Many schools in the US are introducing the Advanced Placement (AP) program which sets out to mirror "an introductory college course". Schools perceive these courses as "a marker for a quality education". Inevitably, teething problems have arisen and have highlighted issues of a pedagogological nature.
"[Reports have found a] flawed approach to teaching science: too much emphasis on facts and memorization and too little attention to the underlying concepts and how science is actually practiced."
With some topics, critical thinking is conflated with knowing the right answers! (source here)
Particular problems arose because AP exam successes give exemption from other introductory courses. Colleges wanted everything covered by those courses to be incorporated in the relevant AP course. One of the organisers said: "AP teachers have had to resort to memorization and factual recall as a way to cover everything that could be on the exam". This is, by most accounts, not the way to design courses. Happily the situation is changing.
The revised approach for science is built on understanding concepts, direct experience of experimentation via laboratory work, and developing an appreciation of how scientists conduct research.
"The new courses will emphasize conceptual knowledge, updated regularly and learned by doing, along with teaching how scientists ask and answer important questions."
A chemistry teacher is quoted to show the differences between rote-learning and the revised approach:
Instead of drilling students on how to apply a particular algorithm, he says, "I'd much rather that students are able to explain the underlying concept to me, in English, and show me they understand something about how nature builds the stuff around us."
It has to be said that such comments echo discussions that have been taking place over many years in colleges of education. These contemporary developments in the US are a reflection on the bureaucratisation of education and the need to tick the right boxes when developing and delivering courses. Another factor may be the way the media presents intellectual prowess: competitions to find the best 'brain' or the person with the most expertise invariably probe knowledge that is memorised. Concepts, and the application of concepts, do not lend themselves to true/false responses needed to sustain the interest of viewers or listeners.
Biology is reported to be the first of the AP Science sources to be revised according to the new emphasis. The big ideas for this discipline have been identified and these set the agenda for structuring the experiences of students.
"[the] big ideas [. . .] include evolution, the storage and transmission of information, and the use of energy to carry out essential functions. That's followed by a series of core principles. One new wrinkle links content knowledge to the actual practice of science. The final layer is a set of performance expectations: what students should know, understand, and be able to do to demonstrate their mastery of the subject."
Of the three big ideas listed, the link between concept and application is straightforward for two of them. Information storage and transmission provides a solid foundation for genetics, developmental biology and systems biology. Similarly, the production of energy and its use provides the conceptual framework for the operation of cellular machines, physiology and metabolism. There is a problem, however, with evolution as a "big idea". This is partly because the word has a fuzzy meaning and is understood in different ways by different people. It is also partly because evolution belongs to the realm of history whereas the other two big ideas are rooted in empiricism. Historical science and empirical science do not have identical methodologies and students grappling with these ideas need to be able to recognise the differences when they link "content knowledge to the actual practice of science". There are serious issues here: why do so many biologists think that observations of peppered moths or deer mice have a bearing on the origin of moths or mice? The answer to this question is: they have not learned the skill of linking the "actual practice of science" with relevant theoretical concepts.
The debate for our consideration is not 'should evolution be taught?' but 'how should evolution be taught?' It is not that evolutionary theory should be dropped (as controversial) but that evolutionary theory should be taught critically - in a way that makes same use of critical faculties as is normal for the empirical sciences. Some of us regard Design as a 'big idea' in biology. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of design. We find it strange that whilst design is often mentioned by advocates of evolution, it is only done to reject it summarily. These evolutionists have no intention of finding the best expression of design thinking and subjecting it to critical scrutiny - they are generally content to speak of Rev William Paley or the writings of Charles Darwin. Modern exponents of design thinking are rarely mentioned and their analyses of evidence are typically deemed not worthy of consideration. We consider this situation unhealthy for science. Evolutionists (generally of a Darwinian mindset) are claiming a central role for evolutionary concepts but are resisting all attempts to rigorously scrutinise their claims.
The new standards for AP courses are to be welcomed in principle. The emphasis on concepts and their application to the real world is the right way to go. However, the biology standards have a yielded too much ground to doctrinaire Darwinism. For the details, go here. The AP Biology standards have statements like:
* Natural selection is the major driving mechanism of evolution because the essential features of the mechanism contribute to the change in the genetic makeup of a population over time.
* Although natural selection is usually the major mechanism for evolution, genetic variation in populations can occur through other processes, including mutation, genetic drift, sexual selection and artificial selection.
* Scientific evidence - including emergent diseases, chemical resistance and genomic data - supports the idea that evolution occurs for all organisms and that evolution explains the diversity of life on the planet.
* New species arise when two populations diverge from a common ancestor and become reproductively isolated.
All these statements can be challenged scientifically - yet the AP document presents them in the sections headed "enduring understanding". This is where the intention to develop the critical skills of students is not matched by the text of the standards. Students taking AP Biology courses will be delivered a non-negotiable package of Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Let's hope the students are alert to these issues: after being encouraged to develop critical skills in the empirical sciences, they learn that these skills must not be used to question the Darwinian framework for understanding the diversity and unity of life!
Revisions to AP Courses Expected to Have Domino Effect
Science, 325, 18 September 2009: 1488-1489.
First para: Last month, Jeffrey Lamb began teaching Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry for the first time at Woodmont International Baccalaureate High School in Piedmont, South Carolina. The public school's decision to offer the course reflects the explosive growth of the AP program, a suite of 38 courses intended to mirror an introductory college course.
Tyler, D., Liberating biology from a Procrustean bed of dogma, ARN Literature blog (25 September 2009)
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