Junk Science: The Texas Board’s Approach to Teaching

If you hand the teaching of science over to the Texas Board of Education, what you get in the end is junk science. For several months now, the Texas Board of Education has been involved in deciding upon a final draft for the new science standards for the state of Texas. The final set of standards are adrift with amendments that some would say impinge on the integrity of science, and science teaching. Here in a board room a group of men and women far removed from the field of science, and from the very classrooms that they oversee paved the way for the conservative right influence on classroom teaching.

The National Center for Science Education issued a press release that said in part:

After three all-day meetings and a blizzard of amendments and counter-amendments, the Texas Board of Education cast its final vote Friday on state science standards. The results weren’t pretty.

The board majority amended the Earth and Space Sciences standards as well as the Biology standards (TEKS) with loopholes and language that make it even easier for creationists to attack science textbooks.

“The final vote was a triumph of ideology and politics over science,” says Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). “The board majority chose to satisfy creationist constituents and ignore the expertise of highly qualified Texas scientists and scientists across the country.” NCSE presented the board with a petition from 54 scientific and educational societies, urging the board to reject language that misrepresents or undermines the teaching of evolution, which the board likewise ignored.

The results in Texas will have a powerful effect on other states (Florida is next) that are contemplating changes in science education standards.

Global warming: A bunch of hooey!

According to Mr. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education any contribution by humans to global warming is a bunch of hooey! The Board of Education met for several days in Austin to discuss and vote on the new science standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for Texas.

Most of the contention regarding the new standards was on the teaching of evolution in that up until these new standards, teachers were required to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of any theory, from evolution, to plate tectonics to gravity. Although the Board approved the standards (which removed the “strengths and weaknesses” requirement) as developed by the science committee, the political maneuvers by conservatives such as McLeroy resulted in the addition of amendments to the science standards. One amendment suggests that students must “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming. Amazingly this amendment was adopted unanimously! Here we have the group that constitutes the leadership of education in Texas, and they really question the existence of global warming—what a bunch of hooey.

But global warming is not a bunch of hooey. Thomas Friedman’s editorial in today’s New York Times Mother entitled Mother Nature’s Dow gives us pause to think seriously about the evidence that shows that the Earth’s atmosphere is heating up faster than climate scientists predicted. Friedman cites work at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology (at Stanford University) that indicates that the pace of global warming is accelerating due to increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. In a recent press release, the Department of Global Ecology had this to say:

The data now show that greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating much faster than we thought,” says Field. “Over the last decade developing countries such as China and India have increased their electric power generation by burning more coal. Economies in the developing world are becoming more, not less carbon-intensive. We are definitely in unexplored terrain with the trajectory of climate change, in the region with forcing, and very likely impacts, much worse than predicted in the fourth assessment.

There is so much evidence to show that the Earth’s climate is changing due to human interaction with the atmosphere that it continues to amaze me that we have political and educational leaders such as the Chairman of the Texas Board of Education who claim that global warming is just a bunch of hooey.

Fortunately, the science education community strongly opposes the the conivings of the consevative right, and creates sconce teaching environments that are inquiry-based and innovative.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Evolution May Be Out of Texas Science Standards

The Texas Board of Education approved the science standards BUT teachers will be required to have students “scrutinize” all sides of the theories. Read more here for more details.

We are in the Round Top Texas area for two weeks participating in a very large collection of antiques shows held twice a year in the Spring and Fall. It is the largest gathering of antiques dealers in the USA. Not only is this the season for antiques in this part of Texas, it also the season for the blossoming of the Texas Bluebell which creates beautiful carpets of blue around the State.

Texas Bluebells
Texas Bluebells

It is also the season when the Texas Board of Education is meeting in Austin (just 30 miles west on highway 290) to vote on the adoption of the new Texas Science Standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). The new standards removed language that was included in the prior set of science standards that required the so called “strengths and weaknesses” of any theory be included in text material and classroom instruction. In the new science standards this requirement was removed.

