Guest blog – A GCSE in Natural History? by Chris Baker

 

Chris is a science teacher of nine years and a former country park ranger. He began his teaching career in London before taking up posts at British schools in Vietnam and China. He is a Biology specialist and currently Head of Science at the British School Bucharest.

 

An online petition calling for the UK government to develop a Natural History GCSE has gained 6,098 signatures at time of writing. 10,000 is the minimum required to qualify for a government response and 100,000 means the topic will be considered for parliamentary debate. The petition has circulated around Twitter, achieving 42 re-tweets as well as garnering support from notable nature author Tony Juniper and Tim Birkhead FRS, professor of behaviour and evolution at the University of Sheffield.

It’s an interesting idea and one that has good intentions. But I do not think it is good idea. For selfish reasons I would love to teach natural history as a subject on its own. The joy! But to how many students?  Would it benefit them? And would it positively affect the effort to conserve the curlew – the campaign (and a worthy cause I might add) that seems to have led to the creation of this petition?

The second sentence of the petition reads ‘Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife’. I take issue with the word ‘need’ here. I believe that young people can benefit greatly from learning these skills but they do not need them. They need to perform arithmetic so they can check energy bills, read competently and problem solve. Speaking as a science specialist, I would also argue that young people, in a time when internet memes and click-bait links are regarded by some as a valid sources of information on issues as serious as health and disease, need the ability to distinguish good science from pseudoscience. But they don’t need to know how wildlife is recorded. To some children, learning how to do so would be irrelevant and a waste of time. We can’t let our own passions and interests dictate what children must know.

The petition does not specify whether natural history should be a compulsory subject. Students already have to take at least one science GCSE course; all of which contain biology content. So, I presume Mary Colwell (creator of the petition) thinks it should be an optional science. Most schools offer up to three sciences at GCSE – Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Deciding whether to ‘drop’ a subject (I’ve always discouraged this word as a it sounds a bit arrogant and casual) is a big choice to make aged 13 or 14, due to most schools limiting pupils to around five options.

Choosing to study Biology as a single GCSE as part of the ‘triple science’ route allow students to build more broadly on the skills outlined by Colwell, already learned to an appropriate level throughout Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. All three GCSE Biology syllabi I have taught (Edexcel, Cambridge, AQA) have contained significant ecology content, including practical field skills, identification of major clades, food webs, causes of extinction, constructing and using dichotomous keys, and data analysis. One might argue that these topics, strictly speaking, do not constitute natural history. However, these are some of the very skills outlined in the petition’s description. Not to mention ecology, conservation and natural history being interdisciplinary, with huge content cross-over. This begs the question – Would some of these topics get taken out of the Biology curriculum and relocated into Natural History?

Colwell gives only the briefest description of what a GCSE in Natural History would entail, in that same second sentence – Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife. Here is an excerpt from the Biology Natural Curriculum for England:

  • methods of identifying species and measuring distribution, frequency and abundance of species within a habitat

We can see from the above that her request is already present in the very bare bones of what a student is expected to learn at Key Stage 4 (In England, at least. I’m less familiar with other UK curricula but I am confident they have a similar, if not identical, point). The rest of the petition’s brief is more of an emotional appeal about the importance of nature to our national culture and heritage along with concern about how children are becoming increasingly disconnected from it. Whilst I sympathise with this viewpoint as an individual who loves and worries about nature, creating a GCSE in Natural History is not the answer.

The petition description could also fall into Environmental Science, another subject which contains principles of natural history. This is a subject I have taught at GCSE before and it was never popular, usually used to fill a timetable slot when a pupil had sat a science GCSE a year early. Students will sit AQA’s Environmental Science GCSE examinations in England for the final time this summer, with no possibility of re-sit. This is due to Ofqual, the government examinations regulator, deciding the content overlapped too much with other science curricula.

Rather than create an entirely new Natural History GCSE I think it would be far wiser to bolster biology content in current science GCSEs to include the identification some common British species without the use of a key. Science being compulsory, students have to choose between Core Science, Double Science or Triple Science; for each of which the examination boards’ syllabi must correspond to the science national curriculum. A change to the national curriculum impacts every single student following the regular GCSE path, unlike optional subject content. To put this into some perspective, nearly 700,000 students sat a compulsory Science GCSE that included biology as per the national curriculum in 2012; 941 were awarded an Environmental Science GCSE.

