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National Science Standards Reflect a Growing Anxiety on the Part of Evolution Advocates


Teach science critically -- except when it comes to evolution. In discussions of how to improve public school education in the U.S., that's the message that advocates of national science standards typically convey. Yet that wasn't always the case.

An article at Ars Technica recounts the development of the most recent set of proposed standards: the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), finalized in 2013. Ironically, teaching students to engage in scientific inquiry, rather than simply expecting them all to absorb the same "facts," was the main impetus.

NGSS began as separate projects of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and National Academies of Sciences (NAS). Their efforts were eventually merged and became the NGSS. John Timmer at Ars Technica writes:

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."

Instead of insisting on a "just the facts" approach, the AAAS focused on training young people to think like scientists. After all, the body of knowledge would change over the decades, but the process of scientific inquiry would not.

"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.

The NAS's National Research Council (NRC), meanwhile, produced its National Science Education Standards, with a similar emphasis:

"The NRC document took a very strong position about scientific inquiry," Roseman said. "It went beyond what kids should know and be able to do and really articulated what should be going on in classrooms. Students should be engaged in inquiry."

Exactly! At Discovery Institute, we advocate teaching the controversy about evolution. That is for several reasons. Students should learn the full range of evidence on evolution. Teaching the controversy aids in developing critical thinking. And it trains students to think like scientists. Jo Ellen Roseman's comments highlight a further advantage to this pedagogic strategy: that while the content of science may change, the process of scientific inquiry remains vital and valid.

The documents produced by the AAAS and NAS, Science for All Americans and the National Science Education Standards, are persuasive in explaining the importance of critical thinking. Science for All Americans notes:

In science classrooms, it should be the normal practice for teachers to raise such questions as: How do we know? What is the evidence? What is the argument that interprets the evidence? Are there alternative explanations or other ways of solving the problem that could be better? The aim should be to get students into the habit of posing such questions and framing answers.

Avoid Dogmatism

Students should experience science as a process for extending understanding, not as unalterable truth. This means that teachers take care not to convey the impression that they themselves or the textbooks are absolute authorities whose conclusions are always correct. By dealing with the credibility of scientific claims, the overturn of accepted scientific beliefs, and what to make out of disagreement among scientists, science teachers can help students to balance the necessity for accepting a great deal of science on faith against the importance of keeping an open mind.

The NAS document, National Science Education Standards, recommends:

Students at all grade levels and in every domain of science should have the opportunity to use scientific inquiry and develop the ability to think and act in ways associated with inquiry, including...thinking critically and logically about relationships between evidence and explanations, constructing and analyzing alternative explanations, and communicating scientific arguments.

Building on this foundation, the set of current national science standards, the NGSS, agrees that critical analysis is important. The NGSS were developed in two phases. First, the National Academy of Sciences laid out the basic scientific information students should learn. Second, states worked together to develop specific grade-level standards. The document produced in the first phase, A Framework for K-12 Science Education, takes a very positive view of critical analysis:

Chief among these features [of science] is a commitment to data and evidence as the foundation for developing claims. The argumentation and analysis that relate evidence and theory are also essential features of science; scientists need to be able to examine, review, and evaluate their own knowledge and ideas and critique those of others. Argumentation and analysis include appraisal of data quality, modeling of theories, development of new testable questions from those models, and modification of theories and models as evidence indicates they are needed.

Major science journals also hold that inquiry is central to quality science education. Yet when it comes to evolution, the NGSS abruptly switch gears, rejecting inquiry-based learning and opting for dogmatism.

In middle school, we read, "students can analyze data from the fossil record to describe evidence of the history of life on Earth and can construct explanations for similarities in organisms. They have a beginning understanding of the role of variation in natural selection and how this leads to speciation."

In high school, students are to "demonstrate understanding of how multiple lines of evidence contribute to the strength of scientific theories of natural selection and evolution." This seems to be nearly the opposite of what Science for All Americans says:

Students should experience science as a process for extending understanding, not as unalterable truth. This means that teachers take care not to convey the impression that they themselves or the textbooks are absolute authorities whose conclusions are always correct.

It is inconsistent to oppose the freedom to critically analyze evolutionary thinking, while proclaiming that inquiry is the cornerstone of quality science education. The inconsistency, though, is not all that surprising. It's plainly defensive, a circling of wagons around a theory under increasing pressure from scientific criticisms. The NGSS reflect the anxious mood on the part of evolution defenders in the larger debate about origins.

Students deserve better. If we really want nationwide scientific literacy by the time Halley's comet returns in 2061, we should teach young people to question and analyze across the board, whether the context is biological origins or any other scientific field.

Image: � Felix Pergande / Dollar Photo Club.