-eared atlas. There was a history textbook, too, where we met Bruce and Wallace, Queen Margaret and Malcolm Canmore, the drowned Maid of Norway, and the murdered Red Comyn. Some may think how happy we would be i primary 7 pupils knew as much today.

Environmental studies has a chequered history littered with discarded strategies, forgotten projects and dubious teaching practices. Once, all subjects had to be integrated into one topic which would last a term or even a year. Knowledge disappeared in favour of process skills and a snooty attitude to textbooks. Each new topic had to be replanned to follow the interests of a new set of children.

In theory much of the advice was sound. But without a programme to follow, topics became vehicles for art and language work, and social subjects disappeared. With knowledge downgraded, there was no skeleton around on which to build a topic and it was difficult to know what children had learned.

The appearance of a detailed programme was helpful as long as you could understand it. But it was still difficult to organise, still posed tricky questions about integration and stood in the centre of the curriculum with one quarter of the available time. Eventually time was reduced and it even became possible to treat science as a stand-alone subject. Might geography and history follow that trend one day?

Our experts have supreme confidence in their own opinions and readily adjust them to match the fashion. But 35 years of change have not brought teachers the confidence that we have ever got environmental studies right.

The secondary teachers who are concerned about their role in environmental studies should not worry too much. If they don't like the current bandwagon another will come along. Its direction will be different and will depend on the passengers who are then shouting loudest.

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