Evolution Might be a Law, But Student Ideas Are Important

In this post I am going to claim that evolution is a law, no different from the accepted laws of gravitation or motion.  However, as science teachers, we know that students can be helped to build their own meaning and understanding of evolution, or gravity, or motion if we connect with their prior-experiences, their community understandings, and their personal beliefs.  Not to do so, flies in the face of what we know about human learning.

If you are a legislator or a citizen who thinks that if we teach evolution, then students should be exposed to an alternative explanations of evolution, please do not misunderstand me.   In the scientific sense, there now is no alternative explanation of evolution that science teachers would accept and make part of the science curriculum.  If you do think so, then what are the alternative explanations for gravity, motion, or plate tectonics?

Figure 1.  Book cover of James Watson's edited collection of four of Charles Darwin's books.
Figure 1. Book cover of James Watson’s edited collection of four of Charles Darwin’s books.

A few years ago, James Watson edited a collection of four of Charles Darwin’s books (library copy), including The Voyage of the Beagle (library copy), On the Origin of Species (library copy), The Descent of Man (library copy), and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (library copy).  In the forward of the book, Watson provides an overview of the work Darwin did, how he became aware of Darwin at a young age, and how central Darwin’s ideas about evolution play in biology. One statement he made, which was a quote from Theodosius Dobzhansky was:

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

But the Evolution Debate Rages On

Yet, in the year 2014, the debate about teaching evolution is still front and center, especially in the minds of legislators who think that students should be exposed to alternative explanations of evolution.  Their favorite choices include creation science, creationism, and intelligent design.  In some state legislatures, science standards are coming under scrutiny, especially the sections that mention words or phrases such as evolution or natural selection.  In South Carolina, Sen. Mike Fair thought that the language about evolution and natural selection in state’s new science standards should be altered and replaced with intelligent design.  He dropped his opposition this week.

But perhaps the most newsworthy example of the teaching of evolution controversy was the Great Debate between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, the Creation Story guy.  The debate still goes on, and one wonders what effect such a nationalized debate really had on classroom teaching.  Personally, I believe Nye and Ham missed the point, and showed little regard for what science teachers know about student learning.  For teaching to be successful with children and teenagers, it should not be dogmatic.  Student learning needs to take place in an environment of openness in which student ideas are freely released into the conversation, and buttressed with scientific knowledge, experiences, and thoughtful discussion.

The mistake made is trying to use dogma to decide the nature of science curriculum.  We know that some politicians and concerned citizens spend a great deal of time and money trying to convince everyone that evolution is a controversial idea–so much so that they insist that if their children learn about evolution then the other side should be presented.  Governors, former Presidents, some school board members try to influence the science curriculum by saying that both sides of an issue should be presented.  Well, of course multiple sides of an issue ought to be part of teaching, but what I am claiming is that there is not an alternative scientific explanation to evolution. It’s simply not there.

A Lesson from the Field

Science teachers need support from administrators and curriculum directors to apply their professional knowledge of pedagogy and student learning.  The academic freedom that teachers should have would enable them to work in such a way that they actually travel back and forth between the world of science on the one hand, and the world of their students on the other.  Teachers are virtuosos at coordinating scientific ideas and student world-views.

Terrill L. Nickerson, who commented on a post in which I discussed the Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate on evolution, deepens our understanding of teaching science.  Terrill provides a powerful example of how he handled “clashes” that occurred when the scientific paradigm and the Native American paradigm entered his classroom at the same time.  Here he talks about how he embraced the Native culture while teaching ideas about the Big Bang and/or evolution.

I knew that there would be times when I would encounter a clash between the scientific paradigm, and the Native paradigm. Among the problem areas that arose (as I anticipated), were the theories of cosmology (Big Bang) and evolution.

I handled these events by offering the students a choice. I assured my Native students that I was not there to tell them how, or what to believe, and I was definitely not their to get them to abandon their traditional culture and traditions.  Instead, I was there solely to explain what mainstream science believed, based on the principles prescribed by the scientific method. They were welcome to take away whatever was comfortable to them: none of it, some of it, or all of it. It was their choice to make.