The creation of a Natural History GCSE would not, perhaps sadly, prove popular with schools, pupils or parents. It would attract students who are already interested in nature and, I fear, have the potential turn their wonderment into stress thus having exactly the opposite effect that this petition aims to achieve – Namely greater engagement with and caring for species within the natural world. The fact is that pupils and teachers are under pressure to get good grades so rather than softly igniting interest in a young mind, we might actually extinguish it.

If a Natural History GCSE were taught well, the student enjoyed the course, achieved a good pass grade and subsequently wished to pursue the subject into post-16 education, what then? There is no Natural History A-level or International Baccalaureate so they would have to choose Biology as the most suitable option. This means they will have gaps in their knowledge, even if the student takes as many related modules as possible there is still core content on human biology etc. at Key Stage 5. Consequently, he or she would have a lot of catching up to do. A good A-level Biology pass, along with acceptable grades in other subjects studied, would get our student onto a natural history-related degree course. My worry is that we will have impeded, rather than aided, the student’s chances of getting onto their preferred course by allowing them to skip so much preparatory content at GCSE.

What a student thinks they would like to study at university aged 13 or 14 is likely to change over the intervening years and teachers need to make sure their horizons stay broad. Perhaps our Combined/Double/Triple GCSE Biology student will go on pursue a Virology B.Sc and end up working on a new vaccine for squirrel pox or avian flu. Or they might become interested in statistics – eventually becoming a financial analyst for an investment firm, their interest in natural history falling by the wayside save for a monthly direct debit to the WWF and an occasional visit to the Natural History Museum. Biology keeps options wide open, whereas a GCSE in Natural History would narrow options too far at too young an age.

Lastly, who would teach natural history as a stand-alone GCSE subject? Answer – Biology teachers, because they have the background to do so.

 

National Curriculum in England for Science: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study

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17 Replies to “Guest blog – A GCSE in Natural History? by Chris Baker”

  1. Whilst I find the idea of a natural history gcse superficially appealing, I think Chris makes some very good points in his argument against it. He is probably correct that making it an examined gcse subject would not be effective in reconnecting children with wildlife or in raising their identification skills in a durable way (what percentage of the nation's adults remembers much of the science they learned at school?) and it could be a turn-off for some.
    This is not to say that schools cannot play an important role in inspiring children to love (and therefore learn about) nature but it is probably best done in an informal way. Many a prominent naturalist first became interested in wildlife under the guidance of a school teacher who led an extra curricular club. These days schools are under enormous pressure to push cohorts of pupils over the examination hurdles and consequently time available for extra-curricular activities is squeezed to the bare minimum but perhaps we need to re-think that. Given the time and space I am sure that there are teachers who would love to develop school natural history societies. Not every student will or should join such a society but they will have the chance to do other things that do not necessarily get reflected in school league tables but are nevertheless probably beneficial to them and society as a whole.

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  2. It's not often that you read one short piece and change your mind but this is one of those occasions. I may need to unsign the petition!

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  3. A*

    I think this is a well reasoned position, and one that I can't help but agree with.

    The only thing I'd add is that the question of who'd teach such a course is more challenging than just "biology teachers". I don't think anyone would disagree with me when I say that biology is a very broad field and to be honest not everyone who teaches biology is all that familiar with natural jistory. If you wanted a really good natural history teacher you need someone who is a devoted naturalist, and we're always hearing about a shortage of people who can actually identify things/have basic skills in natural history.

    All in all the GCSE idea is a really nice one, and it is obviously well meaning, I'm just not sure I can support it.

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  4. I'd support it if it added something to the Home Ec classes, putting in foraged foods and how to cook with the likes of dandelions and nettles. Get these things into kids diets when young so they just accept it as normal; in our house even back in ye olde days, before it was nationally popular, my grandmother used to do Chinese cooking and Indian curries and foods of all nation just out of love of trying new recipes so we grew up with a very cosmopolitan diet which I later learned was considered unusual at the time. Sadly, despite being from the countryside, she never added much naturally foraged materials. Just the usual hazel nuts, blackberries, raspberries, and elderberries; and on the meat side of things rabbit and pigeon.

