Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Student Concerns About Evolution: Open for Discussion?

Professor Michael Reiss, writing in the Guardian (UK)'s blog, suggests that students be allowed to raise doubts about evolution. He says:

So how might one teach evolution in science lessons, say to 14 to 16-year-olds? Many scientists, and some science educators, fear that consideration of creationism or intelligent design in a science classroom legitimises them.

For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, asserts: "The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support."

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one's best to have a genuine discussion. The word 'genuine' doesn't mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time.

However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.
This sounds very reasonable to me. Note that Prof. Reiss very clearly says that he does not consider creationism or intelligent design theories to be scientifically valid. All he says is that if students have issues with evolution -- say because their parents are into creationism -- it makes a lot of sense for their biology teacher to discuss their concerns with them.

What does it say to the student when the teacher merely pooh-poohs their concerns or dismisses them without discussion? It seems to me that the most likely two outcomes are:
  1. the student decides the teacher is clueless -- therefore the science is suspect, or
  2. the student decides his parents are clueless -- therefore their religion is suspect
Neither strikes me as a good thing. Rather, it seems far wiser to address students' concerns.

Members of the Royal Society do not agree; many called for Reiss's resignation from his position as the Society's Director of Education. It doesn't seem to much matter that what Reiss actually said and what they imagine he said are two different things.

Cross-posted from Rejoice in Hope.

1 comment:

Hans Lundahl said...

calling arguments "concerns" is a bit pooh-pooh-ing