Friday, 22 April 2011

BCSE submission for the National Curriculum Review

The BCSE sent the following letter to the National Curriculum Review on April 13th 2011:

National Curriculum Review 
The British Centre for Science Education (BCSE) is a voluntary body consisting of scientists, educators, and other interested parties, concerned with the provision of high-quality science education in the UK, and, more specifically, with countering attempts from creationist and related groups to undermine such provision regarding the teaching of evolution and Earth science. We have been monitoring such groups for several years, and compiled an extensive database (freely available on our website) concerning their activities. 
We therefore wish to submit the attached, in evidence, addressing specifically Question 11a of the review, discussing those aspects of the knowledge that we “regard as essential to include in the Programme(s) of Study for Science,” and that are of particular relevance to our concerns. 
Respectfully submitted,
Professor Paul S. Braterman, MA, DPhil., DSc., for BCSE

The attached evidence was as follows:

Evidence offered by the British Centre for Science Education to the National Curriculum Review, in response to Question 11a: What knowledge do you regard as essential to include in the Programme(s) of Study for science?  
Evolution is the core unifying concept of 21st-century life science, and provides a vital perspective on the related core topics of metabolism, cell structure, and reproduction.[1] Within this broad concept, common descent is easily grasped in terms of family resemblances, while selection (both artificial and natural) based on variation has familiar everyday applications in such important areas as animal breeding, agriculture, and medicine (mutating viruses; the emergence of resistance). The fossil record, with its immediate appeal to young minds (we all love dinosaurs), provides a link between “Organisms, their behaviour and the environment”, “Materials, their properties and their Earth”, and, at a more advanced level, “Energy, forces and space”. We therefore advocate introducing the topic early, and elaborating it at the appropriate successive levels, using the converging lines of evidence as a powerful example of “How science works”. All of this applies whether science is taught as a single subject, or divided into separate curricular subjects. 
Evolution, and, relatedly, Earth Science are the only two areas where the core concepts need to be defended against objections whose basis lies outside science, although these objections are sometimes supported by pseudoscientific arguments, as in “creation science”, Intelligent Design, and bogus “controversies” over such matters as techniques of dating. BCSE therefore strongly welcomes the present official position on the importance of evolution, and the status of creationism and intelligent design, as set out in the Free Schools FAQs, which state:[2]
We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state-funded school. We would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum.
and in other ministerial statements,[3] as well as in longstanding curricular guidance.[4]
Since these comments refer specifically to Free Schools, which are designed to have maximum latitude, we must presume that they apply with equal force to all schools, including those that follow the curriculum, which should read accordingly. 
We believe that teachers, especially at the pre-examination levels where topics may well be taught by nonspecialists, would welcome guidance on these matters. Some specific suggestions, and detailed rationale, are as follows:
Specific suggestions:
The underlying themes of evolution, common ancestry, and (another object of creationist denial) the antiquity of the Earth are already implicit in the descriptions of key stages and levels, but for the reasons stated we respectfully suggest that they could be more clearly identified. Using the existing language as a starting point, we offer the following illustrations: 
Key Stage 3.3.d, after “can be classified” add “into families”; this two word addition introduces the concept of similarity based on descent.
Key Stage 3.4.a, after “chemical and physical processes” add “acting over very long periods of time”.
Key Stage 4.5.b, c; the present text:
b. variation within species can lead to evolutionary changes and similarities and differences between species can be measured and classified
c. the ways in which organisms function are related to the genes in their cells
is confusing, since variation and evolution are mentioned before the role of genes, no mention is made of the role of genes in inheritance, hereditary variation is not singled out from developmental, and no mention is made of selection.
An alternative might be:
b. the genes transmit inherited information, and control and regulate development and metabolism
c. genetic variation can lead to evolutionary changes and the formation of new species. Differences between species can be measured, and species classified into families. This classification can be checked against the fossil record.
Organisms, their behaviour and the environment, Level 6: After “applications and implications of science, such as the use of selective breeding” add “They understand the concepts of natural and artificial selection."
Level 7: Mention evolutionary relationships alongside inherited and environmental variation among the examples of contexts in which “more abstract knowledge and understanding” is applied and used.
Materials, their properties and the Earth, Level 5, after “the deposition of sediments” add “the laying down of strata”. Rationale: successions of strata provide the most familiar and most easily understood evidence for the concept of deep time.
Energy, forces and space, Level 8: Replace “developing understanding of the structure of the solar system” with “developing understanding of the formation and structure of the solar system.” Again, this is a matter of making the concept more explicit. For instance, analysis of moon rocks led directly to our present understanding of the late heavy bombardment, and the formation of the inner planets by accretion.
We are aware of a crypto-creationist cottage industry, which manufactures or imports creationist materials while concealing their nature, and misdescribing them as educational aids. Striking examples include the imitation textbook, Explore Evolution,[5] and a website called World Around Us,[6]  which even succeeded in publicising  itself  in the Times Educational Supplement.[7] Explore Evolution was written by a team of creationists and Intelligent Design advocates at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, and distributed to schools and universities in the UK by a creationist organisation calling itself Truth in Science.[8] The authorship of World Around Us is not revealed, although on internal evidence we suspect the involvement of Sylvia Baker, well-known creationist, founder member and scientific adviser to the Christian Schools Trust, a group of over 40 schools who take the historical reality of the Fall as a core belief, teach evolution alongside purported alternatives in such a way that evolution will not be believed, and (according to Dr. Baker's 2009 PhD thesis) succeed in producing students three quarters of whom believe that both Noah's flood, and the construction of Eve from Adam's rib, represent actual historical events.[9]
Creationist inroads, to the extent that they occur (and our files indicate that they most certainly do), have a double importance; as examples of false material being taught as fact, and as symptoms of weakness in the preparedness and/or guidance of classroom teachers. In this context, we would draw attention to a recent study of the situation in the United States, where some 60% of biology teachers fail to teach evolution at all or with conviction, not because of creationist disbelief (even in the US, a minority position among such teachers), but because of lack of confidence in their own grounding in the subject.[10] In the UK, one would hope that this particular problem would not arise at the higher levels, where subjects are taught by discipline specialists, but may nonetheless occur at the lower levels, where the sciences are not always taught separately, and perhaps should not be, but at the cost of having topics covered by nonspecialists, who may well appreciate the kind of guidance that we are recommending here. 
[1] See Principles and big ideas of science education, Ed. Wynne Harlen, Association for Science Education, 2010, Available on  the ASE website
[9] PhD Thesis, University of Warwick, Education Department, 2009, available as , esp. p 167 (Table 7.2) and pp 345 on, Appendix 3: “Statement concerning: The place of the teaching of the Creation/Evolution debate and Intelligent Design in schools affiliated to the Christian Schools Trust [2009]”
[10] M. B. Berkman, E. Plutzer. Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom. Science, 2011; 331 (6016): 404 DOI: 10.1126/science.1198902; Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America's Classrooms by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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