Thursday 28 June 2012

How to stop children asking questions

An insight into the government's thinking on science can be discovered here:

the Draft National Curriculum for science for key stages 1 and 2.

Once again, it's been produced by those tired old government favourites Cabal and Diktat ie an anonymous group of experts, and issued as a directive. Throw out all those nice liberal-sounding statements from Nick Gibb about the end of top-down instructions from government. These documents are more top-down than the lift in the Empire State Building.

Again, I hesitate to be drawn into arguing about the 'what' of the documents because that gives in to the notion that Cabal and Diktat are the ways to deliver ideas about what to teach and how. It's the very process of Cabal and Diktat that is the problem not the exact detail of what's in the document.

That said, one thing caught my eye:

From 'Notes and Guidance' to 'Programme of Study' re 'Plants' for Year 2 children. (6-7 year olds)

" Please note: pupils are not conducting a fair test or predicting what they think will happen; 
tests are purely for gaining knowledge and evidence about conditions for plant growth."

This led me to look back at the processes that are being taught according to the document. They are describing, observing, 'being taught to explain', acquiring 'knowledge', learning names, identifying, 'distinguishing between'. 

I read this as a fairly explicit direction to teachers to say that children under the age of 7 are not capable of learning through questioning, investigating, discovering, predicting and testing hypothesis. In short they must either be told ('taught to explain') or put in front of objects and phenomena and told to describe, observe, identify and name.

What can we say about this?

It supposes a model of the child as someone who should be prevented from doing what children have been doing since they were born: ie to experiment with the environment around them (material, cultural, emotional etc) trying out hypotheses ('what if...'), seeing if they hypothesis works or not and then behaving accordingly. From the first suck to get sustenance to the time they are sitting in this Year 2 classroom, vast amounts of the children's time will have been spend doing this. But curiously and amazingly in the a key part of the curriculum where these means of acquiring knowledge could be put into a more formal set of practices (yes, describing, observing etc) they've been banned!

Many teachers will of course ignore such nonsense and carry on doing experiments with cress seeds, snails, water, sand or whatever and these experiments will be very much to do with asking questions, wondering what might happen, looking at what actually does happen, coming up with explanations of why the 'what I think will happen' does or doesn't match the 'what did happen' and so on.

However, sadly, there will be the people I will label as 'instrumentalists' or 'mechanists' who will indeed obey these government instructions and the children will be the losers - but not all children! Just those children who come from homes where parents don't have the time or the know-how to spend time speculating and testing those speculations whether that's through cooking, growing things, looking at stuff on beaches or whatever.

Yet again, a piece of dull government thinking, applied to education ends up as a means by which the children least pre-prepared for education get the roughest deal, the most meagre of educational fare.

Needless to say this 'National' document isn't 'national', it's for England only. It's not for all schools. It's only for 'maintained' schools. So private schools, academies and free schools will probably ignore this rubbish and get on having a really lovely time wondering what might happen if they put bulbs in cupboards, put cress seeds on flannels with pictures of faces, joining up bits of wires...and of course collecting children's questions about the world around them and seeing if people can figure out ways of answering them.

David Attenborough tells the story of how, as a boy, he used to come home from country walks with bits of bones and stuff and ask his dad, who was a GP, what they were. Instead of answering, his dad would say that he didn't know and then say to young David, I wonder if there is some way in which 'we' can find out. And they would scurry through books and drawings (no internet in those days of course) to see if they could find out.

In that anecdote is a profound educational principle: do we have any questions? how can we find out?

Tell me otherwise, but I couldn't see such a principle at work anywhere in the section for Key Stage 1.