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Category Archive • The curriculum
November 11, 2004
Another history textbook battle

And here's another political row (see also this earlier posting) being fought out on the terrain of school history textbooks, this time the one between Taiwan and mainland China. China View says that Taiwan and mainland China share a common history, which is true. But China View stirs this truth in with the claim that therefore Taiwan simply cannot in the present or ever in the future be politically independent from mainland China, which is false.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:17 AM
Category: HistoryPoliticsThe curriculum
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August 02, 2003
Historic battle in Russia

I missed this the first time around but found it today, via Chris Bertram. It's a Guardian report on arguments about the history syllabus in Russia. A fraught matter as you can surely guess. The people who lost the Cold War were never de-commified, so even if they lost the big one, they can still win little actually not so little of course battles like this one:

A row has broken out between the Russian government and a group of the country's top writers over removing literary classics about the repression of the Soviet era from the school syllabus.

Thirteen distinguished writers have sent an open letter to the Minister for Education protesting at plans for several seminal Russian works, including Boris Pasternak's classic Dr Zhivago, to be dropped from the essential reading lists for 12- to 18-year-olds.

The protesters allege that bureaucrats are trying to keep literature dealing with the purges of the Soviet era away from schoolchildren, presenting an anodyne version of the nation's former imperial glory. The books will instead become "recommended reading", taught at the teacher's discretion, on a new list due to come into effect in 2005.

The row goes right to the quick of Russia's struggle to come to terms with the brutalities of its past. While during the Yeltsin era the Kremlin kept the media brimmed with reminders of the horror and hard graft of life under Communism, the Putin administration's focus on nationalistic pride often results in a warm nostalgia for the glories of the Soviet era.

You probably all know what I think about school syllabuses. Let the schools decide them. But I doubt that's going to happen any time soon in Russia.

It's not going to happen any time soon in Britain, either.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:02 PM
Category: The curriculum
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July 08, 2003
With the end in mind

Bas Braams has started an education blog Scientifically Correct which will be about K-12 education.

(What is K-12 education? All I know is that it is American. That's the year, yes? What does the K stand for? It's time I knew about this.)

Anyway, Bas emails of his new enterprise:

There will be co-authors, and I hope that together we'll maintain an active schedule of posting. We will focus on K-12 education in the United States, with occasional postings on international issues and on college education. We especially care about curriculum issues. My own area is math and science education, but I expect that others will write about language and humanities.

Sounds promising.

In his latest posting Bas quotes from a conversation with Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton:

Q. How would you change the way science is taught at universities?

A. I think we do not teach the introductory courses appropriately. Right now, we just teach all the basic facts of chemistry, physics, biology or mathematics. Then, we teach a few basic principles. By the third year, we finally tell the students what is interesting about all of this. I think we should break the pyramid. We should begin with the most exciting ideas in chemistry, physics, biology and how you go about studying it. What are the things you need to know? We should only teach what students need to know in order to understand what those are.

Q. Would you teach science by changing science education into a "great ideas of science" course?

A. Absolutely. I'd like to see us teaching more than a canon, a collection of facts, but why this is exciting, why is the exploration of nature one of the most wonderful ways to spend one's life.

Says Bas:

All this without a hint of regret that even Princeton University students should have to be babied into an appreciation of science.

Point taken, but as a description of how it makes sense to teach science to younger people, when the burden of persuasion, so to speak, is more with the teacher, I think Tilghman's attitude makes more sense. It's asking a lot of a secondary school teacher to know such stuff, though. My answer would be: get the Professors to make DVDs about how life is at the scientific frontier, and distribute those to the secondary schools. And to anyone else who is interested.

In general, it makes sense to me that teaching should be done with some idea in the minds of the pupils of what it might be leading to. That doesn't mean that there is no place for teachers who teach the basics and nothing else. Teaching is, after all, usually a team effort. But someone ought to be trying to get across what it's all for.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:48 PM
Category: The curriculum
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May 29, 2003
Dangerous propaganda

Home schooler Julius Blumfeld writes:

I had a row with Mrs B a few days ago. The cause was the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History. Usborne are highly reputable educational publishers who produce nicely laid out and easy to use books for children.

The Encyclopedia has a section on the Industrial Revolution. There is the usual recital of the horrors of the new towns with an illustration of a slum with a smart horse and carriage driving past and a caption with the words "The factory owner drives past quickly".

The text then continues:

Making changes Members of the trade unions and some wealthy people put pressure on the government to make life better for the poor. In the second half of the 19th century, factories became safer, and better houses were built. New drains and sewers made the streets cleaner, which helped to prevent diseases from spreading.

Going to school

In 1800, parents usually had to pay to send their children to school, so many children from poor families never learned to read or write. Over the next hundred years, laws were passed which allowed children to have a free education.

So life became better for people because the Government made it better and poor children learned to read and write because the Government passed laws to give them a free education.

To be fair to the authors, this sort of stuff is entirely conventional. Usborne are merely reflecting received wisdom. Nevertheless, I find it worrying. The book is designed for children and we all know that young children are incredibly receptive to the first ideas that get into their heads. Home educated children like ours are no different that way.

Yet when I ranted to Mrs B about the insidious dangers of this sort of statist propaganda, she looked at me as though as I was a paranoid nut and told me to stop exaggerating. So I told her she was an ideological dupe and stomped off.

I wonder who is right.

Julius

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
Category: BiasThe curriculum
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January 16, 2003
The facts of global citizenry

Michael Jennings quotes from this Telegraph story:

Eighty-six per cent said it was now more important to teach about environmental issues while 80 per cent agreed that "geography should teach pupils to respect and reconnect with nature". Many teachers went further. Two thirds thought that teaching about "sustainable lifestyles" and the pupils' roles as "global citizens" was more important than teaching basic skills such as reading maps.

I've posted the most pungent thing Jennings has to say about the notion of "sustainable development" over at Samizdata, as the slogan of the day. As for map-reading, he responds with, in part, this:

if we want our children to grow up to be good world citizens, there are few better things to give them than good geography lessons. Give people maps to look at and study, and the names of countries and their capitals and other cities to memorise, and explain why cities have grown where they are, and what languages are spoken, and how all these facts interrelate with each other, and children will slowly get a sense that the world and human culture is bigger and more complex and more extraordinary than can be understood from a few years of life in one town or country. Look at a few maps, and start asking questions, and suddenly the whole world jumps out at you. In short, a very traditional way of studying geography is a very good aid for people in figuring out their own values and attitudes.

Agreed. How can you think globally if you don't know what the globe actually consists of?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:21 PM
Category: The curriculum
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