A Report on the Ecosystems Teaching Package by P.S. Rose
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An ecologically framed, Primary science teaching package was researched, developed and delivered to a group of seven-year olds at a Manchester Primary school. It centred around the interactions and interdependence between species within and beyond ecosystems. The final topic concerned human-induced changes to natural ecosystems and environments and ways to prevent them. A method for assessing the package’s effectiveness and the children’s impressions of it was implemented.
Overall, the classes were very successful. Particular interest was taken by the children in how to be ecologically supportive, e.g. through recycling. They had considerable desire for personal involvement in helping the environment, and would have liked the topic to be extended, at the expense of others.
The initiation of long-term school developments in sustainability and ecological work was considered to be important for thorough ecological education, to provide opportunities for pupils to express their awareness and potential, through supportive action.
1.1 Science in society
In order to evaluate science education, one must first consider the nature of science itself:
A common perception of science is that it is a systematic process that, when followed correctly, will elucidate logical, reliable truths about the universe. This view is mirrored everywhere in our society, where everything from lines of thought and research to fields of study and consumer advertising is labelled "scientific" in a way that intends to imply some kind of special merit or reliability. Scientists are considered authoritative and their discoveries trustworthy (see Fig. A.4 and section A.ii in Appendix A). As an illustrative example, an inscription on the Social Science Research Building facade, at the University of Chicago reads, "If you cannot measure, your knowledge is meagre and unsatisfactory" (quoted in Kuhn, 1961).
Ironically, social reverence for science exists concurrently with a sense of alienation concerning the nature and ambitions of scientists and their programme. The ever closer marriage of science with technologies of war and corporate interest, has bred much cynicism and contempt. Atomic bombs (Peters, 1968), vivisection (BUAV, 1988) and genetic manipulation (Bryce, 1997) are stirring images, perceived as insidious products of science. Likewise, the planet's destruction and the rise of human cancer (NRDC, 1989; Watts, 1994) are often closely associated with technological "progress". Scientists, themselves, are placed behind social barriers, being considered too different from the social norm to be either trusted or understood. Their stereotype is of grey-haired, bespectacled eccentrics, spending their lives in their laboratories and white coats (Chambers, 1983) (See Appendix A).
The aforementioned inductivist viewpoint, which considers science as a path to assured truth, has become somewhat clichéd and is considerably flawed, since philosophical, logical and historical analyses all suggest that the theories of science cannot be conclusively proved or disproved (Chalmers, 1982). Kuhn suggested a more subjective and dogmatic construction (partially developed in (Kuhn, 1959); fully expounded in (Kuhn, 1962)), whereby scientists work within society's prevailing paradigm (common, collective worldview or intellectual framework). Deeper sociological approaches (e.g. (Bloor, 1991); (Longino, 1989)) assert that every facet of scientific endeavour is routinely shaped by social considerations, whereas Feyerabend's writings (e.g. (Feyerabend, 1975)) may be taken to suggest that science has no special features rendering it intrinsically superior to other branches of knowledge. In the latter case, science is seen as a modern religion, playing a similar role to that played by European Christianity in earlier eras.
1.2 Science education
It seems that there can be no timeless and universal conception of the nature and potential of science and scientific method (Chalmers, 1982). However, even if objectivity is not guaranteed, many find the scientific approach useful for investigating and comprehending (subjectively or otherwise) the world and its phenomena. As such, it may potentially provide the individual with self-education, and this is the only kind of teaching that has any lasting value (Gatto, 1996). School science education provides children with an opportunity to gain from the scientific perspective.
Not everyone will gain equally from an overall scientific outlook. For example, some will take a more aesthetic viewpoint. However, aspects of scientific methodology may still provide pupils with beneficial skills, e.g. imaginative, creative and logical thinking, which can have positive effects on other areas of learning (Harlen, 1985).
