Liberating the learners

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Environmental studies must not be consigned to the strait-jacket of an exam-dominated curriculum, says Robin Frame.

THE recent consultation exercise on 5-14 environmental studies did not invite comment on the educational beliefs underpinning the new guidelines. The draft document brings a welcome certainty and clarity to the content of the curriculum, but at a price.

It might have looked something like this if the intention had been to slip a very restrictive, easily tested and fixed curriculum into our primary schools. The early secondary parts are distinct and predictably exam oriented, but I do not welcome the extension of this narrow view to earlier years.

The profession has a duty to comment beyond the kind of responses sought by the questionnaire from the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. I think it is our place to consider the educational theories that underlie the approach despite the fact that these are implied rather than explicit, and that the whole 5-14 curriculum initiative would seem to reject pedagogy as a distasteful and outmoded matter.

The draft is confused and ambiguous concerning the issues of how children learn, what they should be learning about and the approaches teachers should use.

The document is self-contradictory. A glance or two will show how the child-centred approach, the integration of the content and the perception of knowledge as something we have to learn to create are paid lip-service, but are squeezed out by the ever more prescriptive structure of the guidance. We are encouraged to believe we have freedom of choice, but the new guides for teachers and managers are the very essence of rigidity.

I think we should recognise this lurch into certainty. It will be easier for everyone to see what is wanted. It will be much easier to decode, and teachers and others will be less uncertain and perhaps less stressed. Schools will be able to guess what HMI will want. This is an improvement.

However, a chance has been missed. The review could have wondered afresh what kind of curriculum was appropriate. Instead we are treated to the same old thing: an unwillingness to accept that "environmental studies" was invented because its importance overwhelmed the capabilities of the sum of its parts.

Environmental problems need to be faced. We need experts, we need an informed population, we need people to become active. We need, in short, environmental education as it has begun to take shape, a curriculum that calls upon and uses all the disciplines, and does not put bouns on which disciplines. Language and maths, religious and moral education and all the expressive arts have a place in the understanding of our environment and of our societies.

We need to resist those who would have the years up to 14 put to the service only of examination performance. We must argue strongly against the vision of environmental studies as no more than the means of delivering the "important subjects", such as history, geography, biology, physics and chemistry.

The content of these subjects in secondary has been circumscribed by the need to teach the answers to exam questions. These questions, in turn, are selected because sufficient children give the wrong answers. This has to be so, or examinations would not stratify the cohort.

This is not a sound basis on which to determine the content of any curriculum, and certainly not the way to determine that of our primaries. The time has come to accept the idea of, indeed the need for, alternative guidelines. A group should be put together to lead the way in their construction, possibly on the lines that:

The principles of environmental education would form a basis.

The methods would reflect good primary pedagogy.

The curriculum would benefit from being fully integrated.

We offer model materials illustrating how a topic or theme can be used.

There is, of course, a familiar ring to this. The topic study materials developed and promoted by the in-service staff tutors at the former Jordanhill College exemplified this approach.

Teachers, schools, education authorities and theoreticians approved. How and why HM inspectors took against them so strongly following the birth of 5-14 can only perhaps be answered by looking back to the unpleasant administration that instigated the reforms.

Perhaps the new and more accountable Scottish Executive could encourage the Inspectorate to rethink. Perhaps we could pressure our MSPs.

It would be good if a pilot project could be arranged to test the appropriateness of a new wave of cross-curricular, integrated, topic, place or theme-based packages. Then perhaps we could have the informed debate so noticeable by its absence while schools were constrained by the "guidance" of the 5-14 initiative.

Let us hope that the independence of the curriculum council can help it find the mechanism whereby we could begin to offer the kind of studies of the environment our survival requires.

Robin Frame enjoys his academic freedom within the primary education department of Strathclyde University.

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