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“Sir, I don’t Believe in Evolution.” III. So, how is evolution taught?


Michael Reiss while still Director of Education at the Royal Society wrote to The telegraph on 16 September, 2008:

Sir – Your report of my views on creationism’s place in education (September 12) could be interpreted as suggesting that creationism and evolution should be given equal weight and both taught as science.

Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain why evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth.

They should also take the time to explain how science works and why, based on all the available evidence, creationism is simply not science.

Rev Professor Michael Reiss, The Royal Society London SW1

It would be useful to know both what teachers themselves think and how exactly evolution is taught.

Two surveys on science teachers attitudes to creationism:

Many high school teachers still teach creationism [U.S.]

Creationism should be taught in science lessons, say teachers [u.k.]

Teaching evolution to the converted is a  report of a survey of sixth form students carried by Simon Underdown of the Anthropology Department of Brooke’s University

…..to test was whether I can assume that students come equipped with a critical faculty developed during A levels or must we, as lecturers, take on the role of instilling that critical faculty rather than merely developing it? Is it enough to teach evolution or should we be addressing why creationism/ID is wrong? If we did this, it would mean a shift in how evolution is taught and would move us towards actively taking on the creationists and pulling apart their arguments rather than just assuming students can see the flaws inherent in the creationists’ arguments.

An example of what happens in a U.S. High school classroom, widely memed in the web:

A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash

NYT 23 August 2008

David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

It’s the American experience but British teachers could learn from this. As many including John Hawks have pointed out, Mickey Mouse is not an example of evolution.

Note mention in the NYT article of  “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution”.      { 2 }

A classroom exercise (undergraduate level but could be adapted) :

Case Teaching Notes for “Equal Time for Intelligent Design?  An Intimate Debate Case” by Clyde Freeman Herreid, Department of Biological Sciences, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

A paper on the topic:

The Evolution Solution – Teaching Evolution Without Conflict [pdf]

Why teach Evolution? from The National Center for Science Education.

and a post, Why teach Evolution,  in a blog  which gives a some up-to-date reasons.

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The really elaborate online evolution courses are American, which is probably in part a reflection of the greater need for the effective teaching of evolution in the face of stiff resistance from creationism and  ID. In other words, they are having to re-double their efforts to make evolution coherent.  In the end this will benefit understanding of evolution and what science is and does.

We in the UK have the National Curriculum and ‘national’ subject syllabuses. Text books are written tightly to the syllabuses. When the syllabus changes so does the text book.

Checking the syllabuses for how they tackle evolution is not fun.  One way to do it is to follow through the nit-picking approach of Truth in science, a site which tries to sow the seeds of doubt about the theory of evolution, and the evidence for it, by such things as trawling through the national curriculum and GCSE syllabuses in great detail to find inconsistencies and lack of clarity.

This is the TiS page on Edexcel A/ AS Biology. You can move back and forward from this point looking at their comments on other syllabuses.

TiS also has pages on Evidence for Evolution and Science Lesson Plans for GCSE, including one on Irreducible Complexity. By pointing them out I’m not condoning them. They need to be examined carefully. Teacher are using their syllabuses, such as this 2003 AQA GCSE, and the text books designed to go with them, teaching in their own way. They are not using this stuff. But this is the sort of thing they are up against.

Truth in Science Material explains about the packs including DVD that went out to UK schools, which schools were then told not to use. The DVD, Where Does the Evidence lead?,  which was produced in the U.S. and distributed there, is reviewed (and its provence discussed) by Andrea Bottaro on behalf of Texas Citizens for Science in a letter to Texas science teachers and librarians.

The British Centre for Science Education has written comprehensively on the organisation Truth in Science.

Notice it’s called Truth in Science not Objectivity in Science!  This book review, What is Truth in Science?, starts with Pontius Pilates “What is truth?  It immediately points out he didn’t hang around to listen to the answer. This blurb of a Medawar Lecture given by Professor Peter Lipton, asks three important questions.

