So, the 10-week trial of an ethics class for year 5-6 students, timetabled in the same slot as SRE (Special Religious Education – “Scripture”) has come to an end. The smh reports that the evaluation phase is to begin:
THE future of the ethics classes in NSW public schools rests with a little-known South Australian academic.
Dr Sue Knight, a philosophy lecturer at the University of South Australia, has been appointed to evaluate the ethics trial, which finished last week.
Dr Knight's speciality is the teaching of philosophy and ethical inquiry in primary and secondary schools.
Indeed, Dr Knight appears to be eminently qualified…
My initial academic training was in Philosophy, with the award of a PhD from the University of Adelaide in 1978. I wrote on the problem of universals, a fundamental problem within Metaphysics, and was examined by Professors J.J.C. Smart and David Armstrong. I subsequently turned to the field of Education, convinced that all students should have the opportunity to experience the intellectual growth that Philosophy brings. I completed a BEd in 1981 , at the same time becoming aware of the work of U.S. Professor Mathew Lipman, who, through his Philosophy for Children program, was engaging students of all ages (from kindergarten to the senior secondary) in philosophical inquiry. Having attended an advanced training workshop in Philosophy for Children in Montclair, N.J., I returned to Australia and sought an academic position within Education, working for a number of years at the University of Adelaide, and then at the (now) University of South Australia. My academic work is based on the view that it is through the development of well reasoned and ethically grounded thinking that education fulfils its individual and social goals, and my publications include both theoretical and curriculum-based work. For many years I have worked with teacher-educators, practising teachers and principals, as well as pre-service teachers and doctoral students, to embed Philosophy in the Learning Areas at both Primary/Junior Primary and Secondary levels of schooling. Much of this work has been in conjunction with a colleague, Dr. Carol Collins. I was involved in writing S.A.’s Senior Secondary Philosophy curriculum, and served as inaugural Chair of the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia’s Philosophy Subject Advisory Committee. In relation to Primary and Middle school Philosophy, I established, and held the inaugural Chair of, the South Australian Association for Philosophy in the Classroom and have conducted much of the Association’s professional development. I have held the editorship (jointly with Dr Carol Collins) of Critical and Creative Thinking: The Australasian Journal of Philosophy in Education, since July, 2006 I have researched (with recent support from the Ethics Centre of South Australia) and written extensively on Values Education, and engaged in public dialogue around the Howard government’s Values Education initiative. My current research centres on the inclusion of Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Mathematics into Science and Mathematic s curricula respectively at Primary, Secondary and Tertiary levels.
Readers should also take the time to check out her many relevant publications. I'm not an expert in the field, but it appears that Dr. Knight certainly is.
So what will she be assessing? Back to the Herald story,
The Education Minister, Verity Firth, said the evaluation would canvass the views of major stakeholders, including the religious faiths, which have fiercely opposed the classes.
Neither the public nor the parents of participating children will be invited to make a submission.
Dr Knight will determine whether the management of the trial by the St James Ethics Centre is a viable model for wider implementation in NSW state schools. She also will examine the efficacy of the course for improving students' understanding and skills in ethical decision-making, as well as make any recommendations for improvements.
It strikes me that the scope of the assessment misses the point. The thrust of the protest against the Ethics Course has not been that the course is poor quality. Of course, questions should be raised about the philosophical assumptions embedded in the course (in particular, the notion that kids should, ultimately, decide for themselves what the right thing to do is is, on the face of it, a walk towards a Lord of the Flies scenario) and the secularising motives of many of those championing the course, but that was never the main dispute.
The main protest has been over the timetabling of a non-SRE class in SRE time, contrary to the express restrictions in the current legislation. The Ethics class is far better suited to GRE time and may very well fit beneficially into that curriculum. The question of Ethics/SRE, then, is not about whether the course is a good course. If the course were an excellent course the main issue would still remain – SRE is undermined and diluted by this course. This is, after all, the main thrust of the St. James Ethics Centre argument, which speaks of
…the injustice perpetrated against children who opt out of SRE and who are not allowed to undertake meaningful activity at this time.
But that is to miss the point. The proper and productive use of time by those children whose parents have opted them out of SRE is the responsibility of the school. The argument here should therefore be directed against lazy supervision. It has been pointed out many times that DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time is compulsory in many schools and not seen as a “filler” or a waste. Many such options are available to children and SRE providers can hardly be blamed for that (presumably) small minority of schools who fail to use the time well.
These fundamental issues are outside the scope of Dr Knight's review, and yet they are the main issues that need to be decided. So more power to Sue Knight – I expect she will produce a comprehensive and illuminating report which all parties will benefit from. But it won't answer the main question – should SRE time remain protected? The ethics trial wasn't necessary to debate that issue, but it may turn out to be the Trojan Horse by which the question was sidelined. Let's hope and pray that the integrity of the NSW State Government holds up and the real issue is discussed.