However, there was a caveat involved. At the end of the unit, they had to demonstrate a mastery of what the scientific explanation was, and why, on an assessment. They did not have to believe in it, just be able to explain the concept and explain why scientists derived their understanding. The sharing of Native explanations were welcomed and encouraged during the unit, as long as they realized that ultimately they would be assessed on the scientific explanations.

This approached reduced the fear that I was there to replace the traditions and beliefs of their culture and elders. Surprisingly, the majority chose to believe the scientific explanations I offered, and still found a way to rectify them with their own belief systems. I spent 15 years teaching science in the Native community and used this approach the entire time. In fact, many of my students went on to get BS’s, MS’s, and PhD’s in some field related to science. I have also used it throughout the last eleven years teaching in the Hispanic community with success.

The only time that I found any resistance to this approach was two years that I spent teaching in an affluent, upper middle class, predominantly Anglo, highly religiously fundamental, Christian community (and I’m Anglo). Parents and students were intractable and intransigent regarding evolution and cosmological theories.  (Terrill L. Nickerson on The Art of Teaching Science blog post, What Would the Russian Scientist, V.I. Vernadsky Say to Deepen the Debate Between Bill Nye and Ken Ham?)

Science teachers need great flexibility in determining the nature of the experiences that they design to help students learn. We know that some politicians and concerned citizens spend a great deal of time and money trying to convince everyone that evolution is a controversial idea–so much so that they insist that their students learn about the other side.  We don’t need Governors, former Presidents, philanthropists, and extremists telling educators how and what to teach in the science classroom.  Professional science educators are able to do that among themselves.

Let’s Not Be Dogmatic

Let’s return where we started.  With James Watson.

For Watson, the debate should be over. Near the end of his forward in the book, The Indelible Stamp: The Evolution of an Idea (public library), Watson said this about Darwin’s ideas:

Let us not beat about the bush—-the common assumption that evolution through natural selection is a “theory” in the same way as string theory is a theory is wrong. 

But, as teachers, we know it’s not as simple as that.  In fact, one might argue that Watson might be a bit dogmatic about this.   Terrill L. Nickerson provides convincing evidence that science teachers who take a holistic and interdisciplinary view of science learning will create an atmosphere that is accepting of student ideas, and provides a pathway to understanding science.

What is your view on the teaching of evolution and other so-called controversial ideas in the curriculum?




The Cooperative-Communal Classroom–>Insights from Nature

Cooperative-communal classrooms are aligned with fundamental ideas that have been formulated from nature.  Cooperation, empathy, mutual aid, and the interdisciplinary nature of the biosphere are fundamental concepts that are implicit in cooperative-communal classrooms. Each has its origin in nature.

The rationale for establishing cooperative-communal classrooms can be linked to the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and the work of two Russian scientists of the 19th and early 20th Century, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945), and Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842-1921).  I know that this appears strange, but as you read ahead I hope you will see how my thinking was influenced by not only my experiences as a teacher, but my collaboration with colleagues in the U.S. and in Russia.

Anatoly Zaklebney, ecologist and science educator who worked with students and teachers during the era of glasnost and perestroika.
Anatoly Zaklebney, Russian ecologist and science educator.

I started visiting Russia (then the Soviet Union) in 1981, and continued for the next twenty years making one or two trips per year collaborating with teachers, researchers, scientists, students and parents.  After several years of building trust and friendship with Russian colleagues (by sending and receiving delegations of teachers and researchers, teaching in each other’s classrooms, and holding open-ended discussions about teaching, and drinking lots of coffee and tea), we created a project that connected students, ecology, and the Internet into what became known as the Global Thinking Project–a kind of hands-across-the-globe environmental science project.  Cooperation was a central tenet of our work.  There was no attempt to Americanize Russian education; instead, we hoped to build a form of collaboration to enhance teaching and learning in each country’s classrooms touched by our work.  Our model was to join classrooms–the class–from one country to the other, for collaborating on one of several ecological and environmental projects that would be carried out using “project-based learning.”