    I think if we can get kids automatically thinking of rosehips, nettles, and dandelions et al, as things to eat then the rest will follow. I'd support a GCSE in natural history and forage cooking. At the very least it means the poor biology department (here is to you Mr Dunn, you were my favourite teacher at school) teachers can share the load with the Home Economics department (here is to you Home Ec dept, you....existed?).

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  5. I believe that we would all hope that future generations would feel as deeply, enjoy life long study and campaign for the natural world as we do and in doing so enrich their own being. Like Chris I do not believe that a curriculum subject will be the answer or part of the answer.
    I was influenced early on by the thinking of Ivan Illich - 'Deschooling Society' and even today there is a movement for 'Learning outside the Classroom'. Look at Mark's 'Behind the Binoculars' and sift through those interviewed and wonder just how those qualities and that lifelong commitment could come from a GCSE in Natural History, how easy it would be for a two year GCSE course to produce the greenwash we see so often today. Come on, it takes far more than that and the extra ingredients it needs would be a challenge to produce from a classroom based subject.
    In recent years our risk averse education has taken away so much of the practical teaching and outdoor visits have been reduced in the curriculum. It may be easy to teach the dry facts of aspects of Natural History but without the 'out there' experiences which embed it for life it would not sustain the interest nor the passion which underpins.
    Children have such a deep interest but adolescence is the crux period when other demands on time and interest come to the fore and that Natural History interest looses it's cool before some return in later life. Surely feeding and catering for that interest through the teenage years is the key and exciting, challenging, social as well as personal ingredients are required. The Earth Education movement side stepped the naming and recording in favour of underpinning concepts and wonder, Adventure Activities with their licensing requirement provide challenge and wild experiences in ranging habitat with wonderful encounters with wildlife, Scouting provides independent ability to live and move in the outdoors. I think we would be sadly disappointed at the naturalists we would produce without these extra ingredients, its as if we undervalue what makes a naturalist.

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  6. It not too long ago that I sat my GCSEs, I'd hazard more recently than a lot of the supports of the Natural History GCSE. While it might seem appealing, I cannot think of many more things more likely to turn people off nature than a GCSE in it! I went to high school loving science and biology in particular but soon got bored because when it came to the more zoology/natural history elements as they weren't what I expected - they were stuffy and boring.

    Identification and recording skills are important for a naturalist but those, as Chris says, can be taught via the existing Biology GSCE route. Perhaps with more tweaking toward British Wildlife.

    Being a naturalist is about wonderment in the natural world and that is something that can be encouraged, but not taught or put into examinations. Like many naturalists I have, and still do, while away many an hour by sitting and watching the natural world go by, thinking about what I'm seeing, what the species are doing and working out what they are - I do that out of sheer enjoyment and wonderment at the huge diversity of life around me, even in my garden. A GCSE in natural history would soon dampen and kill this! The pressure of exams, course work and such soon sap the joy out of it.

    I work professionally as an ecologist and spend a fair bit of time out "identifying species and measuring distribution, frequency and abundance of species within a habitat". But on those occasions I'm not being a naturalist - I'm there to do a job, to get it done. Not stop and stare, to wonder, to question. That is a large part of natural history, at least to me. So no, I won't be supporting this petition as I would Hate to have to take an examine that marked how passionate, intrigued or engrossed by nature I was, as any marking scheme would be a conceit. If we want more children to become naturalists then there is a cheaper, less onerous way. Ensure all biology departments that multiple copies of Durrell's or Bakers "Amateur Naturalist" books, and id guides to British wildlife that interested kids can borrow and feed their intrigue. Not put them through enthusiasm draining examinations.

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  7. Natural history is too important to be stifled by the dead hand of examination curricula and turned into qualification fodder by schools. Our children already sit too many exams. The problem is how to give them (and teaching staff) more time to get out and about to experience the living world first hand without the need to regurgitate what they've learnt (but not what they've experienced) in the exam room. The point is to get them to enjoy, wonder and involved, not something GCSEs have a great track record of encouraging!

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    1. Quite the opposite. We should teach it, in part precisely because it is fun, but to all pupils following the national curriculum, not just those in private education or who happen to be in a state school that would have the means to offer this proposed GCSE.

