Exploring nature in education: How curriculum enrichment and inspiring teachers can help to start a revolution

by The Assessment Network, 03 June 2021
Still of Mary Colwell online seminar

Last month a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar, Exploring Nature in Education: Developing a Natural History GCSE, heard from inspirational naturalist and campaigner Mary Colwell.

Mary, who has been spearheading the campaign to develop a GCSE in Natural History told an online audience of over 100 teachers, educators and other interested parties about the reasoning behind the recent proposal to the Department for Education.

The seminar traced Mary’s journey from the conversation which sparked the idea, to a petition, then a partnership with Caroline Lucas MP. Eventually leading to the involvement of Tim Oates, Director of Assessment Research and Development and Cambridge Assessment.

We spoke to the team at exam board OCR who worked on the GCSE consultation and proposal and colleagues who attended the seminar to find out more about the potential of a GCSE in Natural History and how education can play a role in effecting change.

Curriculum enrichment

Understanding nature and the natural world is far more than ecology. Art and science alike have been inspired by nature for centuries. Beethoven’s symphonies and Vivaldi’s concertos were inspired by birdsong. Sonar technology was inspired by bats and dolphins. And we all know that Newton was sitting under an apple tree when he had the thought that led to his theory of gravity.

‘Nature feeds our creative processes in an elemental way’ as Mary Colwell put it.

Nature feeds our creative processes in an elemental way

We also relate to ourselves through the natural world, and when we lose our ability to understand it, we can lose a sense of ourselves. Mary highlighted that nearly three-quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates and that from Primary age onwards, many children are becoming dissociated from the natural world.

It was these reasons that led Mary to believe that there was a crucial gap in the curriculum and that education could have a role to play in re-engaging young people with the world around them.

In OCR’s consultation, which involved a wide range of stakeholders, educators and young people, it was explained that ‘Natural History offers a unique opportunity to observe and engage with the natural world to develop a deeper understanding of the flora and fauna (life on Earth) within it. It is a study of how the natural world has been shaped and has evolved as well as how humans (as part of that natural world) influence, conserve and protect it. It is vital that we continue to develop our understanding of the natural world in order to safeguard the future.’

Tori Coleman, Assessment Research Officer at Cambridge Assessment observed,

“What will be particularly interesting about a Natural History GCSE is its interdisciplinary nature and opportunity to bridge across different subjects.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial as we tackle climate change and growing environmental concerns. The opportunity to have a Natural History GCSE which brings together elements of the Sciences and Humanities in building understanding and connection with the natural world therefore offers exciting potential.”

Inspiring teachers and enthusing young people

Mary Colwell talked of her vision of the teachers of a Natural History GCSE, who could come from any discipline or background, as long as they had a love and a passion for the natural world.

But why a qualification, why bring exams into it? This was one of the questions raised by a participant at the seminar.

In response, Tim Oates described how we “want exams to be demanding questions which stimulate thinking and allow children to show what they understand and know.” And that “working towards a qualification provides a target and stimulates us to acquire knowledge.”

Mary Colwell talked of her vision of the teachers of a Natural History GCSE, who could come from any discipline or background, as long as they had a love and a passion for the natural world. These inspiring teachers would have the potential to create a highly motivating and engaging experience for young people.

Encouraging the development of ‘lost’ skills

Mary went on to describe how the study of Natural History would encourage the development of key skills that may have been ‘lost’ such as observation, recording and working with ‘messy’ data. These are skills that teach patience, an understanding of nuance and the ability to deal with unpredictability and the challenges that presents.

OCR’s consultation, which sought views about potential content areas of the GCSE and the skills which could be developed, outlined the purpose of studying natural history as follows:

These are skills that teach patience, an understanding of nuance and the ability to deal with unpredictability and the challenges that presents.

‘To fully appreciate the complexities of the natural world it is important to study it closely and interact with it through field research and measurement. Natural History provides opportunities to develop skills out in the field as well as in a classroom or laboratory.’

And Simon Ward from the Field Studies Council has talked extensively on the power of learning about nature first-hand.

Starting a revolution

What inspires communities to go through revolutions? How do you get people to take up arms and change the world?

Eric Hoffer, social and political philosopher observed that, “Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.”

This is the thought that Mary left us with. The idea that giving young people a vision of a nature filled world is what will inspire them to want this planet filled with life again. 

Education will have a key role to play in this.

This is the thought that Mary left us with. The idea that giving young people a vision of a nature filled world is what will inspire them to want this planet filled with life again.

As Anik Blanchard, Regional Development Executive for the Americas at Cambridge International, put it after hearing Mary’s presentation, “Our statement that ‘we prepare students for life helping them develop an informed curiosity and a lasting passion for learning’ was never more aligned to the nature that surrounds us. We need to develop a sense of understanding and respect for nature in all of our students across the world.”

To keep up to date with the Natural History GCSE proposal, you can sign up for updates from OCRAnd if you would like to know how you can get involved, or if you have any questions related to the proposal, please get in touch via email: NaturalHistory@ocr.org.uk 

This seminar was run by Cambridge Assessment Network, we are an accredited provider of assessment training and professional development with an aim to bring together professionals from around the assessment community

Our seminars are an important part of what we do; by inviting authoritative voices in education to share their expertise, our aim is to inform and stimulate debate on current issues in assessment and education policy.

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