GTP classrooms in Russia, and the U.S. had only one computer per classroom connected to the telecommunications network we established with the help of Gary Lieber, on loan to us from Apple. We actually carried on a flight to Moscow, six Macintosh SE 20 computers, printers, and 2400-baud modems. With this equipment, phone lines and a connection to SOVAM, a telecommunication’s company in Moscow, we linked six Russian and six American schools using email and bulletin boards.

Collaborative teams within each classroom were essential in the GTP, and as a result we had years of experience working with schools that experimented with cooperative-communal classroom learning.

We documented our work in a variety of publications including: Environmental Science on the Net,  The AHP Soviet Exchange Project, Teaching Students to Think Globally, Citizen Scientists, The Emergence of Global Thinking Among American and Russian Youth, and other research.

In time many other teachers and researchers joined with us including, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Spain.

Thinking in Wholes: Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

In 1988 I met Anatoly Zaklebny, a professor of ecology and ecological education, the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, Moscow.  Dr. Zakhlebny was a principal leader in ecological education in Russia, and had led many excursions into Siberia to give “field-camp” type experiences for science teachers.  He also developed ecological curriculum for schools throughout Russia.  He argued that science curriculum should be interdisciplinary, helping students experience connections not only among disparate fields in science (biology and chemistry, biology and geology, and so forth), but with politics, social science, and history.
Dr. Zaklebny introduced us to the ideas of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, a 19th Century Russian scientist.  At the time, most of us in the West were unaware of what Vernadsky had taught about the Earth.  Vernadsky explained that life, including human life, using energy from visible light from the Sun, has transformed the planet Earth for billions of years.  To Vernadsky life makes geology.  To him, life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force. At the Earth’s surface, just about all geological features are “bio-influenced.”  Although Vernadsky did not coin the word “biosphere,” his understanding and views are what are accepted today.  As Dr. Lynn Margulis, and colleagues stated in the introduction to the first English translation of Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere, Vernadsky showed us the way to understand how life and non-life are connected.  They wrote:

He illuminates the difference between an inanimate, mineralogical view of Earth’s history, and an endlessly dynamic picture of Earth as the domain and product of life, to a degree not yet well understood. No prospect of life’s cessation looms on any horizon. What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space. Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all-through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere-connected in space.

Vernadsky’s contributions and scientific contributions are metaphors for thinking in wholes, and the connections that exist within any system that we study.   This is especially true for the science curriculum.

But Here’s the Thing.

The Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been criticized for their lack of attention to interdisciplinary curriculum, and the role of schools in preparing students for citizenship. Professor William Wraga suggests that “disciplinary myopia” has led to standards that are overly technical and steeped in discipline concepts, processes and practice. He suggests, and we would agree, that interdisciplinary curriculum can lead to greater understanding by seeking connections among the disciplines. S-T-S, science-related social issues, and a lived curriculum should be starting points for a science curriculum; unfortunately this is not the case in the new science framework.

Wraga also focuses in on the unfortunate single purpose of schooling as depicted in the common standards, and that is that education should be in the service of economic interests. We see this in news reports each Spring when test scores are released which typically lead to “a sky is falling” mentality amongst chief school officers, governors, and other politicians. Repeated attention to international test results leads to unfounded comparisons among countries. Wraga sees this as a narrow function of schooling, and wonders why vocational, social, civic, cultural, and each goal give way to a single goal, which he identifies as the academic goal.

The same criticisms can leveled at the framework for science education in that National Research Council’s Framework as it is steeped in a disciplinary approach to content. In fact, the word “interdisciplinary” is found only twice in the framework, and one of these was part of one of the committee member’s biography. The science framework is neatly organized into four traditional content areas: life, earth, and physical science, as well as engineering and technology. The framework does name cross-cutting ideas, but this is not at all what science educators would view as anything remotely close to interdisciplinary curriculum.  The Framework was the basis for the NGSS.

