The Educo-Politics of Curriculum Development

Glen Aikenhead

College of Education

University of Saskatchewan

Saskatoon, SK, S7N OX1


A response to Peter Fensham's "Time to Change Drivers for Scientific Literacy" in the Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, vol. 2, issue 1.


Peter Fensham (2002) proposes that we modify the composition of those involved in the political power struggle ("educo-politics") over who determines the science curriculum. He suggests that "societal experts" are better situated than academic scientists to decide what knowledge is worth knowing, but his plan for curriculum development includes academic scientists deciding what science content supports the issues initially identified by societal experts. However, Fensham's proposal lacks the educo-politics needed to counter the customary devious educo-politics we have come to expect from those who support the status quo, particularly some academic scientists. Fensham's proposal gives academic scientists unnecessary political advantage. Without winning at educo-politics, school science for an informed citizenry will continue to be marginalised. There are few universal principles of action for curriculum developers to follow other than Sgt. Jablonski's (Hill Street Blues) "Do it to them before they do it to you." This article clarifies some of these Jablonskian counter educo-politics.

"Do It to Them Before They Do It to You."

-- Sgt. Stan Jablonski, Hill Street Blues

In his analysis of the collective failure of scientists and science educators over the past 30 years to reach consensus on operationalizing scientific literacy for school science, Peter Fensham (2002) supports a different approach to achieving significant curriculum reform. His approach changes the composition of players involved in the political power struggle ("educo-politics" -- Fensham's term) over who determines the content of a science curriculum. He adds momentum to the idea that "societal experts" are better situated than academic scientists to decide what knowledge is worth knowing in today's changing scientific and technological world.

Unlike science education dedicated to preparing students for university science programs (the status quo), science education for an informed citizenry privileges curriculum decision makers who are intimately conversant with the public's interaction with problems and issues related to science and technology (Aikenhead, 1980; Cross & Fensham, 2000; Eijkelhof & Kortland, 1988; Sjøberg 1997; Solomon, 1981, 1988). According to Fensham (2002), this relegates scientists and science educators to secondary roles. His new plan for curriculum development is comprised of three phases:

Phase 1: Societal experts systematically determine features of society endemic to an informed citizenry. Fensham's description of the Hong Kong project illustrates this phase.

Phase 2: Academic scientists specify science content associated with the features of society identified in phase 1.

Phase 3: Based on the phases 1 and 2, science educators develop a school science curriculum.

These phases address curriculum development, not curriculum implementation. Accordingly, curriculum development is the focus of this present article.

Fensham's three-phase plan differs from past and present innovative projects that have essentially ignored phase 2 by eliminating from their team academic scientists who foster allegiance to university science departments at the expense of science for all. Some examples include: the Science in a Social Context (SISCON)-in-Schools STS project (Solomon, 1983); the STS unit Ionizing Radiation in the Dutch PLON project (Eijkelhof, 1990; 1994); the STS textbook Logical Reasoning in Science & Technology (Aikenhead, 1991, 1994a); the Science Education for Public Understanding Program, SEPUP (Thier & Nagle, 1994), that produced STS chemistry modules and two STS textbooks, Issues, Evidence and You (SEPUP, 2000a) and Science and Sustainability (SEPUP, 2000b); a new Dutch course of studies, "Public Understanding of Science for Senior General Secondary Education" (Eijkelhof & Kapteijn, 2000); and a new advanced subsidiary (AS) level course and textbook in the UK, AS Science for Public Understanding (Hunt & Millar, 2000; Millar, 2000). These projects demonstrate that reform can occur on a relatively small scale without the usual participation (read "interference") by university scientists (Kolstø, 2001).

But on a grander scale of school science reform at the state or national level, Fensham's (2002) plan calls for the participation of academic scientists (phase 2); this, in spite of his earlier accounts of how university science departments have consistently thwarted attempts at changing the school science curriculum away from its traditional "pipe line" status quo design (Fensham, 1998b). Fensham (2002) refers to this obstructionist behaviour as "devious educo-politics."

According to Fensham's (2002) analysis, significant and lasting reform on a large scale has not been achieved in science education when left in the hands of scientists and science educators. His conclusion is supported by Hurd's (1986) historical study of similar attempts at reform in North America over the past 50 years. Virtually all attempts at reform have failed. A promising feature of curriculum reform proposed by Fensham is to give societal experts "the status and power to be initial drivers in the process of identifying how [Western] science does impinge on the public, personally and as responsible citizens" (p. XX).

This investiture of power in societal experts is necessary but I very much doubt if it is sufficient to overcome the impasses of the past, where devious educo-politics played a significant role in undermining progress towards a science education for an informed citizenry. Societal experts, or their representatives, must also engage in educo-politics and outmanoeuvre obstructionist academic scientists. In the real world of curriculum development, you have to do it to them before they do it to you (the Jablonski model of educo-politics).

