Save us from a Donnelly-based science curriculum

16 02 2006

Kevin Donnelly loves bitching about outcomes-based education even more than The West Australian does (so it’s not surprising that in the pages of the latter he’s regular presented as the “guru” on the subject). In his latest missive he argues that the debate over whether intelligent design should be taught in schools is largely inconsequential, given that:

as a result of Australia’s adoption of outcomes-based education, which includes such fads as whole language, where children are taught to look and guess, and fuzzy maths, where memorising tables and mental arithmetic go out the window, . . . Australia’s science curriculum is already unscientific.

He may well be right–and when I start my Dip. Ed. in a few weeks I’ll be interested in looking into the matter–but his piece doesn’t really tell us anything about how an outcomes-based approach is actually influencing what gets taught as science in Australian science classrooms. Nor, in spite of his quote-mining of curriculum documents, is he able to come up with any evidence that the Kansas experience is being replicated here–that science teaching in our schools is moving away from the principle that science seeks natural explanations for natural phenomena. Indeed, what the controversy over the prospect of teaching ID in Australian science classrooms demonstrates is that methodological naturalism still very holds sway over science education (in public schools) in this country. (The 100 or so schools in Australia that have rejected methodological naturalism are private religious institutions.) That could change, of course, under an outcomes-based regime; but it could just as easily have changed under the older “teacher-centred” paradigm, or Brendan Nelson’s “It-should-be-taught-if-parents-want-it-taught” approach.

The main problem for Donnelly is that his dire prognostications about the future of science education in Australia are undermined by the fact that he really doesn’t understand science, if he thinks that:

the more traditional view of science is based on the belief that there are some absolutes that can be empirically tested – water boils at a certain temperature, the air we breathe is constituted a particular way . . .

Absolutes? The boiling point of water is not an “absolute” or an article of faith–otherwise, there would be no point in testing it empirically. Things like the boiling point of water or the composition of air are never “absolutely” taken for granted–that’s why scientists conduct experiments. Or does he think students should cast away the bunsen burners and the protective glasses, and simply rote-learn lists of “absolutes” for twelve years?

What a gift to the ID/creationists that would be.

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