We need to teach science that is rich in connections not only within the traditional disciplines of science, but the connections with and among social studies, politics, economics, history, and geography.   Charlene M. Czerniak, in a chapter entitled “Interdisciplinary Science Teaching” in The Handbook of Research on Science Education, an advocate for “integrated curriculum,” reports that there are challenges to implementing interdisciplinary curriculum.  Even though interdisciplinary approaches have been around for a long time, the 1996 Science Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards, still organize the standards into each discipline of science.  There is very little attempt to integrate knowledge across disciplines.

Perhaps what we need is a Vernadskian curriculum theorist and practitioner who will apply integrated approaches, especially if we think that this kind of curriculum might be more relevant to students, and might indeed focus on problems that would be of interest to our students.

The Place of Cooperation in Evolution : Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin and Charles Darwin

Wordle on Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin

The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics is a new book written by Lee Alan Dugatkin an evolutionary biologist and historian of science and a professor and Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville.  Dr. Dugatkin’s book should be of interest to scientists, and science educators, but I think also the corporate reformers that I wrote about in the last blog post.  Dugatkin writes about the science and politics of Peter Kropotkin, and it is the science that I think should be reading for all interested in improving teaching and learning of the youth of the species, Homo sapiens.
As Dugatkin writes, Kropotkin was a brilliant scientist, who spent years studying nature in Siberia.  As a young man, with the support of the Russian Geographical Society, his travels to Siberia began a life of exploration, writing, publishing, editing, and activist politics.  As Dugatkin points out, the evolutionary theory of the late 19th Century suggested tha the natural world was a “brutal” place; indeed, competition was the driving force.  Kropotkin expected that he would find examples of the brutalness of nature, but instead he found the opposite.  Lee Alan Dugatkin writes:

And so, in the icy wilderness, Peter expected to witness nature red in tooth and claw. He searched for it. He studied flocks of migrating birds and mammals, fish schools, and insect societies. What he found was that competition was virtually nonexistent. Instead, in every corner of the animal world, he encountered mutual aid. Individuals huddled for warmth, fed one another, and guarded their groups from danger, all seeming to be cogs in a larger cooperative society. “In all the scenes of animal lives which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution” (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

And during his studies in Siberia, he visited peasant villages, and in them he saw their sense of community and coöperation.  According to Dugatkin, Kropotkin as a young scientist “witnessed human coöperation and altruism in its purest form.”

These observations presented a problem to the Russian scientist.  As an advocate for natural selection (as discovered by Darwin and Wallace), as the driving force that shaped life on the earth, he began to question the way Darwin’s ideas had been perverted and misrepresented, especially by British scientists.  Even today, most people misinterpret Darwinian evolution by invoking the term “survival of the fittest” as the fundamental idea of evolution.  It is not.  Dugatkin writes:

Natural selection, Kropotkin argued, led to mutual aid, not competition, among individuals. Natural selection favored societies in which mutual aid thrived, and individuals in these societies had an innate predisposition to mutual aid because natural selection had favored such actions. Kropotkin even coined a new scientific term—progressive evolution—to describe how mutual aid became the sine qua non of all societal life—animal and human. Years later, with the help of others, Kropotkin would formalize the idea that mutual aid was a biological law, with many implications, but the seeds were first sown in Siberia (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Cooperation is an essential attribute of survival, not only among humans, but other animal species as well.

Instead of using the attribute of coöperation as a fundamental aspect of student learning, most classrooms use a competitive model to fulfill the goal of personal achievement, at all costs.  To make sure that one can measure achievement, élite groups have mandated single set of goals naming them common standards.  To date, we have developed common standards in mathematics, English/language arts, and science.  Concurrently achievement tests that are matched to the standards are being developed by two groups of test constructionists.  The tests, when they are ready for use, will be administered using computer technology.

