Friday, April 19, 2019

GUEST POST Why we need a GCSE in Natural History

Mary Colwell says a GCSE in Natural History could be the first step in a revival of nature in our education system. 

Whenever I listen to Brain of Britain on Radio 4 my sense of inadequacy grows as the programme progresses. I simply don’t know that many facts.

In March, I caught the first heat in the quest to find the greatest knowledge-guru of 2019 and I barely got off the starting blocks. Maybe I could have answered one or two questions given more time, but I can’t recall fast enough. I hugely admire those who have this kind of info sitting in an accessible part of their brain.

Then, one of the questions was on natural history. The question master, Russell Davies, asked, “Daubenton’s, Brandt’s and Leisler’s are three species of which British mammal?” The answers proffered were hedgehog, otter, badger and shrew.

I found this surprising. Brandt’s and Leisler's are not as well-known as Daubenton's, but I was taken aback that not one of the highly intelligent and well-informed contestants guessed, or knew, they were bats. It was equally surprising that they thought there was more than one species of hedgehog, otter and badger in the UK.

This observation is in no way meant to put down the people taking part in the programme, but it did highlight that the names of common British mammals are considered specialist rather than common knowledge.

Why is this so important? Is it simply enough to know there are bats and badgers? Or is it useful to know that there is only one species of badger in the UK, but there are 18 species of bat, 17 of them breeding here? And – is it important to name them?

I think there is a good argument for doing so. When a creature is named it is conferred autonomy while at the same time we affirm its place alongside the rest of the nameable world. If we care enough to name something, we might be more inclined to embrace its existence alongside our own. 

Conferring the dignity of a name allows us to embrace the creature as familiar - the root of empathy. Understanding, familiarity and empathy are essential for a fully-human, holistic and meaningful relationship with the world.

As an example, that flitting shadow seen over the local park lake on a summer night is not just a generic, flapping animal, it is a bat. More than that, it is a Daubenton's bat, a fascinating creature that is sometimes referred to as a ‘water bat’ because it skims over the surface of water bodies feeding on insects flying close to the surface. Sometimes it scoops them up with its large feet.  After one night’s feeding it can increase its body mass by over 50 per cent.

Daubenton’s bats spend the winter in caverns underground, adding further mystery to their nocturnal lives.  A Pipistrelle bat, on the other hand, is our smallest and commonest bat. It is often found in urban settings and the one you are most likely to see in the garden or roosting in your roof. It can live in colonies of over a thousand.

Names matter if we want to add richness to our understanding of the world.

Bats, along with other wildlife, are not just biological specimens. They come marinated, as it were, in folklore and cultural attitudes. We are creative and inventive creatures, we love stories, and have long gazed at the life that accompanies us on our journey on earth and have conjured up all manner of associations.

Bats fly at night, at a time when we find it hard to see. We are easily scared by a flitting, frantic shadow. It is no surprise that bats have been, and still are, connected by our inner fears to death and the mystery of the unknown beyond life. Films about vampires and distressed souls feature bats to add a shock factor tinged with the unknowable.

To see a bat is to observe a flying amalgam of story and scientific fact. The animal that streaks past the streetlight seems to bring forth a range of emotions that enhance our existence.

Names matter, associations matter. Without the ability to look at the natural world around us and be able to name it and give it a place in our cultural lives, we become diminished.

In 2011, I came up with the idea of a GCSE in Natural History. It arose from a realisation that the world is unfamiliar to so many. Although we live here, breathe the air, eat what is grown in the earth and watch programmes that celebrate the natural world, many people know little about their surroundings.

This was not the case 50 years ago. There has been a steady erosion of the rock that kept us stable on the planet - our understanding of nature and our place in it. 

After a couple of attempts to drum up support, including a government petition in 2017, it wasn’t until Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, contacted me to ask if she could help that the idea was transported into the corridors of power and progress is being made.

A GCSE in Natural History isn’t just a qualification in naming things, it is a course that provides young people with the ability to observe, record and name the planet.

It will teach them to work with the realities of a messy, unpredictable world and be able to use the data they collect. It will require patience and an ability to think outside the box. It will sharpen the senses and broaden horizons. It will require an understanding of biology, geography, maths, English, technology and outdoor pursuits.

It will also, crucially, connect the natural to the cultural world through the relationship between nature and art, music, literature, poetry and digital media. A GCSE in Natural History will bring the nature into the heart of the city, the town and village. It will start to nurture those weakened connections to the living world that have been so eroded through the 20th Century.

If the GCSE is established then the school system will begin to gear up to prepare children through the primary and early secondary years. It may go on to an A Level, and who knows, I’d love to see degrees in Natural History.

The late and very great Aubrey Manning had the esteemed title of Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University. I’d like to see those positions in every learned establishment.

A GCSE in Natural History is the first step in what I hope will be a revival of nature in our education system.

Mary Colwell is a producer and writer specialising in nature.

1 comment:

Jean said...

Hi Mary,
I read your proposal for a Natural History GCSE in the March issue of Wildlife magazine. The content for the syllabus captivated me. I am an experienced Primary School teacher of many years and have always squeezed natural history into the curriculum, especially in Spring. The children in my classes have thrived in these lessons, for example learning about the amazing common swift and how they are dependent on nest sites for their survival. Children love !earning about the natural world. It excites and motivates them. The children's ideas and level of commitment to their world is breathtaking when you listen to them speak And share their ideas. And children's capacity to learn about and explore the natural world is not utilised in The current curriculum. Natural History is inclusive and develops so many of the ski!is we want children to have and yet find so difficult to capitalize on in the curriculum that can be so abstract and unconnected to their lives. Everything I know about teaching and learning tells me that it would make such a difference to our children who are custodians of the planet to learn and make connections to their world and find out what they care about and how human beings impact on nature. I introduced my children to the book 'Lost for Words', that introduces the vocabulary that has been taken out of the Oxford Dictionary to make to make room for new technology words. E.g, acorn, adder, bramble. They absolutely loved the book and exploring the words many of which were unfamiliar. For me, the biggest sin an educator can commit is to underestimate children. Children have a right to access the joy, beauty and knowledge in their world. I think if they are given the chance to discretely learn about Natural History, they will change the world for the better. I like the title Natural History, because history is about telling a story and nature should be told as a never ending story. Thank you for your campaign. It was the most inspirational idea I have heard in a very long time.

Jean Stafford-Baker
Primary School Teacher and Nature Lover