In January, the Board of Education voted (7 to 7) to keep the “strengths and weaknesses” idea out of the Standards. The board is meeting this week, and this morning upheld (via a preliminary vote) its earlier vote (7 to 7), thereby keeping the strengths and weaknesses issue out of the science standards. The final vote will come tomorrow (Friday). The Dallas News reported it this way:

A last-ditch effort by social conservatives to require that Texas teachers cover the “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution in science classes was rejected by the State Board of Education Thursday in a split vote.

Board members deadlocked 7-7 on a motion to restore a long-time curriculum rule that “strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific theories – notably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – be taught in science classes and covered in textbooks for those subjects.

Voting for the requirement were the seven Republican board members aligned with social conservative groups. Against the proposal were three other Republicans and four Democrats.

Eugenie C. Scott, Executive Director of The National Center for Science Education has been an active force in bringing the scientific side of the issue to the Texas Board of Education. Here is a video of her testimony given on March 25, 2009.

I’ve explored the issues of creationism, intelligent design, and now we add to our discussion the notion of forcing teachers to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of any theory, although most of the focus was on evolution. The use of this statement was seen by many scientists and science educators as a wedge tactic enabling creationists as represented by Discovery Institute to teach a religious view of the origins. Although the statement won’t be part of the new science standards, the fact that the vote was 7 to 7 shows the degree of split that exists in the minds of the Texas Board. The issue will not end with the vote on Friday. Indeed, a member of the Texas State Legislature is going to file a bill that will supercede the Boards’ decision.
You might be interested in Scott’s new book Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, Second Edition. evolutionvscreationism2nded-medimg_assist_custom

Paradigm shifts: Education about, in and for the environment

Education about, in, and for the environment represent three different paradigms useful in helping us view environmental education and environmental science programs and activities.  Based on research by Rachel Michel (1996), these three paradigms can briefly be described as follows:

  • Education about the environment is viewed as an approach in which information about the environment (concepts, facts, information) is transmitted by teacher to students. This approach reinforces traditional methods of teaching including lectures, reconstructive laboratory activities, and the recall of information. It is based on the older, traditional model of teaching.
  • Education in the environment focuses on using the environment as the medium for teaching and learning. Michel points out that this form of environmental education emphases experiential learning, and that experiences in the environment aids personal growth and moral development. Student projects tend to fall into a safe zone such as anti-littering campaigns, and environmental awareness activities.
  • Education for the environment, according to Michel, evolved from conservation education which focused on the preservation of basic resources and nature conservancy. This concept of environmental education expanded to include environmental protection, and the role that citizens began to take action (individually and collectively) in the solution of environmental problems. Michel claims that education for the environment could be interpreted as a response to the perceived environmental crisis. Michel also points out that education for the environment is the approach advocated by several international proposals including the Belgrade Charter (1976) and the Tbilisi Declaration (1978).

earth_handsI’ve included a chart that compares education about the environment with education for the environment.  The list of attributes of Education about the environment  are characteristics that describe the traditional approach to curriculum, and help us understand how many of our courses are organized and taught.  On the other end of the continuum we find education for the environment which Aikenhead would describe as humanistic science education.  The STS movement in countries around the world resulted in programs based on this paradigm.  

Education about the Environment Education for the Environment
• Reproductive curriculum          

• Predominately an emphasis on the sciences

• Employment of “traditional” teaching methods (lecture, recall, worksheets)

• Emphasis on cognitive skills

• Operates within the existing hierarchical, subject specific school organization

 • Reconstructive curriculum          

• Predominately an emphasis on social science

• Advocation of student-centered approach with emphasis on inquiry and problem solving.

• Emphasis on awareness, values, and attitudes as well as skills and knowledge. Advocation of practical action in the environment.

• Interdisciplinary approach



Figure 1 Comparison of Education About the Environment with Education for the Environment (Michel, 1996).  