Unfortunately, much of the rationale for this standards/high-stakes testing is based on the flawed theory that to compete in the global market place, we need to beat the drums and make sure that students attain a set of goals that may or not be related their own futures.  Using a behavioral and at best traditional model of knowledge attainment, instruction is geared to the teach to the test model.  All outcomes of this approach are measured by how people do on high-stakes testing.

Instead of recognizing that scientists have moved way beyond the simple model of knowledge transmission and have invented a new field of study, called the learning sciences, schools are stuck in the older model.  The so-called reformers of education want only one thing: Higher test score.  The learning sciences is an interdisciplinary field of study embracing disparate fields including cognitive sciencecomputer scienceeducational psychologyanthropology, and applied linguistics.  What is significant here is the notion of interdisciplinary study.  Vernadsky and Kropotkin uncovered new connections among various fields of study, and indeed, Vernadsky might be considered one of the earliest scientists to invent interdisciplinary fields including “biogeochemistry,” and “geomicrobiology.”  Kropotkin established that brought together various fields of study to develop a common thread or theme–the scientific law of mutual aid, which brought the fields together.  As Kugatkin in the Prince of Evolution writes:

This law boils down to Kropotkin’s deep-seated conviction that what we today would call altruism and cooperation—but what the Prince called mutual aid—was the driving evolutionary force behind all social life, be it in microbes, animals or humans (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Students do not learn in isolation, and their learning is not enhanced by competing with other students for higher grades, stars, happy faces, or even money.  In my view, learning is improved in environments where students are working together to build and share ideas through action on problems that are relevant to the student’s life experiences and cultural heritage.  As formulated by John Dewey, learning should be rooted in pragmatism resulting in school learning that is experiential and humanistic.  Cooperation should be a focus of the work of teachers in helping students “learn” to work with each other to tackle socially relevant problems.  Empathy and realism foster interpersonal relationships among students and teachers.

Thinking in wholes, and learning to use coöperation, one of the survival traits that evolved through natural selection, should characterize schooling for human beings living on the planet Earth.

What do you think about all of this?  Do you accept Kropotkin’s idea that mutual aid or coöperation played a major part in the evolution?  Does this have any application for teaching?  And what do you think of Vernadsky’s conception of thinking in wholes, and making connection among disparate fields?


Peter Kropotkin was also a famous political activist.  His travels to Siberia, and experiences with peasant villages led him to “give up on government,” and instead believe that it would be better to have no government.  He joined an activist group in St. Petersburg whose goal was to work with peasants and tell them of labor movements in Europe, and to educate them.  Remember, Peter was from an aristocratic family, and as such, he dressed as a peasant and traveled around spreading the ideas that government was evil, and that people would “naturally” coöperate and solve problems better than any government (See  Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics (p. 23). . Kindle Edition).  Although imprisoned in the notorious Peter and Paul Prison in 1874,he was able to receive books, and with the help of the Russian Geographic Society, and his brother’s plea to the Czar, Peter was able to receive paper and pen to continue writing.  He escaped from a low security prison in 1876, and fled to England.  Follow this link to The Prince of Evolution to find out more about his political activities in England, mainland Europe and America.



9 Compelling Science, Technology & Education Blogs

There is a profusion of blogs on the Internet, but some of them stand out because they are not only compelling, but they convey accomplished, artful, intelligent, and powerful content.  I’ve selected nine blogs that I read regularly to expand my own thinking about science teaching, technology and education.   They represent the range of topics that interest me, and that I find are important.  I hope you will, too. Here they are.

