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Is Teach the Controversy Approach Gaining Momentum?

Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews writes about his recent deluge of e-mail regarding his suggestion that ID be taught alongside of evolution. I blogged about that here, and warned Mathews of the kind of response he could expect. (Mathews goes beyond what the CSC policy is on teaching evolution in calling for inclusion of ID. So, for the record, yet again, we advocate including scientific criticism of evolution in the classroom, not mandating ID or any alternative theory.)

Mathews says he received about 400 e-mails in response to his article, and that the majority of those “said they had the unfortunate duty to tell me that I was an idiot.” I can imagine that many of the responses were not family-friendly fare. Mathews quotes several that he received denouncing him and his idea. But, it was encouraging to see that he did find people who understand why there needs to be more discussion of the evidence for and against evolution at least, if not intelligent design itself.

"But instead, I was stunned to discover that many e-mailers (a generous estimate would be about 30 percent) agreed with me, and they had had the same idea long before I did. 'I, like you, am a strong believer in Darwinism and, also like you, think that critical debate should be injected into the classroom whenever possible, …'"
"Our entire school curriculum is devoid of intelligent debate, especially in science. Our students lack the basic ideas of what makes a credible claim and how to defend their position with experimentally derived evidence."
One of the reasons CSC has advocated for the teach the controversy approach is because it is a good way to teach critical thinking to students who all too often are not learning to analyze things and think critically about the arguments for and against.

Darwinian evolution is mostly taught as if it were a done deal, as if there were no unsolved problems, as if the theory had been proven. Such is not the case. Telling students about the debate amongst scientists over certain evidences for Darwin’s theory is not only necessary for good science, it is a pedagogically sound way of teaching a controversial subject.

CSC Fellow John Angus Campbell explains it this way:

“We propose that teachers should present Darwin’s theory of evolution as Darwin himself did, as a credible, but contestable, argument. Rather than teaching Darwin’s theory as an incontrovertible “Truth,” teachers should present the main arguments for Darwinism and encourage students to evaluate these arguments critically as they would any other theory—whether new or long established. …

Students who learn the arguments for, and against, a given theory, or for and against two or more competing theories, are learning—not just what science teaches—but how scientists reason. In learning about Copernicus which of us did not also learn about the stationary earth views of Ptolemy and Aristotle? Why not extend the principle we call “teaching the controversies” (teaching science as argument) to all scientific theories, whether they were only controversial in the past or whether they are controversial now?”

Interestingly, Mathews ends his column with a request to hear from current teachers.
I have received very few e-mails from actual high school biology teachers who have ever tried introducing the debate to their classes. I suspect some are doing this quietly to avoid the kind of religious eruption that readers told me was inevitable.

Is there anyone out there trusting their high school students to handle these contradictions and using them to better explain how science works?

There are teachers out there already teaching the controversy. I suspect they are quiet about it not to steer clear of religious minded parents, but to steer clear of ACLU thought police anxious to criminalize practitioners of academic freedom.