Two interesting papers contribute significantly to our understanding of science education debates. The first, by Joachim Allgaier, considers newspaper accounts of a UK school (Emmanuel College) that was accused of teaching creationism in science classes. The goal of the study was to find out what sources journalists used, and how the sources of education journalists compares with the sources used by science journalists. The issue is important because of the potential for media accounts of issues like this to mould public opinion and shape responses. The two types of journalists can be distinguished in a broad-brush way:
"Science journalists, for instance, visit scientific conferences, talks and presentations, read and follow scientific journals and receive 'embargoed' press releases from scientific institutions and pre-published articles from science journals. Journalists specialising in stories about education follow the news coverage on education on various media channels, keep in touch with teachers, head teachers and other professionals from the education world, and follow the moves of teaching unions, representatives of the government and education authorities."
Science journalism has its challenges (source here)
The Emmanuel College case study was selected because it was given considerable media coverage and a total of 111 news reports were analysed. This was supplemented by qualitative interviews with a sub-set of reporters covering the story. Very quickly, differences started to emerge. Education reporters sought out informants close to the action: the head-teacher, staff - particularly science teachers, local teaching union, local education committees, pupils and their parents. On the national scale, the views of OFSTEAD were relevant (their assessment of the school was positive), the fact that the Prime Minister supported the school, and representatives of the relevant government department were consulted. The greatest credibility was associated with teachers and educators with long teaching experience. By contrast, the science correspondent in the sample majored on secondary sources: scientists and education policy makers. According to this journalist, most were hostile to the idea of teaching creationism.
"The science correspondent's approach therefore appears less proactive than that of the education correspondents, who directly searched out their contacts at the school. The science correspondent only indirectly referenced the school, when he quoted from the Emmanuel College prospectus (available online), suggesting that creationism is taught in science classes. To justify this indirect approach, he stated, 'the school itself wasn't talking'. This account is in stark contrast to the experience of three education correspondents all of whom commented that representatives and the staff at Emmanuel College were very open towards journalists and also employed PR experts to get their view across. They reported that access to the school was granted to all education correspondents that wanted to visit it."
These findings raise questions about balanced reporting - what is balanced? What is objective? The research has shown that different journalists have different views on objectivity. In particular, the science journalist made a value judgment that prioritised the consensus from the science community that creationism in any form was bad for education.
"The journalistic norm of balanced reporting can have consequences not only for controversies amongst scientists but also when there is consensus amongst the scientific community (e.g., that the theory of evolution is a scientific theory and creationist explanations are not scientific ones) and scientific knowledge is attacked from outside the scientific community. However, there were different notions of legitimacy held by correspondents with regard to the Emmanuel College case that informed them about what was objective or not. Put another way, correspondents with different professional and personal ideals assess the representation of sources and the coverage of the debate in different ways."
Whilst this is a single case study, it does raise issues that warrant further research and reflection. To promote reflective thought on the findings, Michael Reiss contributed a paper with the title "Teachers as Journalists?". There is an analogy to be made:
"In this commentary I would like to use Joachim Allgaier's paper as a springboard that allows me to examine some of the similarities and differences between the work of the journalists he studied and that of science teachers who have, day in and day out, like journalists, though to a lesser extent, to make decisions about how to react to and deal with new issues of topic interest. Like journalists, teachers operate under considerable time pressures and have preferred sources. They are also accountable, though to different bodies."
Reiss points out that teachers in the UK have always been used to a degree of freedom in the way they select and present issues. They have also been encouraged to make links between their classroom teaching and developments in society that will increase the relevance of the content matter and catch the imagination of students. Just as journalists cover the creation-evolution issue because they think there is a interest from their readers, so also teachers might wish to incorporate science-religion questions into their lessons. There appear to be four possible options for science teachers:
* There is a requirement in a particular science course to address the issue
* Science teachers are free to decide whether or not to raise the issue with their students
* Science teachers only choose whether or not to address the issue if it is brought up by their students
* Science teachers do not address the issue under any circumstances.
The first must be ruled out because some science teachers will not want to do this and constraining teachers to do something they are not committed to is not the way education works. The fourth option also constrains teachers - this time not to address the issue. Reiss says this "seems unduly restrictive". His reason? -
"After all creationists make empirical claims about the world (notably that not all organisms share common ancestors and, in creationist Christianity and Judaism, though not in creationist Islam, that the world is much younger than deduced by science). Are we really saying that such claims lay outwith the compass of science?"
So this leaves the second and third possibilities, giving teachers the choice as to how these issues will be addressed, if at all. This brings Reiss to the topic of how teachers should deal with the issue. Should they be like education reporters, who make an attempt to be balanced by talking to people on all sides and producing a report where their sources can recognise their positions being portrayed fairly? Or should teachers be like the science reporter, who wanted to bring out the scientific consensus position. Reiss refers to the "Teach the controversy" approach in the US and explains why some teachers do not want to go down that pathway.
Finally, Reiss considers outcomes. What are the deliverables? - the learning outcomes? From practical experience, Reiss thinks it is more important to have outcomes that promote use of the scientific method and critical reasoning than it is to have students signing up to a consensus position.
"It is, I hold, the job of science teachers to strive to communicate this scientific understanding to their students, not for the students necessarily to accept it but for them to understand it. [. . .] The job of a science teacher is therefore to present a very particular way of understanding the world."
These thoughts are highly relevant to contemporary developments in the UK and in the US. There are many very vocal people wanting to require teachers to handle these issues in a particular way - enforcing the consensus. For some of us, this is very worrying and it should be worrying to the teaching profession. This is a move towards totalitarian control, and that always ends up damaging real education, because the focus is not on critical thought but on conformance to an externally imposed norm. This is an issue where the students should come first, and this is an issue where Michael Reiss has some really valuable advice for us all. (For more on Reiss' approach, go here).
Who is having a voice? Journalists' selection of sources in a creationism controversy in the UK press
Cultural Studies of Science Education, 2011, 6(2), 445-467 | DOI: 10.1007/s11422-011-9319-5
Abstract: Media accounts of reality have the potential to influence public opinion and decision making processes. Therefore who has and who does not have access to the media and can make their voice heard is a crucial question with serious political consequences. In this article it is investigated whether the speciality of journalists influences their source selection procedures. The coverage of science in schools is an interesting example, since it can be covered by specialized science or education correspondents, but also by general news reporters. A public controversy in the UK about the inclusion of creationism in a school is used to identify which types of sources were selected by various journalists. The focus is upon the selection of sources and whether journalists with different specialties consider various sources relevant and credible. A content analysis of articles, featuring this controversy, is combined with an analysis of correspondent's strategies for selecting sources based on interviews with them. The findings suggest that compared to journalists that specialize in education issues, science correspondents employ a narrower scope when seeking sources. This might have important consequences for the representation of views on science education in the media.
Teachers as journalists?
Michael J. Reiss
Cultural Studies in Science Education,2011, 6(2), 469-473 | DOI: 10.1007/s11422-011-9322-x
Abstract: I start by considering some of the similarities between journalists and science teachers in their work and then go on to examine three questions that are of importance in dealing with creationism in schools: Is the issue one that is worth dealing with? How might one deal with it? What does one hope to achieve by dealing with it? I conclude that (i) it is worth science teachers dealing with the issue of creationism in schools but only if they wish to; (ii) science teachers should not give the impression that the theory of evolution is scientifically controversial; (iii) while one is very unlikely to change the mind, as a result of school teaching, of someone who does not, on religious grounds, accept the theory of evolution, it is very worth presenting the scientific account of the theory and enabling students to review the evidence for it.
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