In short, my critique of Fensham's article is this: although he introduced the key issue of educo-politics into the discussion, he did not address it sufficiently. Perhaps I should assume that it is good educo-politics to involve academic scientists in the curriculum development process (phase 2), but this assumption is a missing component to Fensham's argument. He does not justify the involvement of academic scientists, especially in the context of devious educo-politics. Does phase 2 exist simply because academic scientists are the current gate keepers to university entrance? Their devious educo-politics will continue unabated, I predict, whether societal experts are involved or not. In other words, the three-phase proposal by Fensham is missing the educo-politics that will successfully counter the customary devious educo-politics we have come to expect from those who support the status quo. The incorporation of educo-politics into Fensham's proposal is a necessary condition for success at science curriculum reform (Blades, 1994; Fensham, 1992). My article seeks to clarify these educo-politics.

While it is not my intension to propose an alternative model for redesigning the science curriculum, I need to mention the "deliberation model" because of its success in Canada during the early 1980's (Orpwood, 1985), and because of its promise for future policymaking in all countries (Aikenhead, 2000b, pp. 62-66). Deliberation is a structured and informed dialogue among various stakeholders, guided by a balanced combination of top-down and grass-roots methods. One structure for those dialogues is described by Fensham's model. An alternative structure, as illustrated by the numerous STS examples listed above, is the combination of phases 1 and 3, along with the technical expertise of academic scientists kept "on tap" by science educators in phase 3 (Aikenhead, 1994a), and at the same time, the participation of key science teachers throughout all phases (Roberts, 1988). In any model of curriculum renewal, however, educo-politics must be planned, played, and won by reform minded science educators. The purpose of this article is to augment our collective understanding of how this can be done.


In the context of developing a science curriculum for an informed citizenry, the Jablonski model of educo-politics needs to prevail. The powerful antagonistic stakeholders who champion the status quo must be co-opted, circumvented, or marginalised. Understandably, confrontational politics was not likely the motivation for science educators to enter science education in the first place. We tend to eschew educo-politics.

This avoidance was evident, for instance, at a 1991 AERA symposium, "The Influence of Academic Science on Teachers Facing New Policy and Curricula for Science," organized by Peter Fensham. Papers were presented by Chick Ahlgren (USA), Ros Driver (UK), Doug Roberts (Canada), and Peter Fensham (Australia). The papers related case studies from the respective countries. There were two reactants at the symposium: a high status academic scientist, Stephen Berry, and a science educator, myself (I still have my field notes). During the formal part of the symposium, I detected that devious educo-politics was the "elephant in the room." My role as I saw it was to address the elephant. As last reactant, I focussed my remarks on the political action of academic scientists (or their advocates) in each case study; that is, political actions that had been left to the audience to infer. I asked the presenters to specify the political tactics used. As I recall, the tenor of the symposium changed. Almost every presenter had a story to tell, a story conventionally excluded from formal presentations in our professional community. They spoke about specific tactics of power politics which had undermined the reform efforts outlined in their case studies. My empirical evidence for the symposium's success at articulating the educo-politics of curriculum development came in the form of a post-symposium, fatherly rebuke by an indignant academic scientist. Apparently I had contravened an implicit prohibition against acknowledging the power politics used in the defence of the status quo. The symposium had challenged one feature of devious educo-politics -- its covert nature.

Unless the tactics of educo-politics are identified and embraced by reform minded science educators, guided by the Jablonski model of practical action, our intentions to produce a school science curriculum for an informed citizenry will continue to be marginalised. The following scenarios illustrate the Jablonski model of educo-politics in action by drawing upon my personal experiences during the redevelopment of Saskatchewan's science curriculum (Hart, 1989).

One age-old tactic employed by the defenders of the status quo is "teacher bashing," that is, criticising teachers for a lack of student achievement, usually undocumented and solely justified by the speaker's perception. In Saskatchewan over the years, certain university faculty had engaged in public teacher bashing by writing letters to the editor of our local newspaper, decrying how poorly science students were prepared for university science classes. These opinions were read by parents and key bureaucrats in the governments' Department of Education. In the late 1980's when Saskatchewan embarked on a major curriculum reform to develop a science-technology-society-environment (STSE) curriculum, I anticipated that public teacher bashing might undermine the new curriculum. Writing rebuttals in the local newspaper in reaction to a teacher-bashing letter is often counter-productive. How could I invoke the Jablonski model of educo-politics? As an instructor of science methods courses in the College of Education, I taught the graduates of the university science departments (former students of the teacher bashers and their colleagues). Over a two-year period I systematically documented the persistent alternative conceptions ("misconceptions") of their graduates. I also documented their graduates' inability to conduct authentic (non-cookbook) experiments. In my documentation, I matched the university science courses taken by the students with the "deficiencies" assessed. By taking the time to diplomatically write private reports on this documentation to the heads of two science departments on campus ("Knowing your department might be interested in how well its graduates are doing ..."), I covertly gave notice that I had the empirical evidence to engage in public science-professor bashing. As a result, public teacher bashing from science departments at my university has not occurred over the intervening 15 years. My counter educo-political tactic in this case was blackmail, pure and simple. I recommend that reform minded science educators collect similar evidence to have on hand in case they need to invoke the Jablonski model of educo-politics.

