The tragedy of tragedy
By Dr Joseph Ireland, 2019. Prepared for the ECTA conference report 2019.
Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST): Professional practice, 4.4 - Maintain student safety.
Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST): Professional engagement, 6.2 - Engage in professional learning and improve practice.
Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST): Professional engagement, 7.2 - Comply with legislative, administrative and organisational requirements.
In August, 2014, a tragedy occurred. A well-meaning teacher, inexperienced with science, attempted a science demonstration during a school assembly. The goal was to make some hydrogen gas and ignite it, resulting in a beautiful plume of orange fire. During the demonstration the bottle tipped over. Tragically, the teacher put a lid on the bottle, turning it from the relatively benign creation of hydrogen gas into a compressed explosive fuelled by rapidly heating caustic soda. The resulting explosion lead to the treatment of at least 57 students and four teachers, one student requiring overnight hospitalisation.
Being unprepared or underprepared for the genuine dangers of science can have tragic results. A little knowledge, as they say, is a very dangerous thing. Arming oneself with a sound understanding of the dangers when doing science is not only necessary for protecting children, but it will also protect the organisations.
However, such considerations need not dissuade the honest educator. Science is fun, and it can and should be an integral and important part of every early childhood curriculum. Science helps us answer questions about our world, and children have a natural affinity for science and scientific thinking that makes including science in the early curriculum engaging, informative, and valuable.
In line with Queensland government education standards, two main considerations need to be considered when contemplating any science activity, indeed, any activity.
The first consideration is the nature of the risk. Risks are often measured from a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being very minor, 5 being catastrophic, and are considered not only in terms of physical damage to the child, but in other forms of damage such as the centre reputation, financial loss, or ability to provide services to families.
The second consideration is how likely the event is to occur, measured again from 1 to 5, 1 being highly unlikely to a 5 of almost certain.
Herein lies the opportunity and necessity to mitigate the risk – either choose or modify activities to be less risky, or far less likely to go wrong.
As the likelihood of the event (from 1-5) is multiplied by the nature of the risk (from 1-5) a result from 2 to 25 is obtained. Depending on the centre management policies, any result at 6 or below is generally considered acceptable. From 7 to 12 further safety measures must be implemented. Activities above 15, or with catastrophic consequences, are usually not considered.
To further the illustration, coloured fire is a simple activity. Properly managed, with a safe distance between children, adequate ventilation and fire extinguishing equipment on hand, it may be expected that risk to a child is a likely as it would be having a lit birthday candle at the venue – it is still dangerous. However, the risk should not exceed anything more than a minor burn with proper preparations, and the occurrence of that risk would be highly unlikely.
Life is dangerous, and science is dangerous because life is dangerous. Simply standing up, the adult head is around a meter and a half from the ground. A straight fall from that height can result in permanent brain damage and even death. Dangers are a present aspect of every human life, and continue to be so at any age.
Children need to learn how to recognise and manage the dangers in life, without fear or unrealistic confidence. It has been argued that removing too much danger from around children can give them unrealistic and indeed, dangerous, expectations of the amount of danger in their lives and their capacity to manage risk.
To this end, it is recommended that teachers not only make children aware of the actions and behaviours we take to manage danger, i.e., “don’t touch the fire,” but the nature of the danger itself, “because it’s hot at it will burn you,” (and being burnt hurts and can damage our bodies). This is intended to help children become more confident and competent in recognising and managing danger, and in helping them to develop the courage to face the world without ignorance of its dangers and how to deal with them. This two stage model of behavioural management is vital in dealing with children, as many who are given the rule “don’t’ touch the fire” will end up asking anyway “why”? as though they intuitively understand that a reason exists behind every rule – a reason that, when understood, helps them to internalise the beliefs and behaviours that will help keep them safe.
Tragically, in mitigating dangers even experienced adults can expose themselves and others to dangers they did not foresee.
I myself have had to generate safety information for the hydrogen balloon activity in the Roma example. Tragically, even IF the safety preparations had been adhered to at the school (three meter clearance, a blast shield, goggles, etc.), which they were NOT, the heartbreaking irony is that once the teacher put the lid on the bottle, it was no longer the activity they had prepared for. No longer were they simply making hydrogen. They were making a bomb.
What can be done to prevent such a disaster? The tragedy of a tragedy is when we overreact to the dangers of life and science. Many would rather ere on the side of excessive caution – refusing any and all science activities at a venue that involve anything more benign than a magnifying glass or toxic than vinegar and bicarb. Such entertaining and informative activities such as green fire and hydrogen gas are out. Yet the irony here is that with nothing more than a magnifying glass students can set fire to their entire kindergarten, and the very same explosive in the Roma situation can be built by curious kindergarten aged students using vinegar, bicarb, and a soft drink bottle.
Punishing children for our own ignorance is not appropriate. Children deserve the best education we can offer them. Doing “dangerous” things – properly managed by adequately informed adults – is the best way to do science in kindergartens. Only as teachers poison their own ignorance of scientific content, arm themselves with adequate risk preparation, and daringly mitigate the likelihood of danger to themselves and their students, will we have early childhood education that is sciency, fun, and that truly empowers young learners to recognise, mitigate, and manage risk in their own lives.
 Taken 1 February 2019 from https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/laws-and-compliance/prosecutions/court-summaries/2018/details-of-successful-prosecution-against-e202276
 Taken 1 February 2019 from https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/science/rationale/
 From Skamp, K, and Preston, C (2018). Primary Science: Every teacher, every child. In Teaching primary science constructively (ed 6). Pg 4.
 Taken 1 February 2019 from https://education.qld.gov.au/curriculum/school-curriculum/CARA
 Taken 1 feb 19 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3499858/ also as Brussoni, Mariana; Olsen, Lise L.; Pike, Ian; Sleet, David A. (2012). "Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development." Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 9, no. 9: 3134-3148.
 Little, Helen & Eager, David. (2010). Risk, challenge and safety: Implications for play quality and playground design. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal - EUR EARLY CHILD EDUC RES J. 18. 497-513. 10.1080/1350293X.2010.525949.
Martin van Rooijen & Shelly Newstead (2017) Influencing factors on professional attitudes towards risk-taking in children’s play: a narrative review, Early Child Development and Care, 187:5-6, 946-957, DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2016.1204607