Here’s another reason to teach the scientific controversy over evolution: inquiry-based methods improve student engagement and learning — and U.S. science education needs a jumpstart like that.
More than fifty science and engineering organizations, including the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, recently signed a letter to the two major party presidential candidates asking twenty questions about pivotal scientific and engineering issues. NPR notes, “The groups behind the questions represent more than 10 million scientists and engineers.”
One of those twenty inquiries is on science education:
Education: American students have fallen in many international rankings of science and math performance, and the public in general is being faced with an expanding array of major policy challenges that are heavily influenced by complex science. How would your administration work to ensure all students including women and minorities are prepared to address 21st century challenges and, further, that the public has an adequate level of STEM literacy in an age dominated by complex science and technology?
While science education has a national and global impact, policy on the matter is generally made at the state level. That aside, how do we “ensure…that the public has an adequate level of STEM literacy”? Well, it’s not as simple as just teaching facts to be committed to memory. Students learn best by engaging in critical analysis. And asking questions and examining evidence is the heart of scientific inquiry.
The history of crafting national science standards underscores this point. John Timmer at Ars Technica explains:
Inspired by the visit of Halley’s comet in the 1980s, the AAAS started Project 2061, an attempt to envision where the organization would like to see science literacy in the year the comet would return. Jo Ellen Roseman, Project 2061’s Director, told Ars that the goal was to “characterize what the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind would constitute adult science literacy.”
“While we had no idea what the world would be like, we could guarantee that it would be shaped by science, mathematics, and technology,” Roseman said. “And therefore every citizen of the US, every high school graduate had to be literate in those fields.”
… Driven by this concept, AAAS gathered scientists and educators to produce a document called Science for All Americans. This publication, while not a set of education standards, laid out the ideas they should contain. Written in prose, it describes basic facts about the Universe that people should know. But over half the document is focused on the nature of science, technology and math, the historic development of these fields, and the “habits of mind” essential for scientific literacy.
Nature has also pointed this out in a special issue on science education: “[S]tudents gain a much deeper understanding of science when they actively grapple with questions than when they passively listen to answers.”
Writing in the journal Science, Jonathan Osborne, professor at Stanford University’s School of Education, praises critical thinking in the classroom. The Abstract states:
Argument and debate are common in science, yet they are virtually absent from science education. Recent research shows, however, that opportunities for students to engage in collaborative discourse and argumentation offer a means of enhancing student conceptual understanding and students’ skills and capabilities with scientific reasoning. As one of the hallmarks of the scientist is critical, rational skepticism, the lack of opportunities to develop the ability to reason and argue scientifically would appear to be a significant weakness in contemporary educational practice. In short, knowing what is wrong matters as much as knowing what is right. This paper presents a summary of the main features of this body of research and discusses its implications for the teaching and learning of science.
In teaching about origins, teachers could do a lot more to introduce “argument and debate.” Many present evolution dogmatically, instead of inviting students to grapple with the evidence and examine the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. Active engagement in learning is beneficial from both a scientific and pedagogical standpoint. Using critical analysis in evolution-education would be a big step toward upgrading scientific literacy.
As we never tire of saying, students need to spend more and higher quality time learning about evolution. Presenting both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinism teaches students more about this fascinating and important subject, not less. The content itself is well suited to spark interest and discussion — where we come from and how is a topic of relevance to all. Nothing could be more relevant.
Judged by scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test for 15-year-olds given every three years, the U.S. ranks 27th out of 64 countries in science. That’s not good enough. It’s time to make a change, and we know how to start.