Monday, April 25, 2005

Circumventing the Science paywall

Evolution Can't Be Taught in 270 Minutes -- Firenze and O'Brien 308 (5721): 495b -- Science:
We were pleased and gratified to read that Jennifer Miller chose to walk out on her ninth-grade biology classes rather than read the unnecessary and misleading statement foisted upon her by the school board ("Dover teachers want no part of intelligent-design statement," J. Mervis, News Focus, 28 Jan., p. 505). However, we were dismayed to read that she "will spend at most three 90-minute classes on the topic--the last unit of the year..." Evolution is not a "unit." It is the greatest unifying theme in all of biology and must be incorporated from day one throughout the academic year.

For six years, we conducted a series of graduate institutes for science teachers entitled "Evolution and the Nature of Scientific Inquiry: Using Evolution as a Central Theme in Life Science Courses." Seven recommendations emerged: (i) Science teachers should be required to take a course in the history and philosophy of science. (ii) Evolution needs to be addressed early in the educational system in a nonapologetic, noncontroversial fashion (1). (iii) Undergraduate courses in the life sciences should be taught with an overt evolutionary theme. (iv) Life science teachers should be required to take a course in evolution. (v) Life science textbooks need to be written with the permeating themes of the nature of science and evolution. (vi) Science teachers must cover much less material but in much greater depth. (vii) Teachers should work to erase the false dichotomy that exists between evolution and religion.

Richard F. Firenze
Biology Department
Broome Community College
Binghamton, NY 13902, USA

Thomas O'Brien
Center for Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education
Binghamton University
Binghamton, NY 13905, USA.
How many states require biology teachers to have a course in evolution? How many science teachers have had a history and philosophy of science course?

These are good recommendations. Teachers are on the front lines of this fight, and are often unprepared to engage the deeper issues. The ones who took these courses, or who gathered the material for themselves, are the ones standing up for good science. The ones without the background are the ones hoping this debate skips their town.

That's not a criticism of teachers. They work hard and try to stay current in the field they teach and in the education field. However, science teachers aren't doing what needs to be done as far as showing students how science works. Labs are mostly intended to get canned results from externally driven experiments. Lectures and textbooks are lists of facts to memorize, rather than ideas to grapple with. We need small classes so teachers can have discussions, we need better textbooks so the kids know where to turn for more detail, and we need every school aged child to have daily access to the internet, to explore ideas and details with greater care.

Small classes aren't just a buzzword. Socratic dialog is as essential in science as it is in English. Imagine an English class where the teacher spent an hour telling you about Huck Finn, instead of leading a class discussion. It's madness. Parents would tear the school down, burn the remains, and salt the earth. But that's how every science class is taught.