what, exactly, do they teach?

By Alison Campbell 12/11/2011

I was spurred to write this by a comment  Grant made on my previous post on the various NZ political parties’ stances on science education. In that post I linked to the website of a ‘special character’ school: one with a religious underpinning & which states that they replace ‘evolution’ with ‘creation’ in the school’s science curriculum:

All strands are covered as stated in the National Curriculum: The Living World, the Physical World, the Material World and Planet Earth and Beyond. As a Christian school we change the sub-strand called ‘Evolution’ to ‘Creation’. This links with our extra subject Creation Studies.

Which leads me to wonder exactly what such schools do teach in science classes…

Possibly a rather incoherent Living World curriculum, especially given that the National Curriculum document has this to say about the Living World strand (my emphasis):

The Living World strand is about living things and how they interact with each other and the environment. Students develop an understanding of the diversity of life and life processes, of where and how life has evolved, of evolution as the link between life processes and ecology, and of the impact of humans on all forms of life. As a result, they are able to make more informed decisions about significant biological issues.

It’s hard to make sense of many biological processes when the underlying organising principle is removed from discussion…
Since the curriculum mentions a ‘Biblical world view’ then I’ll assume that it teaches the ‘Young Earth’ variety of creationism (I am happy to be corrected on this), including such supposed events as a global flood.  But then, the Living World strand, for young primary school children, offers the following learning objective:
• Recognise that there are lots of different living things in the world and that they can be grouped in different ways.
• Explain how we know that some living things from the past are now extinct.
First up there, we have the issue of species diversity: where did all those species come from? Even young children know that there are an awful lot of living things. Was every single one of them specially created? And what about the idea of extinction? I’m thinking particularly of the dinosaurs, so beloved of young children – perhaps because they are (many of them, anyway) big and fierce, & (all of them, ignoring for the moment that birds are essentially small feathered reptiles!) extinct. I have seen it argued that dinosaurs are still alive to day (yes, really!), but doesn’t this generate new questions? How did they all survive the supposed flood, for example?
And that in turn generates another question: how, using a curriculum that posits a geologically young Earth, can you teach children the critical thinking skills they need? After all, even for young primary-age children the National Curriculum “Nature of Science” strand requires (my emphasis again) that they
[l]earn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society.
And careful, critical thought lies at the heart of scientific knowledge.
But it’s not really just the Living World & the ‘E’ word, is it? Because in order to deny evolution, you must also deny quite a lot of geology (Planet Earth & Beyond) & physics (Physical World) as well. James Hutton & Charles Lyell, for example, used the (glacial) speed and relative constancy of observable geological processes to infer that the Earth is very old, & this is borne out by the physics of radioactive decay that underlies radiometric dating techniques. (In an example of special pleading it’s been argued that rates of radioactive decay were faster in the past, thus giving the appearance of a young Earth, but alas! were that really so, then the Earth would also be a ball of molten rock, due to the large amount of heat released by the accelerated rates of decay…)
Yes, OK, I’ve jumped to the senior years at school here (you’re not going to learn about radiometric dating at primary school!), but my point remains: how can such a curriculum truly help children to understand and make sense of all that the world offers? (Let alone prepare those who go on to study biology – and geology – in a university system where evolution lies at the heart of our understanding of the living world.)

0 Responses to “what, exactly, do they teach?”

  • It seems to me it makes a mockery of a national cirriculum if schools can just swop bits out. I’d like to think the aim of the cirriculum is to ensure/assist that kids get a sound education that covers the appropriate background. If schools start chopping and changing it at a whim (as your previous article indicates the ACT party encourages) you’d think that would undermine the whole endeavour.

    I can understand* schools with a religious orientation choosing to teach their religious ideology in addition to the cirriculum – in religious instruction classes. You can argue that at least this way kids can see both and come to their own judgement. But doesn’t removing evolution from science classes and calling ideological studies (creation studies) science have them misrepresenting the position of science and deny the kids from making their own judgement?

    (* I’m not saying I entirely agree with this.)

  • Dratted hypersensitive laptop!
    It definitely misrepresents the position of science – and I fail to see how they can claim to be helping their students to understand the nature of science, too.

    • Flying Spaghetti Monster!!! “science we believe/science we do not believe in” – nothing there about critical thought or accepting on the basis of the evidence. Science isn’t about belief… I can feel another post coming on…

  • Alison:

    Dratted hypersensitive laptop!

    Maybe you need to hunt around the system preferences and see if there is something to tell the trackpad to lighten up a little!

    Good point about the nature of science. It’s a core element that should be taught at school.

    lolj & Alison:

    I can feel another post coming on…

    Just one post? There’s scope there for a 20+ post series tackling each of their numbered points in turn.

    Just taking the first sentence there:

    “It is important that children and adults are clear that there is one universal truth.”

    No room for alternative hypotheses, ever?

    This nicely runs into the difference between working off belief vs. testing hypotheses and from there to the underlying basis of science. (Dogma v. hypotheses and testing, etc.)

  • lolrj

    Thanks for the link it was very “educational” – my brain now feels like it needs a shower!
    What a bunch of contrived tripe. Definitely enough fodder for multiple posts pointing out the inanity of the material presented. The following really sums up to me their complete misunderstanding of what science is

    “The Bible states (Proverbs 1:7) that the “Fear (awe) of God is the beginning of knowledge.””

    • I have never been clear on why fear (of anything) is a good place to start when you’re seeking knowledge… All the fear is going to do, is close off certain avenues of enquiry. Which I suppose is where this is coming from?

  • Like most creationists they appear to be trying to have it both ways. They say there’s science they “don’t believe in” but they attempt to make it look like facts are on their side.
    Why don’t they stick to the belief theme and simply state for each question: “We don’t believe in that”?

  • Parenthetically, I’ve heard the line that dinosaurs lived in recent times (or currently) also. That motivated my post on the origin of the Chinese dragon.

    And Darcy makes a good point. Science isn’t like a lolly pick-and-mix where you only select the flavours you want. There is no intellectually honest way to selectively teach science.

    • That’s what really bugs me – they claim to be following the NZ science curriculum (except where that impinges on their ‘special character’, but that curriculum requires that students gain an understanding of the nature of science! And what these guys are doing is definitely NOT providing that.

  • The ‘fear’ point is interesting, but I don’t think they use fear in terms of some kind of servile fear like we would. In the Hebrew Bible, “fear” is a somewhat imprecise translation of the Hebrew word “ירא,” which is sometimes close in meaning to “respect” or “be in awe of.” (From Wikipedia). It is funny though, because elsewhere they assert that “Evolution is driven by fear of religion”.

    Also worth having a look at (If you can bear it), is their ‘Truth is truth’ page. I think it really brings home how much they misunderstand the process of science: http://www.ponatahi.school.nz/prospectus-truth.html

    (Also, incidentally, how on earth is this relevant? This is in their prospectus, and the very last thing I would care about when looking at a primary (or even secondary) school for a child is that school’s take on dark matter and dark energy. In this case it says a lot about how they teach science, but even so!)