Michael Reiss deserves credit for his persistence in advocating views that are counter to those of many individuals and organisations. The issues are concerned with the way evolutionary theory is taught in schools. There is, and should continue to be, an evaluation of alternative approaches and the arguments presented by Reiss in his recent scholarly paper deserve a fair hearing.
"I am especially interested in the education provided to those for whom education is mandatory. I am also concerned to make suggestions that can be implemented in today's classrooms. [. . .] I concentrate on the UK, though argue that in fact there are fewer differences between countries in this regard than is commonly suspected." (p.401)
Handling controversy in the classroom need not be stressful (source here)
In developing his approach, Reiss considers whether creationism and intelligent design (ID) are "controversial" issues. This has relevance because educationalists have a long tradition of teaching about controversies. They do not fear that the mere exposure of students to a controversial issue will undermine all the foundations that have been previously laid. The inference is that if creationism and ID are deemed controversial issues, then any good science teacher will take this as an opportunity to develop a scientific mind and use the controversies to advantage. However, as Reiss notes, "What is controversial for one group may not be controversial for another." There are evolutionary scientists who do not regard creationism and ID as controversial - for them, this issue is settled. The continuing phenomenon of creationism and ID is regarded by them as a subversive anti-science tendency in society. Similarly, there are creationists who present evolutionary theory "as illogical [. . .] contradicted by the scientific evidence, [. . .] the product of non-scientific reasoning." Since both groups use rational arguments to make their case, Reiss seeks to understand the issues within a broader philosophical framework.
"As is generally accepted, there are two major epistemological families for knowledge that is not a priori: those centred on perceiving the world for ourself, and those centred on the testimony of others. There is obviously not the space here to go into a major discussion of each of these but it is sufficient for my purposes to note that in both cases knowledge, for all that it may be reliable, has an element of provisionality. Of course, some knowledge is more provisional than others. A useful distinction in science is made by Imre Lakatos who argued that scientists work within research programmes. A research programme consists of a set of core beliefs surrounded by layers of less central beliefs. Scientists are willing to accept changes in these more peripheral beliefs so long as the core beliefs can be retained." (p.402)
This brings us to the topic of worldviews, which is increasing in importance in science education. Reiss quotes approvingly a definition by Aerts et al. (1994): "A worldview is a coherent collection of concepts and theorems that must allow us to construct a global image of the world, and in this way to understand as many elements of our experience as possible" (p.405). The question is being asked: 'Is science itself a worldview?'
"The term has recently been explored as a way of helping conceptualise why, despite the best efforts of many science educators, so few students leave their schooling with the sort of scientific understanding and disposition that most science teachers wish they had. The principal conclusion is that school science fails to enable most students to see the world from a scientific perspective." (p.405)
To illustrate the relevance and importance of worldviews, Reiss turns to the film "March of the Penguins". This has been the most successful nature film in America motion picture history and it has received several awards. A contributory factor was the endorsement of the "Christian right". Reviewers in this tradition found the film to be a compelling message of love, perseverance and God's intelligent design. All this was communicated rationally by the reviewers, revealing how the worldview of the Christian "right" found meaning, purpose and intelligent design revealed in the natural world. Perspective is vitally important, so much so that it highlights the "difficulty of using the criterion of 'reason' to decide whether an issue is controversial or not." It also suggests that "standard ways of addressing the diversity of student views in a science classroom may be inadequate." (p.407)
Reiss goes on to articulate what he means by the phrase "standard ways". In the UK, the Department of Children, Schools and Families produced "Guidance on creationism and Intelligent Design" - rejecting the idea that creationism and ID can be considered science. The report suggested that the only context for referring to these issues is to explain why they are not to be "considered to be scientific theories" and why evolution "is considered to be a scientific theory". In the US, the National Academy of Science guidance says much the same.