  • Cool Cat Teacher Blog  The author of this blog is Vicki Davis, a full-time high school teacher of technology, and global curriculum developer in Camilla, Georgia. She is author of award winning wiki, blogs, and co-founder of the Flat Classroom projects You will find some of the most innovative ideas on teaching and technology on this blog, as well as a philosophy that clearly is progressive.  The name of her website is derived from the name the Westwood Wildcats, which was suggested by her students.
  • Dot Earth  Written by Andrew C. Revkin, Dot Earth is a one stop site to learn about the efforts to balance human affairs with the Earth’s limits.  The Dot Earth blog is part of the Opinion section of the New York Times. Here you will find an interactive site that you can use to explore the trends and ideas about the environment which you can share with your students.  It is a trusted environmental science website.
  • Education Matters Written by Chris Guerrieri, a teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, this blog is a very active site for reading about the issues that impinge on the day-to-day life of a teacher in the classroom.  Guerrieri imparts a very strong view of what’s wrong with education today (too many people in suits who have no clue about what’s happening in the classroom).  If you are looking for some support on issues like high-stakes tests, bullying, billionaires in education, poverty, and how teachers really make a difference, then you should go to his site.
  • Mr. Barlow’s Science Teaching Blog Mr. Barlow is a high school science teacher in Melbourne, Australia. His blog is subtitled “A Bunch of Interesting Stuff,” and you will clearly find an abundance of stuff here.  His blog is complemented by biology teaching podcasts, and Apps for the iPhone and iPad.  But for teachers, his site is a model for the way technology can be integrated into science teaching.  You’ll find examples of this at his site, and it is quite impressive.  Be sure to visit Mr. Barlow.
  • Schools Matter. This is a powerful site that addresses issues in “public education policy, and it advocates for a commitment to and a re-examination of the democratic purposes of schools. If there is some urgency in the message, it is due to the current reform efforts that are based on a radical re-invention of education, now spearheaded by a psychometric blitzkrieg of “metastasizing testing” aimed at dismantling a public education system that took almost 200 years to build.”  If you have not read a blog on social justice, I recommend you go over there.  There are several authors who contribute to the site including Judy Rabin, Jim Horn, Robert D. Skeels, and P.L Thomas.
  • Teachers Lead This is a website authored by Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan, each National Board Certified Teachers, with combined experience of more than 50 years.  Anthony was a science teacher in Oakland, California, and Nancy a music educator in Michigan.  Their commitment is to leadership from the ground up, and to provide the tools to teachers and administrators.  Anthony Cody manages a blog on the Education Week website entitled Living in Dialogue, and writes provocative essays on educational reform.  Nancy Flanagan writes a blog on Education Week entitled Teacher in a Strange Land.
  • The Dispersal of Darwin This is a blog devoted to all things Darwin, written by Michael D. Barton, who recently finished his graduate work the history of science at Montana State University. It’s one of my favorites. Here is what he says about his blog: My interests are with Charles Darwin, and the development of evolutionary theory. This blog is a place for me to share with interested folk news and views on Darwin, evolution, and natural history, with occasional posts about other science-related topics.  I’ve written a great deal about Darwin on my own site, and found that Michael’s site was the place to go for information and great images.
  • The Intersection Edited by Chris Mooney, The Intersection blog has for nearly 10 years brought analysis of the intersection between science, politics, and culture. Chris is a science and political journalist and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. If you are looking for cutting edge progressive science, then I highly recommend Chris’ blog.
  • The Royal Treatment I met Ken Royal more than ten years ago in Hartford, CT during a seminar I presented on science teaching for the Bureau of Education & Research. Subsequently I visited Ken’s middle school science classroom where he was doing scouting expeditions into the world of technology and telecommunications. In the 1990’s very few teachers had integrated the Internet into teaching. Ken was one of leaders of using the Internet in the classroom. Now Ken is with Scholastic where one of his responsibilities is writing the blog, The Royal Treatment. He says: After 34 years in education, working at all levels and areas, including as instructional technology specialist, it has been easy to look and write about these technologies and products from an educator’s point of view. I look forward to invitations to attend conferences, review products, and interview the people behind the products. It is also a joy listening to district leaders actually using these products to improve technology, management, curriculum and safety better in their districts. This is the blog for technology know-how.

