More work before celebrating

10th April 2009 at 01:00
'Tinkering' with A Curriculum for Excellence has not convinced key critics, with the implications for science still causing concern

There has been a mixed reaction to the revised "experiences and outcomes" in the reformed curriculum (TESS last week), ranging from deep scepticism to unequivocal praise.

Stuart Farmer, chair-elect of the Association for Science Education Scotland, said fundamental problems remained. "There are a lot of teachers very happy with the flexibility they are being given, but they are not so happy with the clarity required to achieve the outcomes," he said.

Mr Farmer feared implementation would be too "piecemeal", because it was unlikely to be under-pinned by nationally-organised continuing professional development. One of the strengths of the Scottish system was a "reasonably common approach" to science, but a "postcode lottery" was looming.

"I'm very much in favour of the freeing up of teachers to do things as they see fit, but that's got to be within a coherent national framework," he said.

Concerns remained about lack of conceptual development, said a co-leader of STEM-ED, the influential group which promotes science, technology, engineering and maths in education.

"The direction of movement (since draft guidance) has been encouraging," Alan Roach said. But he shared Mr Farmer's worry that science's "underlying storylines" would not be made clear.

A Curriculum for Excellence had the potential to be "outstandingly successful," he suggested, but "an awful lot of work" remained.

"It all needs to be connected up in some grand plan," Professor Roach added, if pupils were to grow up able to address global problems and understand key scientific debates.

Professor Roach, emeritus professor in science and technology at the University of the West of Scotland, wants the Scottish Government to get academics and industrialists on board. There was "some level of engagement", he added, but it "could be better".

Assessment was the "elephant in the room", according to Professor Roach. Early specialisation had to be avoided and far more detail was needed about the implications of the new guidance on upper secondary.

Duncan Toms, president of the Scottish Association of History Teachers, said few of his organisation's recommended changes appeared to have been accepted, but he had more fundamental misgivings.

The experiences and outcomes were "not nearly enough in themselves". While he was pleased with the emphasis on Scottish history, for example, this would not guarantee that pupils leaving school would have a better grasp of their country's past than previous generations.

Mr Toms said he would prefer a more systematic approach, with clearer guidelines for teachers. But he has found the Scottish Government "very reluctant" to build in anything which looks like laying down rules on content.

One prominent doubter insisted the revisions did not resolve more deep-rooted problems. Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, said they amounted to "tinkering".

The new curriculum had "completely avoided the discussion of the nature of knowledge", which had informed previous educational reforms. Instead, the experiences and outcomes stated that certain things were important, without having had that debate.

The reforms paid "no attention to the position of subjects or discipline within the structure", thus dispensing with ways of understanding the world which had evolved over thousands of years. Science was treated as "a series of ad hoc projects, rather than systematically developing understanding of an important body of existing knowledge".

The guidance expanded the notion of texts to include the "mundane" and sidelined the canon of literature, so that there would be no more reason to study a Charles Dickens novel or a Liz Lochhead poem than a mobile phone message.

Professor Paterson feared that instantly-enjoyable pursuits were prioritised over those which were hard work and yielded pleasure only upon completion: he made an analogy with tennis player Andy Murray, who may not enjoy a gruelling match but is driven by how he will feel when he wins. There was "nowhere in this discussion which properly addressed the question of motivation", he said.

In stark contrast, Janey Mauchline, vice-chair of the Association of English Advisers in Scotland, said: "I can't praise the English and literacy team highly enough. They've taken cognisance of the consultation information and the changes that have been made are very sensible and very measured.

"The literacy and English outcomes have the potential to be very, very successful."

The number of cross-curricular literacy skills had been reduced from 10 to six. Teachers of all subjects were now responsible for literacy, and more succinct guidance would make this job easier, Mrs Mauchline said. She was encouraged that the few revisions further emphasised the drive toward child-centred, active learning. At one point, "I can take notes" became "I can make notes"; at another, it was recognised that younger children were capable of clarifying points by asking questions than had previously been recognised.

Ian Menter, a member of the Glasgow University team which analysed teachers' reactions to the draft guidance, said LTS had done a "very impressive job" and worked "very hard" to address concerns about science through additional explanations of concepts. But the "critical matter" of continuing professional development required more attention, he said.

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