Why are these approaches inadequate? Reiss cites one analysis that suggests the guidance looks like placing "a gag order on teachers" and fails to engage meaningfully with children and communities of people who find creationism and ID thinking persuasive. Reiss refers also to Thomas Nagel, who finds that the "so-called scientific reasons for excluding ID from science lessons do not stand up to critical scrutiny". (For a related post, go here). Furthermore, the UK guidance for considering these issues in religious education units is quite different in character from the guidance previously mentioned: the RE guidelines encourage teachers to give students opportunities to explore the issues. Additionally, Reiss points out that much of the discourse on creation, ID and evolution overlooks primary school contexts:
"I should note that the distinction between science lessons, religious education lessons and citizenship lessons, while it may hold at secondary level with subject-specific teaching rather breaks down at primary level where a pupil generally has the same teacher for most or all lessons. From an epistemological point of view this is both the strength and potential weakness of primary teaching. Teaching in the primary school has the potential to make links between subjects with greater ease than is generally the case at secondary school, precisely because the one teacher is responsible for such a diversity of subjects." (p.410)
Reiss is advocating a change of stance about the way creationism and ID are handled in science lessons. Instead of going into battle over controversies, Reiss advises a discourse that is sensitive to worldviews.
"An advantage of shifting the discourse from controversy to sensitivity is that one shifts the focus from epistemology to pedagogy. One can be sensitive with someone in respect of an issue without implying that one shares the same perspective (or worldview) as the person to whom one is being respectful and considerate." (p.411)
Most of Reiss' analysis is very helpful and good common sense. Adopting his approach will enhance the educational experience of all pupils. However, there is one major area where I would like to see a further development of the analysis: this is to provide a more thorough analysis of science using a worldview perspective. What should we make of Reiss when he writes: "The scientific worldview is materialistic in the sense that it is neither idealistic nor admits of non-physical explanations" (p.403)? Some of us do not find this summary one that we would use in our scientific work. In fact, the prohibition of non-physical explanations should be regarded as an example of the way many modern scientists are idealistic, bringing to science a precondition about what the natural world ought to be like and how it ought to behave. This is particularly relevant to the origin of information - materialistic science has to interpret information in terms of random variations that are selected and fixed. Consequently, they have no tools to test whether the approach is realistic or can be falsified - as a matter of ideology, it cannot be falsified!
Science is not neutral territory for scholarship. Ideologies, presuppositions, paradigms and worldviews are important for all branches of science, including evolutionary biology. Darwinism does not exist in isolation from a worldview and the attempt by many to portray it as objective 'pure' science is philosophically naive. Just as the objections of creationists and ID scholars cannot be properly understood without a worldview perspective, so also the commitments of evolutionary biologists to the blind watchmaker model of evolutionary transformation cannot be properly understood without reference to the worldview of these scientists. Then it will be clear that many of their key concepts (the Tree of Life emerging from a single cell, common descent, the central role of variation and natural selection) go far beyond what can reasonably be inferred from the data and ultimately are derived from the worldview of the evolutionist.
Using this approach with students will avoid labelling any group as having a "non-scientific worldview". Rather students will be more aware of the role of presuppositions and ideologies in science, will be able to understand better why scientific revolutions occur, and will be better equipped to understand why science thrives in some cultures more than in others. Instead of the controversy about Science & Faith, students will be aware of the way personal belief systems feed into and influence the way science is practiced. This seems to me to be far healthier for science than the present grid-locked polemics.
How should creationism and intelligent design be dealt with in the classroom?
Michael J. Reiss
Journal of Philosophy of Education, 45(3), August 2011, 399-415 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9752.2011.00790.x
Abstract: Until recently, little attention has been paid in the school classroom to creationism and almost none to intelligent design. However, creationism and possibly intelligent design appear to be on the increase and there are indications that there are more countries in which schools are becoming battle-grounds over them. I begin by examining whether creationism and intelligent design are controversial issues, drawing on Robert Dearden's epistemic criterion of the controversial and more recent responses to and defences of this. I then examine whether the notion of 'worldviews' in the context of creationism is a useful one by considering the film March of the Penguins. I conclude that the 'worldviews' perspective on creationism is useful for two reasons: first it indicates the difficulty of using the criterion of reason to decide whether an issue is controversial or not; secondly, it suggests that standard ways of addressing the diversity of student views in a science classroom may be inadequate. I close by examining the implications of this view for teaching in science lessons and elsewhere, for example in religious education lessons and citizenship lessons and at primary level where subject divisions cannot be made in so clear-cut a manner.
Tyler, D. Science education and the origins issue (ARN Literature blog, 3 June 2011)
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