Teaching kids to be scientifically discriminative

It’s the school holidays in Queensland and the seconded teachers at QM are taking a well-earned break. This provides me with an opportunity to pen a few words whilst our teaching experts are away!

Coral Reef damage in neigbouring Indonesia

Science has been at the forefront of local news lately, particularly in relation to conservation issues. The Courier Mail had a headline Reef at Risk blazed across the front page on 21st June highlighting a United Nations report declaring Australia’s failure to properly protect the  World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef (GBR).  Scientists have reiterated their concerns at the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium held at Cairns. Dredging in close proximity to the GBR is a contentious issue.

The day before on the inside pages of the Courier Mail, the headline declared, “Red List shows world biodiversity in crisis as animals and plants vanish”The article referred to the declaration made prior to the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio that, of 63,837 species assessed, 31% (19,817) are threatened with extinction. 2000 of the species listed live in Australian habitats. Queensland’s northern hairy-nosed wombat, mahogany gliders and cassowaries are among the animals whose numbers in the wild have been reduced to vulnerable levels.  

The Northern-Hairy-Nosed wombat is critically endangered

Happily, the news is not all bad on the conservation front as the Australian federal government announced in June the creation of a very large network of marine reserves. Perhaps mindful of presenting a balanced picture about successful conservation efforts, on 29th June the Courier Mail showed photos of a newborn Sumatran rhino calf born in Way Kambas National Park in Lampung, Indonesia.  Andatu, as he was named, was only the fifth calf born in captivity; there are estimated to be fewer than 200 Sumatran rhinos in the wild. Video footage of the baby rhino can be viewed from this link as Reuters syndicated this good news story around the world.

Andatu – a rare Sumatran Rhino calf born in captivity

A question posed in my mind about this concentrated and contrasting coverage of local and international conservation matters is how should we go about sharing and discussing the implications of these stories with our children, as parents or teachers, in a balanced and non-biased way? Many children and young people have a passion for animals and are keenly aware of, and participants in, local initiatives such as litter collection around our parks and creeks and caring for injured wildlife. Their sources of information about conservation issues are likely to be gleaned from social media, ABC3 and the Discovery Channel as well as news digests tailored for young people.

So how do we teach kids to be scientifically discriminative about what they read and hear from secondary sources? At what stage do school students begin to understand that the adult world is full of contrasting viewpoints based on a similar set of facts or events?  The term discriminative is defined as being “capable of making fine distinctions and expressing careful judgment.”  We would argue that many students form an ability to discriminate right from wrong, and weigh up fact from fiction, and rhetoric from reality, far earlier than they are given credit for.

Interestingly the new Australian Curriculum for English which is being trialled in QLD this year has several references to developing  discriminatory reading skills from an early age. For example, under sub-strand “Texts in Context”, Year 3 children should be able to “identify the point of view in a text and suggest alternative points of view”. And under the literature and content sub-strand, Year 4 students should be able to “make connections between the ways different authors represent similar storylines.”

A close scrutiny of ACARA’s Australian Curriculum: Science document reveals similar discriminatory expectations, albeit at a higher level. For example, under Science Inquiry Skills, Year 9 and 10 students should be able to “evaluate conclusions, including identifying sources of uncertainty and possible alternative explanations.

Science and conservation news is an ideal “real world’ information source for children and young people to develop their knowledge and understanding as well as powers of discrimination. And this approach is not new.  As a young teacher, I vividly recall facilitating several enjoyable and highly engaging lessons which were based around a courtroom setting. The class was split into two, character roles were assigned and the “defence and prosecution” were expected to present different views and interpretations of the evidence. Young children love role play and dressing up; the research the children undertook (with the help of parents) in presenting their case was deep and impressive.

Many children are capable of weighing up the merits of a debate

There is plenty of current (and often politically controversial) material in the news that lends itself to debate and raising student’s awareness of the complex, inter-weaving nature of science and conservation issues. For example, exploring the United Nation’s concern about protection of the GBR versus the federal and state government’s need for mining revenue and plans for QLD port and rail expansion; the protection of old-world growth forests in Tasmania advocated by conservationists versus the need to generate new forestry and wood processing jobs in a state with high unemployment.

As a conversational stimulus around the kitchen table or in your classroom, I wonder whether the world-wide depiction of a cute newborn Sumatran rhino is designed primarily to make the general population “feel better” about our efforts to ameliorate the alarming depletion of the world’s endangered wildlife and their habitats?  To discuss.

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