Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Evolution On The National Curriculum

I have just been watching Richard Dawkins' programme "Faith School Menace?" on More4. There have been some worrying examples. I was most concerned by Dawkins' meeting with a biology teacher in a faith school and her students. She freely admitted bringing their religion into her lessons, and said that her students had their own opinions on their origins related to their faith. I hope that section will make it onto YouTube soon so that I can post it, as I simply cannot do it justice.

However, I was distressed to see that when one of the students asked "If we evolved from apes then why are there still apes around?", she was unable to give any answer. This, above all else, should make this teacher unfit to teach science. Every single biology teacher will, when teaching evolution, be asked this question. Any biology teacher who cannot answer that question confidently and accurately has no business teaching science. @davegodfrey gave a superb and elegant response:
If you're descended from your grandparents why do you have cousins?
What is even more depressing is how easy it is for religious topics to sneak into the National Curriculum. This is the specification for Edexcel GCSE Science, the qualification UK students take at age 16:
Students will be assessed on their ability to:
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the principles of natural selection, to include:
    - How individuals within a species can have characteristics that promote more successful reproduction (survival of the fittest)
    - How, over generations, the effects of natural selection result in changes within species and the formation of new species from genetic variants or mutants that are better adapted to their environment
    - How species that are less well-adapted to a changing environment can become extinct
  • Explain how fossils provide evidence for evolution
  • Discuss why Charles Darwin experienced difficulty in getting his theory of evolution through natural selection accepted by the scientific community in the 19th century
The latter point in particular provides a route in for the loathsome Truth In Science organisation. I am unfortunate enough to have seen some of their resources for National Curriculum science, and it is depressingly easy to sneak creationism and intelligent design in to this specification.

Fortunately, the Edexcel A-Level Biology specification for the exams students take at age 18 is a lot more thorough:
Students will be assessed on their ability to:
  • Describe how natural selection can lead to adaptation and evolution.
  • Describe how evolution (a change in the allele frequency) can come about through gene mutation and natural selection.
  • Explain how reproductive isolation can lead to speciation.
  • Describe the role of the scientific community in validating new evidence (including molecular biology, eg DNA, proteomics) supporting the accepted scientific theory of evolution (scientific journals, the peer review process, scientific conferences).
I plan to look more closely at the teaching of evolution over the next year. I am going into the second year of my PGCE, and I will have to produce a research project - looking at strategies for teaching evolution to a diverse group of students is definitely up there on the shortlist of topics. This year I will not be teaching the GCSEs, but I will get to teach both A-Level year groups, so I hope to get stuck in good and proper on the juicy details.

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