Many of you will be intrigued as I am by children’s questions. Questions are a sign of thinking – a very healthy sign, as they suggest that connections are being made between previously unconnected items of knowledge. Some of my very recent favourites from school and family sources are: Why do we have a skeleton? What causes global warming? When does your memory start? Why was Tutankhamun afraid of dying?
Roger Harrabin’s recent Radio 4 series on the reporting of global climate change revealed that one of the figures to make a really significant impact on the debate is not a climate scientist but a retired government official from Canada. After receiving a slightly misleading pamphlet with a dodgy graph, he got on the internet and started investigating. His unique contribution, it seems, is that he is not afraid to ask questions and challenge assumptions – a fine role model.
One of the criticisms of the secondary curriculum is that it is built around subject silos. Although the loosening of curriculum control by government has encouraged schools to make connections between subjects, they remain the essential blocks of timetable and curriculum.
One consequence is that the curriculum is fragmented. In some schools, teachers make the effort to coordinate common subject matter or organise some coherence in development of significant skills (eg literacy across the curriculum), but there are many other touching points between subjects where the only person who can make sense of the common ground is the learner.
I have been reading about a combination of subjects that are not commonly regarded as having convergence – science and RE. This was reported at the British Educational Research Association conference in a paper by Berry Billingsley, Keith Taber and Fran Riga. Part of the issue is that science and RE are built upon very different philosophical traditions which generate different paradigms for generating and testing ideas.
One immediate contrast is that science has a detailed National Curriculum specification and RE has no statutory syllabus. However, the guidance for RE teachers recommends that pupils look at the relationship between science and religion in depth.
Making such arguments accessible to students is a challenge. In RE students are likely to study the possibility of miracles and beliefs about prayer. In the somewhat contentious strand ‘How Science Works’ there is a focus on the kind of questions that science addresses and those that it does not.
Given that some curious pupils are likely to have opinions if such questions are raised, the researchers were led to ask how science teachers respond when students ask thoughtful and challenging questions. Do they take the question on, refer it to an RE teacher, or perhaps consult an RE teacher? Does this lead to any collaboration between the two subjects? They pursued these questions with the respective teachers in four contrasting schools, including a church school. Before you read the next section, do you want to predict the findings?
Lack of atunement
In fact there was little evidence of collaboration. As you might guess, a lack of time was cited as the main reason for the lack of communication, but given that the science teachers were not aware that the RE teachers were teaching scientific concepts at all, perhaps time is not the only serious issue. This outcome from the research seems entirely predictable.
The researchers also found that the science teachers were not tuned into the pupils’ perspectives on these matters. They assumed that pupils accepted the ideas presented in science about weighty matters in the crossover between science, belief and religion as they did not challenge them in lessons.
However, the researchers had an alternative perspective based on their interviews with students – that they appear passive because of the pedagogical style that they have become accustomed to. One student is quoted as saying: ‘We don’t ask science teachers questions any more at the moment, because we don’t think that they’d answer them.’ It is a terrible irony that a subject culture which is founded on a paradigm of asking questions and addressing them should become a cul-de-sac for curiosity.
Crossroads in the curriculum
However, beyond the pairing of science and RE, one could construct a whole matrix of convergences between subjects, representing both understanding and skills.
One of the busiest crossroads in the curriculum is the constructing and interpretation of graphs, where science, maths, geography and DT all have major interests which do not always add up to a coherent experience for students. It seems improbable that individual subject departments and their teachers in all schools will find a way of unravelling all the potential points of contact, overlaps and contradiction.
It is only students, ultimately, who can manage the process of bringing coherence to their understanding of the world. They have to take some responsibility for working out the contradictions and tying up the loose ends, but only if they feel that this is allowed and encouraged – following the example of the Canadian climate change sceptic.