Scores on international tests are often used politically to bolster the status quo position during science curriculum debates. Science educators must vigilantly challenge the validity of these assessments and the politics of their interpretation (e.g. Fensham, 1998a; Jenkins, 2001). Although this educo-political domain can never be won, the power advantage of the status quo protagonists can be neutralised. For example in Saskatchewan, our Department of Education was under intense pressure to participate in national and international testing programs. Its policy to be low key on this issue was recently supported dramatically by a Scientific American article entitled "The False Crisis in Science Education" (Gibbs & Fox, 1999). The authors had conducted thorough journalistic research in three cities: Amarillo, Texas; Saskatoon, Canada; and Umea, Sweden. The original agenda for the research was to identify the reasons for TIMSS scores being highest in Sweden, high in Canada, and low in the USA. (This was journalistic research, not educational research. But in educo-politics, it does not matter. In fact, educational research may be too rational for educo-politics.) In the article's title, the phrase "false crisis" harboured two different meanings. In the first sense of false crisis, it was argued that the highly publicised test-score crisis advanced by status quo protagonists was largely an emperor without clothes. The Scientific American researchers learned to distinguish between "statistical significant differences" and "educational significant differences" in test scores (Gibbs & Fox, 1999, Figure 1). Thus, the first false crisis was attributed to a narrow interpretation of the data (a well known devious educo-political tactic). A second sense of false crisis was discussed more thoroughly in the article. In Saskatoon, Gibbs noticed and documented a quality of teaching (an STSE approach to school science) that he had not found in either Amarillo or Umea. He concluded that the curriculum objectives assumed by TIMSS were false with respect to our current understanding of scientific literacy (school science for an informed citizenry). The article's second sense of false crisis, therefore, was the falsity of the teaching objectives subscribed to by the protagonists for the status quo. Such a high profile endorsement of STSE science was read in many educational circles throughout the province. The endorsement of STSE science education has no doubt neutralized some future tactics of devious educo-politics. The Scientific American article was serendipitous, but it illustrates a viable counter educo-political tactic. Any proposal for developing a new type of science curriculum should have high profile endorsements designed into the model. This was the case for a British Columbia STS course Science and Technology 11 (BC Ministry of Education, 1986). Scientist and international television personality David Suzuki appeared in the teacher guide's video tapes, extolling the virtues of this ground-breaking STS science course.

Key decisions in curriculum development are often made by committees of stakeholders. A familiar educo-political tactic is to influence the composition of those committees ("jury tampering"). In Saskatchewan, our unsolicited suggestions favouring a particular university science professor may have influenced the appointment of an enlightened high status scientist to a key committee. The criteria we considered were: someone whose parents were high school teachers, someone whose children recently enrolled in a high school science course, or someone who had expressed support for a reformed curriculum.

In his article, Fensham (2002) mentions the status quo leanings of many science teachers who serve on education committees. Fensham (p. XX) asks, "How these curriculum teams, with members [science educators and leading science teachers] who espoused very different priorities, came to affirm such overcrowded and traditionally structured curricula for school science is not yet clear." Our Saskatchewan experience helps clarify this uncertainty. During the redevelopment of the science curriculum, we had no influence over the selection of leading teachers who worked on an ad hoc committee, struck to negotiate science content articulation between high school science and university (i.e. What content should be taught in high school, and what should be left for university courses?). The leading teachers were chosen by their provincial teacher organization. We did, however, have some influence over the selection of the representatives from university science departments. Most of the university scientists at Saskatoon's meeting called for a drastic cut in the content to be covered in all three science curricula (biology, chemistry, and physics). For instance, the head of the biology department advised that one-half of the current biology content should be cut out. The leading teachers seemed deaf to his suggestions. Their professional identity lay elsewhere (Aikenhead, 1984; Duffee & Aikenhead, 1992). Moreover, it was these leading science teachers who insisted that their favourite topic not be dropped from the new curriculum. They justified each topic by how much their students enjoyed it. (This illustrates the educo-political tactic of squelching rebuttals to such claims because any rebuttal, no matter how strongly supported by evidence, would be an unprofessional critique of the teacher. Silence is the only feasible response.) Around the negotiating table each teacher added his or her preferred content to the curriculum, often explicitly contradicting the expressed wishes of the university science professors who had spoken only minutes earlier. Because the scientists felt their job was to advise and not to argue with the teachers, they observed in silence. Our educo-political tactic to involve enlightened academic scientists on this committee was insufficient in this case. Through the actions of the leading teachers, the curriculum had become more overcrowded in content than the old one. In order to ameliorate an otherwise overburdened curriculum, the Department of Education designated a portion of this content as "required" and the rest as "elective." (Today some teachers believe they are obliged to cover it all.)