Even if a scientific perspective is not one with which an individual strongly associates, exposure to it at school will be most important, if only to permit an understanding of the way science is presented and used in our society. In a science-dominated culture, appreciation for science's methodology, aims and potential will communicate greater understanding for what scientists hope, and are able, to achieve.
Many hold the view that scientific knowledge is cumulative and, therefore, progressive. Progression of knowledge will stimulate greater understanding and technological advance within society, moving faster given more scientific thinkers and workers. If this is true and indeed, desirable, then science education will help to advance and improve society.
Cumulative knowledge allows informed interaction with the world and its physical or biological contents, often mediated through technology (Ince, 1976). An example of such informed interaction is the medicinal use of plant products for particular ailments. "Informed," however, does not necessarily mean "correct" or even "advantageous." For example, knowledge of the critical mass of plutonium-239 allows the construction of atom bombs, leading to further "informed" interaction. It seems that, although knowledge provides the potential for interaction, only morality can provide direction. Though science education can provide intellectual potential through knowledge, the direction for that potential must come from a different source.
1.3 The importance of (holistic) ecological education
While science education, in general, may provide an approach for understanding phenomena, ecological education will direct understanding towards the interactions of living beings with each other and with their environment. The importance of this becomes clear from only cursory inspection of the present state of Earth and her life forms. Global warming, forest destruction, soil erosion, air pollution, biodiversity decline and other human-induced phenomena, too numerous to list here, have all taken their toll on the planet. Moreover, damage that is still being caused, at an increasingly faster rate, is set to effect repercussions far more catastrophic than those already witnessed (Lovelock, 1991).
Ecology teaches about the requirements of organisms, ecosystems and environments. Only with such knowledge may our interactions with the biosphere [all living things and their environment] be supportive, rather than destructive. Ecological understanding will permit us to discover the nature of the environmental isses we face and possibly to rectify them. However, its significance runs deeper than mere "troubleshooting". The previous lack of an ecological perspective (or paradigm) was the very cause of the abuse of Nature in the first place. Clearly, our short-sighted awareness needs addressing.
Francis Bacon was one of the first to propose an exploitative scientific practice. In the early seventeenth century, he asserted that the aim of science was to improve man's lot on earth (Chalmers, 1982). His legacy has led to innumerable discoveries and achievements, but not without dire consequences. The fragile balance and interconnectivity of Nature was previously, largely unrecognised. Commonplace reductionism has given an incomplete picture of the diverse, interrelated elements of the natural world (Rowe, 1997). However, the rising tide of holism has begun to reverse this. For example, reasons cited for rainforest preservation are now less about the possibility of recovering anti-cancer drugs from some of the countless unstudied organisms, and more about rainforests' vital regulatory role in biospheric cycles (Lovelock, 1991). Scientists such as Odum (e.g. (Odum, 1953)), Lovelock (e.g. Lovelock, 1979)) and Sheldrake (e.g. (Sheldrake, 1983)) have been key indicators of this more integrated approach to science, an approach essential to convey in education of the new generation.
1.4 An ecological teaching package for Primary schools
An ecologically based, Primary science teaching package was the purpose of this project. Intending to present and explain relevant lesson content, exercises and practicals, it could be a potential asset to the non-scientist teacher. Indeed, extremely few primary school teachers have scientific backgrounds. Less than half have studied science beyond the age of thirteen and fewer than 10% of teachers of 10-year olds have science as their main subject in teacher education (the International Council of Associations for Science Education, quoted in (The Times, 1989)). Non-scientists often feel unqualified and unable to teach science classes, and some would prefer to minimise or omit them from the curriculum, if able to (Shearer, 1998). Lack of confidence, knowledge and conviction from a teacher could not succeed in communicating lessons in a positive manner. Hence, constructive support from scientists outside schools, e.g. by development of teaching packages, could be valuable assistance.
The previously discussed significance of an ecological perspective applies to science package development. If ecological scientists themselves are very few, ecological primary education programmes are far fewer. Where they do exist, they often proceed in a disjointed and reductionist, rather than integrated and holistic, manner (Randle, 1989).
