Sunday, April 06, 2008


Creative Education

A thought:

Teachers should use controversial subject matter as a stimulus to thinking, not shy away from them. A school board in Kentucky a few years ago stated that certain subject matters (such as evolution, sexual education, and AIDS) should be kept out of the classroom because they are too "upsetting" to the students. On the contrary, I think that if students do not move a bit out of their comfort zone at least once a week, they are not receiving a good education. Education is about challenging one's ideas and opening them up to scrutiny. A student's ideas may or may not withstand such scrutiny, but either way the student will benefit from the challenge.

In the specific case of the creation/evolution issue, I take a position different from that of most of my colleagues. I think teachers should be encouraged to use the social debate as a springboard to teach not only evolution, but science as a process. I am not talking about teaching creationism in the classroom; that would be not only unconstitutional in the US, but also simply wrong from a pedagogical standpoint. What I am suggesting is that creationist rhetoric might be turned into material for critical-thinking exercises in the classroom. Teachers can direct the students to creationist Web sites, books, and articles and compare them to those of scientific organizations and journals. Teachers would need to guide students through this type of activity toward an understanding of how science works and why creationism is pseudoscience. The students might actually get excited about this more proactive approach, and those who reject evolution may be less likely to feel shut out of the learning experience.

There are many hazards with this strategy, beginning with the fact that science teachers, who are trained in science, are not generally sufficiently prepared to deal with objections based on religious beliefs. This is a broader problem of teacher education that goes well beyond the evolution/creation controversy. ...

[T]here is also – unfortunately – the very real concern that many science teachers are creationists themselves. This seems to me to fall into the same category of teachers' training mentioned above. We must require that teachers know the subject matter they are to present, and that they intend to teach science according to currently accepted knowledge. This is not a matter of respecting individual teachers' religious beliefs: if you believe that the earth is 10,000 years old, then you really do not understand, at a deep level, geology, physics, and biology. Consequently, you simply should not be teaching science.

- Massimo Pigliucci, "The Evolution-Creation Wars: Why Teaching More Science Just Is Not Enough," McGill Journal of Education / Revue des sciences de l'éducation de McGill, Vol 42, No 2 (2007)

Pigliucci's recommendation is far more dangerous than it seems.

In my high school, evolution was taught in my biology classes as the only game in town. But in my world history AP class, the teacher designed a unity on the evolution/creation debate. A perusal of the literature in the high school library brought to my attention Science and Creationism, edited by Ashley Montagu. Later that day, my father laid out some of Popper's falsificationism based on his hazy recollections from college. And now I'm a professor of philosophy with an BA in biology!

Like I said: Pigliucci's proposal is dangerous!
I don't disagree ... at the very least, until there is real uniform training and requirements for science teachers. But Pigliucci is suggesting a whole set of reforms that are pretty much interdependent. Frankly I think they are rather pie-in-the-skyish but interesting nonetheless,
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