Monday, January 31, 2011

The hen keeps laying (American education shortfalls, continued)

A new survey of high school science teachers, reported in Science (Berkman and Plutzer, Jan 28, 2011, pages 404-405), and described here, shows that many high school teachers do not teach the scientific method or approach it very well in the context of the 'debate' between evolution and creationism.  Many teachers teach outright creationism, while about 60% hedge their bets about the subject.

The authors express it this way:
Creationism has lost every major U.S. federal court case for the past 40 years, and state curricular standards have improved....But considerable research suggests that supporters of evolution, scienfitic methods, and reason itself are losing battles in America's classroom, where instruction in evolutionary biology 'has been absent, cursory, or fraught with misinformation'.
Berkman and Plutzer, Science
We know there is a problem of under-educated teachers generally, low rigor and low admission standards in schools of education, low status and low pay in the jobs.  We know American kids are not getting nearly the rigorous level of training and work ethic that they may need in the future, given what is happening in other nations and the increasingly technological nature of global society.

As scientists, we can't react except with concern about the thin training in evolutionary biology that US students are getting.  But there are two things that all of us should ask, that might make it seem a less dismal situation than it seems.

1.  First, how much does it matter?  The senior generation in this country (of which we're a part) were trained without much, or even specifically with no, high school evolutionary training.  For various reasons, including the pressure from fundamentalist Christian (or so they self-describe, though they may not have read even the Sermon on the Mount which tells what Christians should be about in their lives), evolution was simply omitted from texts.  Even some introductory college Biology courses had relatively little evolution--a chapter, say, along with anatomy, classification, basic physiology, Mendelian genetics, and so on.

Yet this same generation is responsible for what amounts to a massive gain in knowledge across the life sciences, including evolution.  So is our concern about high schools more than just our taking sides in the cultural battle now under way between the 'left' and 'right'?  Does it really matter if most people don't believe in evolution?  For those who need to know or use evolutionary perspectives, things are motoring along very well these days.

2.  Secondly, some people choose to opt out of a purely material, experimental, empirical view of the world.  They depend instead on mysticism, externally derived answers, reassuring dogma, or the comfort of the tribalism of the right.  If that's how they wish to live their lives, and they don't want their kids exposed to what they object to in these very fundamental worldview areas, so what?  Why not recognize that this is the 'age of science' only in some areas of life, for many people?  Wouldn't it be just as good, in this particular sense, to insist that, at least, high school science teachers understood their biology itself?  The things that people need to know about, like how genes work, how infectious organisms work, the diversity of living Nature, structures of human bodies and the nature of plants, etc.

Where are the teachers?
In our Honors class of 19 bright, thoughtful students last fall, in discussing this subject, the students all nodded in agreement as we pointed out the failure of our educational system (some of which they, as college seniors, had experienced only a few years earlier).

Then we asked:  "OK then, so how many of you are going into teaching as your profession?"

The silence was deafening.  The brightest students just aren't going to be teachers.

Whose fault?
It is too easy to feel self-righteous and rue the absence of evolution in school curricula.  But stepping back from our legitimate emotional engagement with the idea that the truth, the whole truth, as seen from the scientific worldview should be taught, suggests that the debate is about other things in our culture than whether the general public really needs to understand evolution as we scientists see it.

After all, within our own families, we have to make up at home for what the less than competent teachers do to or for our kids in all the subjects they are taught.   There doesn't seem to be any legitimate empirical doubt that evolution is a fact of and about life.  Fully educated people should realize that.  But you can live perfectly well without it, as our benighted population shows, and for many the comfort of answers is worth all the truth that Darwin ever wrote.

At least, this is one way to ponder the strangeness of this persistent issue.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Nice angle, Ken.

The ramifications for an undereducated electorate on science and health policy aside...(which we've talked about here many times)...

The education problem's much more than some people don't believe evolution, are stuck in a mythological mindset that science culture deems unacceptable, and we need to show them/ help them learn.

It goes to the level of the interpersonal relationships of neighbors.

Many of the people who don't like evolution also believe (in one way or another) that those who accept evolution can be "lost," "heathens," "hell-bound," even "evil" or at least "unChristian-like" which means they can be perceived as selfish, unfriendly, and all-around un-neighborly.

To be perceived in this way by your community (let alone by large proportions of your society) isn't exactly ideal.

Maybe trying to fix k-12 biology is not an attempt to stoke the flames of a culture war, but instead a strategy of science-minded folks to achieve greater community peace.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, a more detached anthropological view would say I think that science is our cultural matrix (tribal totem?) and we want schools to be used to acculturate people to our way of thinking. If you believe in mysticism (at least when it comes to life or your own life), then you want schools to inculcate religion rather than science in this regard.

We couch it in terms of wanting schools to teach what's true, not what's not true (as we see it by our evidentiary criterion).

I agree personally, but how is this different from any government or society wanting schools to acculturate to the prevailing or politically dominant norms? We could have community peace if scientists would just give up their views, too!

Also, while I agree with you personally, I don't see any evidence that lack of good school teaching is limiting evolutionary biology's progress. Or, maybe, it's limiting it in the sense that we have to get graduate students largely from other countries.

So, while I deplore the situation for the reasons you state, and can't understand how fundamentalism of the kind we're discussing could still persist, it's if anything growing worldwide (in different religions) for whatever reason.

Holly Dunsworth said...

"We could have community peace if scientists would just give up their views, too!"

I don't mean that they even have to give up creationist views... I mean that learning about evolution, even if it's still not accepted, will at least help people see how its concepts are used and abused and misinterpreted ... and to help people to at least try on the goggles of "other" belief systems... which we hope leads to greater peace when we do it in any comparative cultures class, right?

There are so many out there who are only "fundamental" because that's all they know.

This is MY detached anthropological view :)

Ken Weiss said...

I don't quibble with that view, though I am less convinced than you are that this is about or could be ameliorated by education. Somehow, I think this is culture going off on its own, for reasons nobody really understands.

After all, the same information is available here as in England, where far fewer get a university education, ordinary schools aren't that great, and there is an Established church. Yet evolution sticks and the church is losing members rapidly. Why?

Anyway, I'm all for upping the quality of education in science!

Holly Dunsworth said...

I was just offering yet another angle. Is it one I'm convinced of? Maybe. But my impetus for commenting was just to muse on another angle.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, sure. I keep thinking of my own training in cultural anthropology that stressed that culture goes along on its own, and can't be directed from a member from the inside.

And I think of how quickly communist countries turned capitalist (or even, as in Russia) deeply religious, despite 75 years of immersion in propaganda.

And things like that. Your and our lives are committed to education, but what that means in cultural terms is, to me, less clear.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Me too.

We're committed to science (and its education) because we think it will improve the world, or at least ours. And others are committed to worshipping gods because they think that it will improve the world, or at least theirs.

I guess this is one of those few parallels between science and religion.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, and it's the kind of thing that anthropology, at least cultural anthropology, tries to understand.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Yes, and validates a bit why biological anthropologists tend to be some of the most outspoken/well-known ambassadors of science!