Sunday, August 24, 2008

Teaching Science

Today's New York Times has an article about a high school teacher in Florida who, like so many American teachers, has to contend with devout Christian resistance to theory of evolution. It's an interesting article about a gifted teacher, but what really caught my eye was the comment that:
    Some come armed with “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution,” a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory.
I was curious about this list and wondered what the questions were like so I Googled it, and the first result I found had both the questions and an informed answer to each one. I was expecting annoyingly simplistic yet tautologically unanswerable questions such as "If God is omnipotent and infallible, why would He intentionally make creatures that need improvement?" Instead the questions demonstrated intimate familiarity with the history of evolutionary theory, and unfortunately the answers required some appreciation for subtlety and nuance. An example:
    Q: DARWIN'S FINCHES. Why do textbooks claim that beak changes in Galapagos finches during a severe drought can explain the origin of species by natural selection -- even though the changes were reversed after the drought ended, and no net evolution occurred?

    A: Textbooks present the finch data to illustrate natural selection: that populations change their physical features in response to changes in the environment. The finch studies carefully - exquisitely - documented how the physical features of an organism can affect its success in reproduction and survival, and that such changes can take place more quickly than was realized.
In other words, the Finch study demonstrated adaptation and the surprisingly short time frames in which it can be observed, even as it occurs naturally without intentional interference. The author of the questions, Jonathan Wells, confused (I suspect intentionally) adaptation with evolution and, by implication, speciation. In the absence of fluency with these concepts the question probably seems to raise a good point and the answer may seem evasive, particularly to somebody with a prior bias against evolution.

I said "unfortunately" earlier because, if we use public opinion of economics and foreign policy as our basis, the average observer apparently has very little capacity or interest in making subtle and nuanced distinctions. Thus I wonder how prepared high school students are to appreciate the answers to these Ten Questions or even, for that matter, if they are capable of understanding what the questions mean.

Then it occurred to me: what a great opportunity these questions are for teaching science! Instead of just giving these answers, or even waiting for a student to come in with them, pre-empt by using the questions and the quest for the answers as the basis for a biology course. In order to address each question the students would need to figure out:
  1. What do the terms used mean?
  2. On what information did the author base the question?
  3. What information would be needed to answer the question?
A good teacher could guide students through this investigative process by asking the right questions and helping to make information sources available, but without explicitly giving away answers. They'll have to read The Beak of the Finch, draw and study genetic family trees, learn about Haeckel and search for references to him, understand and apply the term homology, and so on. All in the context of answering questions about which they may genuinely be curious.

I would argue that students who demonstrate fluency with the concepts and familiarity with the sources but still refuse to budge on religiously based convictions are ultimately far better served than those who are spoon-fed answers; better even perhaps than those who dutifully record data and draw graphs in lab sessions.

Just an idea.

1 comment:

Jason said...

It's a great idea, and it makes me hope that someday I will be able to do something like that.