Tuesday 15 February 2011

GCSE Postscript

Earlier this year I did a series of posts on "making your research suitable for outreach", where I featured the specifications for GCSE, AS, A2 and Scottish biology qualifications. It seemed to go down well, although not perhaps among the people it was actually intended to help (stunned silence from the VP community), but it highlighted some of the inadequacies of the syllabus and the way certain exam boards accommodate non-scientific views. CCEA is one of the worst, probably down to a worrying trend in creationism within Northern Ireland. I identified, within the GCSE post, an issue that meant AQA students would be expected to discuss Lamarckism.

Turns out, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Check this out, featured on Why Evolution Is True: British GCSE Biology: Exam Evolution Fail. Thanks to @sc_k via @edyong209.

Unfortunately, this is a real exam paper, issued in June 2009. I have two private tutees who study the AQA specification, and I'm afraid I must have missed a trick here, because it never occurred to me that I was supposed to be teaching them about creationism and intelligent design. Presumably I must go back and immediately fill this massive gap in their learning.

Except that this is not science. Now from a historical point of view, it is interesting to consider Lamarckism as a flawed theory - it is especially useful when one of my basketball-playing students asks me if he trains hard and increases the proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres in his body, will his children be better basketball players. My A2 students can make jokes about Lamarckism - they have a good understanding of its place in science and in the history of science.

A GCSE student does not have the same maturity of thought (sorry kids) to recognise the differences.

Firstly, the problem with this is that "theory" when discussed in science should mean the following, as stated by Merriam-Webster:
a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena
Creationism and intelligent design are neither plausible nor scientifically acceptable, and this question simply does not test whether the students know this or not. What possible reason could there be for teaching these two ridiculous fairytales in a GCSE science course (which, for most students, will be the highest level of science training they ever receive) other than to demonstrate that they are not scientific?

Yet this is very definitely not the case. The relevant sections of the AQA specification state:
  • to identify the differences between Darwin's theory of evolution and conflicting theories
  • to suggest reasons for the different theories
Nowhere does the specification say that teachers should discuss a scientific and unscientific principle - just that they should identify differences between the conflicting theories. Well, the question certainly tests that at least. There is a depressingly large margin for creationist science teachers to play with, and you only have to log on to the TES forum to see how many creationists are teaching science, and especially biology and physics. There are organisations playing to this very comfortable margin, and there are creationist materials making their way into schools.

What to do? Well, I try to sidestep the idea that I need to give any time to creationism and intelligent design in my lessons, and just teach the damn theory of evolution. But I have an advantage - I have an MA from Cambridge in Natural Sciences, an MRes from Imperial in Biosystematics, and a wealth of information, contacts and resources from my short-lived career in palaeontology. I have the tools that I need (admittedly in many cases I need to learn how to use them effectively, but isn't that the case with all new pieces of kit?). So what happens to the students whose teachers are not biology specialists and who see some dire creationist book appear as a "free gift" to the school and think it's a wonderful resource?

Or worse, what about all those kids being taught GCSE and A-level biology by creationists?


  1. That's a real exam paper?!?!?

    FWIW, the answers to those questions could easily be: C, D, D, D (although I bet that's not what the answer scheme says)

  2. Sadly it is - you can download the PDF. And the mark scheme is also available, and its answers are C, D, B, A (question 2, higher tier).


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