Time to teach Natural History classes? Calls for a new GCSE

There’s nothing like waking up to sunshine creeping through the window and the sound of early morning birdsong.

I love the hustle and bustle of chaotic London; it’s become my home over the last four years —but when it comes to downtime, I only want to get back to nature.
Kate on conservation sitting outside

April has been a wonderful month. It began with a week-long trip to the countryside; no phones, no internet, not even so much as a SatNav or a watch!

Now, I’m usually someone who loves technology — my job in children’s educational media is so dependent on sharing information online, and of course I love my gadgets for blogging — but making a deliberate effort to put all that aside and make room for nature is also really important to me.

I grew up in Thetford, East Anglia, so am well-versed in exploring the early signs of spring in the trees and plants of Thetford Forest. I kicked off last April with a trip to Scarning Dale, near to Thetford, and loved it so much that I had to return again this year.

A truly idyllic setting, it provided the chance to watch the birds through the window, to see tadpoles hatching in the pond at the bottom of the garden, and to take the relatively short trip to the North Norfolk coast to see colonies of Atlantic grey seals lazing at the sea’s edge with their growing young.

The changing attitudes to Natural History study

To lose myself even more in my countryside surroundings, I prepared for my trip by visiting my local secondhand book shop in London, which has one of the best Natural History sections of any book shop I’ve known!

I picked up a book called ‘Animal Lover’s Book’ by Enid Blyton, thinking that her comfy — somewhat twee — writing style that I remembered from my childhood would provide just the right level of cosy nostalgia for a trip back to where I grew up.

The book is a complete gem! Beautifully illustrated, full of information on British wildlife, quaint poems and boasting ‘full colour plates’ mixed throughout its chapters; there’s a kind of charm that’s hard to find these days.

Printed in 1957, it was of course wonderfully dated, in just the way I was looking for, but one of the things that really struck me was the level of effort and detail that had gone into providing additional information for children wanting to learn more about British wildlife.

“I am sure there will be children who want to know a few more technical details than are given in the main story,” assumes the author, “and these notes are mainly for them.”

I’m trying to imagine seeing something similar in modern day children’s books.

The author goes on to provide further facts and illustrations of every animal included in the book; badgers, foxes, mice, newts, lizards, deer, rabbits, hares, moles, shrews, etc, etc.

The illustrations show male and female sketches of the species’, and information includes everything from the family names of each species to the number of subspecies belonging to those families that reside in Britain. Pretty impressive for a children’s storybook!

My trip down memory lane brought home the changes in attitudes towards the natural world even more, when I returned from my holiday to read a Guardian article published at the start of April, which highlighted the view that:

“a majority of children no longer climb trees or play by streams and ponds, have become largely unfamiliar with even common wildlife, and are leading enclosed lives that are potentially harmful for their emotional and physical development.”

The article draws attention to a recently launched petition calling for the development of a GCSE in Natural History, referencing the fact that words such as ‘acorn’, ‘adder’, ‘ash’, ‘beech’, ‘bluebell’, and ‘conker’… (the list goes on), have been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make way for words such as ‘analogue’, ‘broadband’, ‘bullet-point’, and ‘chatroom’. My, times really have changed since Enid Blyton wrote that book!

Calling for a Natural History GCSE

The petition, started by nature writer and radio producer Mary Colwell, emphasizes the UK’s outstanding nature writing, art, poetry and film, and how integral to our culture and heritage this has been.

Of course, I completely agree with the concept that “it is vital to understand the contribution nature makes to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically both in the past and today”, as written in the petition’s blurb.

natural history GCSE petition

It reminds me of working with Discovery Education to promote the incredible documentary Racing Extinction. After working with a team to edit the film into manageable, self-contained clips suitable for classroom projects (mainly aimed at secondary school students; i.e. those preparing for their GCSEs), I delivered an assembly to primary school children to introduce them to some of the endangered species present within the documentary.

A simple set of questions where pupils had to choose the correct answer between ‘manta ray’ and ‘polar bear’ provided a great ice breaker for getting pupils to think about the environments that these animals might live in and the characteristics / adaptations they may possess.

Kate on Conservation racing extinction assembly

To focus on British wildlife, as well as the exciting exotic animals seen in Racing Extinction, I invited Dominic Dyer of Born Free Foundation to talk about the wildlife that children can experience in their own daily lives. And it captivated them.

The experience of directly educating children in this way about the incredible natural world around them really cemented in me the desire to continue working in children’s education.

I have been fortunate enough to spend the last six months doing just that — creating primary school resources for National Geographic Kids, including a wealth of material about animals and the natural world.

These free lesson resources provide information about wild animals from across the globe, and I really hope that they are able to one day contribute to a stronger Natural History study within the school curriculum.

Nat geo kids website animals resource

If you would like to sign the petition to see a Natural History GCSE introduced into the school curriculum, please follow the link here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/176749

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