Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Survival of the Thickest


Intelligent Design is so intellectually bankrupt, it does not deserve to be taught in school – even in religious education classes.

Originally published by the Guardian 24th January 2007

Evolution is a subject that elicits a wide range of responses: simple denial by the religious fundamentalist to demi-worship in the occasional scientist. However, the most common response, and the one that is most overlooked in this most crystallised of debates, is that of confusion. Although everyone has at least heard of Darwin, and probably have the phrase “survival of the fittest” somewhere in the back of their minds (a term, in fact, coined not by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer, in 1864), there does seem to be widespread public misunderstanding about evolution and the mechanisms by which it operates (for example, the oft-repeated question: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”). This problem can only be exacerbated by the announcement by the QCA that Intelligent Design (ID or “Creationism Lite”) will be taught in Religious Education lessons in England.

Intelligent Design – the idea that organisms of great complexity cannot have evolved by natural selection and that a creator or God is therefore responsible for all or some life as we know it – is not a science, as it cannot be scientifically tested, as evolution continues to be. There is no debate among serious scientists beyond bemused amazement that small groups persist in holding ID up as a genuine alternative to Darwinian evolution.

Yet, even though the debate will take place in the RE classroom, the reverberations will be felt, not just in the science class but also across the educational sector as a whole. The decision to include ID in school curricula will give the impression that ID is a worthy alternative to evolution. This move by the QCA has the potential to do one of two things, depending on how it is taught: either show Intelligent Design for what it really is (empty waffle based on the creation myth) or to muddy the already murky waters of public understanding of Darwinian evolution.

We have come to a fork in the road. ID can be embraced as part of the curriculum (and, surely, that way madness lies) or it can be cast out into the wilderness; an historical footnote comparable with that written on the authorities who confidently opposed universal suffrage on “scientific grounds”. ID is not science and, despite the increasingly vocal objections of a small minority, has yet even to fire a shot across the bows of Darwinian evolution. As a human evolutionary biologist, the thought of having to spend time explaining the glaring errors of ID to undergraduates at the expense of more worthy material fills me with dread.



Teach the Bigger Story of Science


Children have so much curiosity about the natural world, but the current school curriculum drains away their enthusiasm

Original published by the Guardian 17th February 2010

A gulf seems to exist between our natural curiosity about the world around us and the popularity of science at university level in Britain. Scientists have such heated arguments because we are so passionate about our fields. Yet many school students seem to dislike the subject. Why are so many young people apparently bored by science ?

Small children frequently develop near obsessions with aspects of science, be they dinosaurs, insects or aeroplanes. So where does this fascination go? No one would deny the need for standards and benchmarks in education, but the process that began with the national curriculum is eroding the preparedness of students to cope with university science education.

The “Google generation” is taught in bite-sized chunks throughout their school lives. When they go to university, this teaching method lets them down. This is not the fault of students or teachers, but the nationally imposed criteria that all schools must fulfil. The way that school science curricula are designed primarily to meet testing benchmarks saps them of flexibility and the time for practical experimentation – the bedrock of any enriching science teaching.

The majority of lecturers in higher education would agree that the unprecedented rise in A-level grades is not the result of an unexplained increase in teenage intelligence: rather the nature of the questions has changed, and expectations seem to have been lowered. That means that universities are increasingly spending time addressing the science basics that 10 years ago were taken as read. This not only wastes time but prevents students from developing the deep analytical skills that employers now bemoan the lack of.

It is important to note that the students themselves are blameless: they can only take the tests they are given. Bored students switch off and find themselves unable to appreciate the material presented to them or to understand the research of academics. This places pressure on universities – should they adapt (in other words, dumb down) or maintain standards and risk losing students to softer subjects?

But it would be a mistake to substitute style for substance when it comes to science teaching. The Conservatives’ policy that only those with the best degrees should be allowed on to PGCE courses, while appearing superficially intellectually satisfying, does not offer a solution. The best teachers are not necessarily those who have amassed the most knowledge or excel in examinations – enthusiasm, creativity and charisma are just as important and cannot be measured in degree classifications. It isn’t teachers that are the problem; it is what they are required to teach.

Take my own specialism, evolution, a fascinating subject that arouses strong opinions – including outright hostility – yet its teaching in schools can lack relevancy and engaging examples. That old stalwart the peppered moth, though a fascinating creature, does lack something in the excitement stakes. Far better to use examples that are both relevant and inspiring, such as MRSA’s evolutionary tricks to resist treatment or the role that meat eating played in human brain expansion and intelligence.

Rigid adherence to the same old examples makes for boring lessons and unmotivated students (not to mention teachers). Perhaps if bite-sized subject syllabi were to be replaced with broader subject descriptions that rely on linking well-developed core principles, we could develop a much wider range of illustrations and examples to really motivate students. The downside would be more work for exam boards, and of course teachers (but also the opportunity for greater creativity and flexibility): surely a price that would willingly be paid for the resurrection of science education in the UK?

Of course scientists can always improve the way we present our work to the public, but well-taught, well-designed science curricula that have the freedom to be difficult and exciting will go a long way to harnessing and developing the fascination that children have with science. That can only benefit the next generation of potential scientists and society at large.