The Welcome Foundation have produced a 16 page booklet and pdf: Big Picture on Evolution, which tackles the non-science issues as well. it is has been sent to schools, but it would be useful in the home too. The the design and layout is like modern text books, but something can be lost by having to jump all over the page.

U.S. High school/undergraduate stuff includes:

Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science

Understanding Evolution

from U. California, Berkeley.

Online Course for Teachers: Teaching Evolution

This a U.S. course from PBS which could be used by British teachers. Video clips. The lot.

Session 8: How Can you deal with Controversy?  links to Managing the Conflict Between Evolution & Religion. (an extract from an article”Managing the Conflict Between Evolution & Religion” The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 62, No. 2, February 2000, pp. 102-107.)

Session 8 asks the teacher to draw up some concept maps to show how evolution ties biology together:  There are some examples from another site here:Using Concept Maps to Teach Evolution Vern Beeson and Tim Culp

Complaints About How We Teach Evolution

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The Logic of teaching evolution

Bear in mind evolution is taught from early teens onwards.  It is only at GCSE that is done under a discrete subject heading.  Since Neo-Darwinism (a clear short explanation of the difference between Neo-Darwinism and The Modern Synthesisis in The Modern Synthesis of Genetics and Evolution), it has been deemed necessary to teach evolution by introducing the  ‘tools’  such as animal and plant adaptation and genetics, and only then introducing Darwin’s theory and the evidence that support it.

This first paragraph from Chapter 2 of The theory of evolution by John Maynard Smith (1958), shows that a historical/chronological approach might be as effective:

The fact that animals and plants are adapted to the environments in which they live was recognized long before the theory of evolution had gain acceptance among biologists. Similarly, the idea that the different kinds of animals and plants could be classified according to a ‘natural’ scheme preceded that idea that such a scheme of classification reflected evolutionary relationships. It was in fact the similarities between different kinds, or species, of plants and animals, similarities which makes a natural classification possible, which led Darwin, Lamarck, and other to seek an evolutionary explanation of the origin of species, just as it was the fact of adaptation which suggested to them theories as to how evolution might take place.

Styles of introducing the subject change. In the UK schools constantly change text books because they are written to the syllabuses.  A old (1997) GSCE text book I have  has four sections on fossils over about 8 pages, which doesn’t tie-in fossils as part of the evidence for evolution in any detailed way: in one section it says only this about evolution: “We say that living things have evolved”. In another section just: “They [i.e. fossils] tell us living things evolved”, in another there is a brief standard explanation of why dinosaurs became extinct. It was certainly an introduction to the idea of the link between the age of rocks and the  fossils in them, but without either a historical introduction or a clearer reason for why it is important, this seems a poor approach.

If history of science was part of the national curriculum from the age of 11, many of the topics that form the background to studying evolution could have been covered elsewhere. For example, the beginnings of taxonomy could introduce the work of Linneus, explaining that he believed species had been separately created, and that his classification system was showing the design of a creator. Lyall’s work on geology could be shown to have had an influence on Darwin’s later thinking.

For taxonomy, which is one of tools for describing evolutionary theory,  it is not until A level or usually undergraduate level that the difficult question of What is a species? comes into the equation. What is a Species? And What is Not? by Ernst Mayr (Originally Published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 63 (June 1996) pp. 262-277.) shows why this sort of question is not being introduced till degree level.  Even on the what is a species? question alone, it is clear that what evolution is taught, from the age of 11 onwards, is a series of simplifications and omissions – increasing in content and complexity of concepts covered – deemed necessary to be able to deliver anything at all understandable at each age range. But by not dealing with the difficulties over such things as defining a species, the historical development of taxonomy and how it became to be seen as having signicance to evolution, explaining evolution is being made more difficult later on as the questions arise from blanks in understanding.

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September 25, 2008 - Posted by | general | , , , , , , , ,

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