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  8. It's rather scary when being interested in something and anything that's examined are seen as two different things - most of the time I rather enjoyed learning, and with the best teaching was inspired. I wouldn't have minded being examined in natural history - I spent a lot of time at school getting out of time wasting activities like sport to go birdwatching. Having, like Mark, rather thrived professionally on that 'extracurricular activity' I suspect I share with him a slight embarrassment at my ignorance of other taxa - especially botany. I would have loved the opportunity to have had a more balanced spread across both plants and animals - rather than later picking up a very selected insight, largely of things that attacked crops, in my subsequent degree.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I share your opinion that being interested in something and being examined on it does not need to be separate. If this was the case, none of us would enjoy academia or learning an assessed trade skill. I too would have relished the opportunity to be examined in natural history at GCSE. It's safe to assume that the majority of people who read Mark's blog share this view. 14-16 year olds in the UK are from a huge variety of social and cultural backgrounds and represent every type of personality. A GCSE needs to attract enough pupils to justify adding it to the timetable, it needs to be resourced and staffed at a time when school budgets are shrinking. A GCSE in natural history would work for a handful of kids, whereas including more content in the biology curriculum would give pupils who are very interested a chunk to spur them on whilst sensitively sparking intrigue in those less keen.

      Regarding your embarrassment in not knowing as much as you would like about botany, I am just the same. People working in healthcare might be embarrassed about their knowledge on some aspects of human biology because there is no human biology GCSE. Should we create one? That would be great, but we're talking about national education policy and there's a limit. Remember that the G in GCSE stands for general.

      This all seems like rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic within the current political situation but if Labour win power and pump much-needed money into education, we could see real improvement. Who knows, maybe there will even be enough money to justify bring back some scrapped GCSEs and create some new ones, including one in natural history, but it would be far from the top of my priority list.

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  9. A couple of years ago I gave a talk at a conference for post docs in environmental science, in the afternoon we went on a field trip to look at the local landscape. I was the only one who took binoculars and the only who stopped to watch birds or look at the trees and vegetation. No doubt all the participants had A*s in biology at both GCSE and A level, no doubt they knew a lot about life processes, which is obviously very important, but they knew nothing and showed scant interest in the visceral life around them. I don't understand the objections to a concrete suggestion for making natural history - and I mean natural history, not just naming 20 species - at the very core of education, which is where all young people spend some time. And if, at first, it can only be studied by a few- then that is far more than at present - where it seems no one is taught to identify, record, monitor the life around them. Nor are they aware of the history of studying nature, the wealth of nature literature and art and music and the benefits to our health and well being. Simply adding a bit more into an already packed and intense course will not create naturalists - it simply will not. The environmental agenda has changed, we are not where we were when the education system was developed. Understanding natural history is no longer a pursuit for Sunday afternoon, it has to be what everyone does. It will be difficult and challenging to make it mainstream, and it may take a while to change is the way we teach subjects, but it not a small subset of biology. It will get lost and nothing will change. What Chris Baker is suggesting is a well-meaning compromise - but that is all it is, and a poor compromise by a long, long way.

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    1. Mary - You write "Understanding natural history is no longer a pursuit for Sunday afternoon, it has to be what everyone does". I agree with this, to an extent, which is why it should be included in the national curriculum for science, and not be made exclusive to students attending schools that offer your proposed optional GCSE.

      You can't argue with the figures. 600,000+ students take biology in some form at GCSE every year. Our best guide for how a Natural History GCSE would fare in uptake is the about-to-be defunct Environmental Science GCSE, which boasted around 1,000 annually. It is worth mentioning that most of these pupils will be privately educated or attending outstanding comprehensive schools that have the ability to implement a bespoke programme of study. For the record, I think all schools should be able to but that is the sad reality. As it stands, if you're unlucky enough to be a poor child living in the wrong post code, you won't be able to take a Natural History GCSE.

      Adding to the compulsory biology curriculum will impact many hundreds times more pupils than the creation of an optional GCSE; rich and poor alike. This leads me to ask - Do you really want to impact the whole UK population, or just a sub-set of those lucky enough to access the high-standards of education?

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  10. Can you please name one that secondary schools commonly offer at key stage 5 (A level, IB, etc.)

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  11. I see your point and I partly regret writing the bit about stiffling pupil interest in natural history with formal examinations.

    Rest assured, there are plenty of field work opportunities in the current commonly used GCSE Biology syllabi. A fair bit in Chemistry too. My GCSE biologists currently complete 9 days of field work in total.

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