Different educo-politics among various provincial curriculum committees were described by Gaskell (1989) for the STS course Science and Technology 11 in British Columbia, where allegiances, loyalties, and self-interests played important and conflicting roles. More recently, an allegiance to a positivistic account of science and a loyalty to university departments of science were illustrated by Harding and Hare (2000) who took exception to Canadian high school students' critical assessment of science controversies in their science course. In Australia, Fensham (1998b) related some stories of STS syllabus development in the state of Victoria, where devious educo-politics did not subside after a committee made its final decision in favour of change. The devious politics just became more creative, more intense, and more related to power. In the face of power politics, rational reasoning based on empirical data became irrelevant. Science educators who embrace curriculum change must be prepared to engage in creative, irrational, power-brokering educo-politics.

My last scenario from our Saskatchewan experience concerns the Department of Education's final decision to allocate topics to the "required" list (those most amenable to an STSE approach) and other topics to the "elective" list (those that are not). When the new curriculum was circulated among the stakeholders who participated in its development, it was also sent to the university science departments. One department did not agree with the required and elective listings. Some members of the department insisted on a private (secret) meeting with the Department of Education at the 11th hour. At the meeting the academic scientists threatened to publically denounce the new science curriculum in the local newspaper unless the science department could define the required and elective topics. They played the blackmail card and they won that hand.

Each educational jurisdiction is politically unique and every educo-political tactic has relevance in terms of the specific individuals involved in that jurisdiction. From the educo-political stories of innovative science educators, we can transfer to our own setting advice that has promise for our own defensible practical actions (Roberts, 1988). Tactics that counter devious educo-politics must be honed.

In the educo-political scenarios from Saskatchewan described above, tactics included blackmail, committee tampering, strategic timing, and wielding brute social power through elitism. Successful counter educo-political tactics are those that bring key stakeholders on side, or alternately, circumvent or marginalise the ones that can not be brought on side. In the episodes recounted here, emphasis was placed on academic scientists because that group was given special place in phase 2 of Fensham's (2002) proposal. Other key stakeholders include science teachers, students, the business/labour community, parents, and special interest groups (Fensham, 1992; Orpwood, 1985). Often overlooked in educo-politics of curriculum development are the students themselves. They too must "buy into" the new curriculum. Students do not necessarily support an innovation, especially when it changes the rules for getting through a science course or when it does not meet students' expectations (Aikenhead, 1994b). STS courses highly relevant to most students, for example, have been criticized by students who did not appreciate a change in school science, that is, students who excelled in, or were conveniently comfortable with, the status quo curriculum. Students can make or break an innovative science curriculum (Kapuscinski, 1982). Aikenhead (1994a) describes ways of engaging students constructively in the development of a science-for-all curriculum. Bringing science teachers on side is even a higher priority (Orpwood, 1985; Roberts, 1988). Leblanc (1989) described a showcase process for how to support science teachers who are ready to develop an innovative curriculum, and how to coopt politically powerful teachers who initially are dead against the innovation. Teachers' and students' involvement in science curriculum development, however, is beyond the scope of this article.


I applaud phase 1 of Fensham's (2002) proposal because it significantly augments the political power of curriculum innovators. By retaining societal experts, phase 1 gives validity to the societal perspective and shifts the balance of power away from academic scientists who often restrictively, and with self-interest, foster allegiance to university science departments. Phase 1 illustrates counter educo-politics with Jablonski overtones. The selection of the societal experts, however, will have to be carefully crafted. Their selection should coopt or marginalise academic scientists who would otherwise engage in the inevitable devious educo-politics. The selection should also coopt or marginalise a host of stakeholders who are currently well served by the status quo. (See Fensham [1992] and Aikenhead [2000a] for a discussion on who these stakeholders are and some counter educo-politics that have worked.)

There are many stories to be told about educo-politics, but in our science education community we tend to avoid telling them publically. Fensham's (2002) proposal needs to make educo-politics more explicit. It is not enough that his proposal subtly illustrates an excellent counter tactic of educo-politics (phase 1). Fensham's proposal seems dangerously reckless in the way it courts academic scientists in phase 2 and gives them unnecessary political advantage. Without winning at educo-politics, school science for an informed citizenry has a very limited future. There are few universal principles of action for curriculum developers to follow other than Sgt. Jablonski's "Do it to them before they do it to you."


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