Conclusion.  These are 9 compelling websites that will inform not only about science and technology, but science and education in society. You can visit the Cool Cat Teacher to find amazing ways to use technology with your students and connect with others around the world. The Royal Treatment will keep you up-to-date on new technology products and ways that schools are using them. For great ideas and science content, you should visit  Mr. Barlow’s site, and don’t forget his Podcasts and Apps. Science, technology and society (STS) is an important part of science education, and you’ll find great content at Chris Mooney’s Intersection site.   Education Matters, Schools Matter, and Teachers Lead are crucial sites for us to interact with educators who speak out on the issues that impact education today such as high-stakes testing, charter schools, standards proliferation, and teacher assessment.

Share your ideas.  What is your favorite blog site?  Share it here in the comments section so that others can benefit from your suggestion.

Science and Religion, The FaradaySchools.com

Part of an image shown on the Faraday Website

A recent poll reported that very few people in the US accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the creation of life on Earth.  According to the National Center for Science Education, in a 24-country poll, 41% of the respondents identified themselves as “evolutionists” and 28% as “creationists”, and 31% indicating they don’t know what to believe.  In the US, 28% were “evolutionists”, with the “creationist” view held by 40%.

However, in a Gallup poll in 2010, 38% believed that humans developed from less advanced form of life over millions of years, but God guided the process, 16% believed that humans developed from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in the process, and 40% accepted that God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

Given these numbers, I found myself part of an online discussion of science and religion this past week.  Here are some details.

The National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST) hosts a discussion site and this week, a discussion on the nature of science was started when Prof. Keith Taber from the U.K. announced that a new website to support learning about the Nature of Science was live, and was entitled Faraday Schools. According to Taber, the site is about learning about science and religion.

Taber claims that science education takes a rather narrow view on the issue of science and religion, and in his opinion, this site would avoid such a single narrow view.

Northing could be further from the truth.  The Faraday site is intelligent design and creationism wrapped in a well-designed website with videos, animations, images, and text.

Check out the website (http://faradayschools.com/) and see for yourself what they have developed.  For one, the images are suggestive—there is the image of the face of Charles Darwin on the body of a monkey.  When you study the list of topics, and the “articles” that are referenced, your breath might be taken away.

Taber’s comments on the NARST list stimulated a bit of discussion.  And still is going on today.

One science educator (Dr. Norm Thomson, Professor of Science Education at the University of Georgia) had this to say about Prof. Taber’s comments:

Hello Keith, I do have a problem with your statement to Shari (Prof. Shari Britner) that “However, the idea that science excludes God is not part of a consensus view on the nature of science among the scientific community.” Science neither excludes nor includes “God” and that is the nature of science. And that is why scientists do not look for a deity to answer the questions posed in science. And, I think that from my experience with traditional cultures in Africa that to include the “Abrahamic” views of a God is Western arrogance. Why do we constantly refer to “God” in singularity versus plurality? I have not seen the new website to which you are referring but I have never seen a scientific paper that (1) has shown evidence for an external reality, (2) has proposed a means by which to measure it, and (3) I have never read a paper in the journals of Science or Nature that supports a the position that there is a “consensus view” of “scientists” which again is getting confused with “science”. I hold the position that the argument being posed by you is bordering on the approach used by those who support intelligent design. So I hold a narrow view of what science is and that is different than what individual scientists view and that is why there is a consensus of what science is, versus a plurality of views about one or many deities. So, if there is any mention of “God” that other myths of cultures should also be included. Norm Thomson

After reading this comment, I wrote this:


I have spent a good deal of time studying the Faraday website.  It is a very well designed creationist/intelligent design curriculum claiming to represent the nature of science.    The content of the site is not different than the curriculum materials developed by the creation science advocates of the 1970s, and makes use of the slogans of the intelligent designers.

It is well worth looking at the site what.  It’s well done, but my suspicion is that most middle and high school students would see through the scheme and wonder why this “stuff” is being taught in a science course.  To be sure there is science in the pages of this website, but is primarily there to set up the real reason for the faraday curriculum—creation science–which a limited Western world view.