2. THE BRITISH NATIONAL CURRICULUM
2.1 Curriculum structure
Until 1988, Local Education Authorities (LEAs), schools within LEAs and teachers within schools were, to a greater or lesser degree, free to interpret their job in the way they saw fit, according to local needs, resources and skills (Randle, 1989). Under the 1988 Education Act, a centrally imposed national curriculum was introduced, which schools must follow. It intends to provide pupils aged between five and sixteen with a broad, balanced and differentiated education.
The present curriculum (DFE, 1995) [soon to be revised] comprises "core" subjects: English, maths and science; and "foundation" subjects: history, geography, technology, art, music and physical education [plus a modern language at secondary level], and will take up 70% of the school day, 50% of which will be spent on core subjects. Schools also have a legal requirement to provide religious education.
The curriculum applies to four "Key Stages," according to school year group, (see Table 1). The first two Key Stages apply to Primary level. [The package developed for this project was delivered to year 3 seven-year olds, at Key Stage 2; (see Method)]. At each Key Stage, a programme of study details teaching requirements, while attainment targets outline expected learning standards.
Table 1: National Curriculum Key Stages
School year group
2.2 Science at Key Stage 2
The science programme of study occupies about half a day per week. It comprises four main study areas:
Experimental and Investigative Science [essentially scientific methodology], comprising: Planning experimental work; Obtaining evidence; Considering evidence.
Life Processes and Living Things [essentially biology], comprising: Life processes; Humans as organisms; Green plants as organisms; Variation and classification; Living things in their environment (including micro-organisms).
Materials and their Properties [essentially chemistry]; and
Physical Processes [essentially physics].
The first area is to be taught using contexts derived from the latter three.
2.3 Ecology and the curriculum
Most of the required topics in Life Processes and Living Things (to be investigated through Experimental and Investigative Science) may be interrelated by incorporation into an ecological framework. For example, the importance of adequate nutrition for growth and activity could be linked to the importance of diverse species, supported by their own requirements. However, the actual ecological content that is specifically mentioned is very slim, comprising only rudimentary work on habitats and feeding relationships, as shown by food chains.
Human influences on the Earth was a component in the first National Curriculum, but was subsequently removed. It is most closely represented, in a greatly reduced form, by the Environmental Change component of the Geography programme which, being a foundation subject, is taught more briefly than science.
Since many teachers find the prescripted curriculum content too extensive (Shearer, 1998), there could be reluctance in teaching ecological science, if not specifically emphasised in the curriculum. Indeed, while most teachers are, themselves, unfamiliar with ecology, they may be unlikely to want to learn it, if not required by the curriculum. However, awareness of the possibilities and benefits of an ecologically framed curriculum could be boosted by a suitable teaching package, which was the aim of this project.
There are official considerations, broader than the National Curriculum, which ought to encourage ecological education. For example, Britain was a signatory of Agenda 21 at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which requires the initiation, education and encouragement of sustainable development practices at all levels of community and environment (MLA 21, 1997). Furthermore, through numerous other international treaties, Britain has resolved to address environmental issues such as pollution limitation, waste minimisation and environmental conservation (Evans, 1996). School education must reflect the objectives of such resolutions (Parry, 1987).
The aim of this project was to develop, deliver and assess an ecological teaching package for Primary science education at National Curriculum Key Stage 2. The principal purpose was to provide pupils (and teachers) with ecological awareness. In the process, however, they were expected to gain appreciation for the nature and objectives of science, in general.
A teacher's guide was to be included, intending to be unassuming in its assistance to non-scientist teachers. It was to explain the relevance and importance of topics, scientific information required to convey them, and suggested activities and discussions for their implementation. Worksheets were to be included, for use by pupils as part of the activities.
References to further resources, e.g. organisations and literature, were to be provided for teachers to contact experienced assistance for expanding and extending the topics with further projects.
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