Environmental education that is based on the “education for the environment” model embodies some of the principles of Deep Ecology (Devall & Sessions, 1985). Deep Ecology, coined by Arne Naess, is a deeper approach to the study of nature exemplified in the work of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson.  In this sense, teachers encourage their students to engage in projects that help them see the link between themselves and nature as well as advocating a wholistic approach to looking at environmental topics. Students might investigate the health of a nearby stream not only by making physical, chemical and biological studies, but also exploring the value of the stream to the total ecology of the area, explore further the causes of any pollution found in the stream, and indeed take some action on trying to resolve the problem. Perhaps teachers help students realize Commoner’s major “laws” of ecology which describe a deep ecology perspective (as cited in Devel & Sessions, 1985):

  1. Everything is connected to everything else.
  2. Everything must go somewhere.
  3. Nature knows best.
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or everything has to go somewhere.

Education for the environment conceives of students who are not only involved in learning about the environment, but “are provided with the knowledge, values, attitudes and commitment and skills needed to protect and improve the environment (Tibilisi Declaration, 1978, p.3, as cited in Michel, 1996). 

Many of the environmental education programs that have been developed over the past 20 years such as Project Wild, Project Learning Tree, Global Lab, Global Thinking Project (GTP), and GLOBE might be looked at from the paradigms of education in and education for the environment.  

Dr. Galina Manke and one of her students in a Russian park
Dr. Galina Manke and one of her students in a Russian park

Dr. Galina Manke, a science educator and researcher at Moscow Scholol 710 and The Russian Academy of Education, was one of the contributors of the Global Thinking Project.  She was responsible for teacher training in Russia for Russian science teachers and schools who implemented the GTP in their science programs.  One of the beliefs she held was that through programs such as the GTP, students and teachers became “fighters for the environment,” an apt phrase for the learning paradigm, education for the environment.   


Children & Nature Network

Teaching Students to Think Globally

Michel, Rachel (1996). Environmental education: A study of how it is influenced and informed by the concepts of environmentalism. Doctoral Dissertation. La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Touch the earth: The case for learning outside the box

Many, many years ago I developed a book while being a writer for the Individualized Science Instructional System (ISIS) which was entitled Touch the Earth.  It was a geology mini-course, part of a large collection of earth, life, and physical science mini-courses for middle and high school science.  Although the title was a play on words, I was trying to build a teaching unit that would bring the students in contact with the earth.  We were trying to not only design a strong cognitive oriented mini-course, but we also wanted to create affective experiences for the students that were entwined with the content.  Affective learning was to be just as important as cognitive learning.  Students were to be involved in activities in which they went outside and touched the earth: learning outside the box.

So, At the New Orleans NSTA conference, I read on the NSTA Conference Blog that Dr. Cheryl Charles gave the Brandwein Lecture, and the title of her presentation was: The Ecology of Hope: Building a Movement to Reconnect Children and Nature. Dr. Charles is President and CEO of The Children & Nature Network (C&NN).  She was also director of two of the most significant environmental education curriculum projects: Project Learning Tree and Project Wild.  Cheryl Charles is an educator that has been thinking outside the box for many years.

If you go The C&NN website you will see the case for teaching outside the box of the classroom.  In my own experience visiting and working with thousands of teachers, and visiting tens of classrooms in several countries, most teachers try and create an interesting learning environment within the classroom.  Many have brought living things into the classroom, added interesting displays, and bring lots of hands on materials for students to experience.

But there is nothing like the real thing—the real thing being the world outside the classroom. The Children and Nature Network is committed to reconnecting students to nature.

There is much to learn from the C&NN website.  I think one of the most important is the documentation of research and literature that provides the evidence that students should be involved in learning activities outside of the classroom.  In “research” link you will find three volumes of research which consist summaries and syntheses of studies and reports that we can use to support the implementation of environmental education activities. Some examples of these syntheses include:

  • Direct Experience in Nature Is Critical and Diminishing
  • School Achievement Is Enhanced When Curricula Are Environment Based
  • Schoolyard Habitat Projects Bring Natural Benefits to School and Students

What you will find here is research data to support teachers and parents who are working toward involving students in outdoor learning, moving their students out of the box.