Norm replied with this comment:

Well, thank you for the link and now I astounded that there is even a discussion going on with respect to this website and its position. It looks like something that the Discovery Institute would propose. It goes back to the 19th Century for science and the year O for religion. I am now pondering why someone would even bring this site up for some view of science. And, I am disappointed that the position of this site reads as what I would expect from Fundamentalists who put words in the mouths of Darwin, etc. If anything, what we have learned about evolution since he offered his perspective would probably settle once and for all what his position might be and maybe even have persuaded Emma to have a different view.

It seems to me that the Dover decision took care of the US view on this matter most recently and in this country to bring this website into a classroom would be a violation of the First Amendment. And, I am surprised that our British colleagues have a concern about science being “dominated by atheists” whereas we know the impact religion had with respect to other science positions for so many years.

I would hope our astute students would see the deceit being proposed and it now bothers me to have read Keith Taber’s position on this. When I taught in East Africa with the British curriculum there was a clear distinction between science and religious education and as my headmaster who graduated from Cambridge said, there is a reason why the English language has different words for different phenomena.I am not ready to accept a field of “scireligion”.

According to Dr. Taber, the intention of the FaradaySchools.com curriculum “is to develop balanced materials which can be used in schools, including teaching about the relationship between science and religion (currently part of the school curriculum in England), as well as the nature of science (a key part of Secondary school science here.”

If you analyze the Table of Contents for each grade (7-12–http://faradayschools.com/),  and look for a balance between topic titles that seem to lean toward science (The Big Bang, Ideas and evidence, the Red Shift VS those that lean toward religion (Dear Darwin, because of you…, God and Miracles, Ways to interpret Genesis, God and Gaps, Galileo and how he understood the Bible, A physicist’s view of Genesis, there is a huge imbalance—toward religion.  Further, the religious ideas are rather narrow and are based on Genesis.

You might consider this post a warm-up of what is to come in the 2012 Republican primary for president.  Already, we have candidates that would totally support the Faraday website.

Adventures in Geology: Darwin & Fossils

Last year was the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book On the Origin of Species.  One of the activities I was involved in was work with a group of middle school students to explore some of the ideas shown in the Wordle that I designed used the nifty program at wordle.com.
Wordle: Darwin and Wallace

We had planned three activities to help the students see how fossils were important to Darwin, and to also show that Darwin used geology as as an important aspect in the future development of his theory to explain how species changed over time. Here are the activities we did.  Following the description of the activities is the slide show in YouTube form I used to help the students explore these ideas

Mystery at the Ringgold Road Cut. In this activity, the students were given a bag of crinoid stems that I had collected from lower Paleozoic rocks in Northwest Georgia (as shown in the photo here), a hand lens, and a metric rule.

Crinoid stems used in an activity with student in which they make observations and inferences about these "mystery" objects.
Sedimentary bed containing crinoid fossils in NW Georgia

They were asked to investigate the objects, and use observations of the fossils to pose questions, and make conclusions about what they thought the objects might be.

Being a Palentologist. Into brown paper bags, we put a fossil and a geological time scale that included drawings of organisms associated with the three geological eras. Students picked up a bag, and then proceeded to use their powers of observation to try and interpret when the fossil might have lived and in what kind of environment. When they had an idea, they could pick up a sheet of paper with further information about their fossil. Fossils included: brachiopod, oyster, petrified wood, shark tooth, amber, coprolite, fern, fossil fish, trilobite, sea urchin, dinosaur bone.

The Footprint Puzzle. We provided the students with a footprint showing two sets of fossil tracks (of dinosaurs). The students used the tracks to discuss what they thought might be going on. In the map of the tracks, the tracks converge and at the point of convergence, there tracks overlap each other. After some discussion, students make the inference that there were two dinosaurs, and they met up, and either mated, or had a fight. When then provided them one additional piece of information. The additional information showed only one set of tracks exiting the area of convergence.

In the movie that follows, we used images of Darwin’s voyage around the world, images from Down House, Darwin’s family, a picture and reading of the letter he received from Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858 that shocked Darwin into making his theory of natural selection public, and indeed, his and Wallace’s papers were read at the Linnean Society in London in 1858.  Enjoy!