Happy birthday Darwin!

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Happy birthday Darwin!

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The story

February 12th is Darwin Day, the day we celebrate Charles Darwin and his great achievement of proposing the theory of natural selection by evolution.  A theory that has long since been proven as scientific fact by a myriad of evidence gathered by scientists which has been published in prestigious journals, digested, discussed and verified by experts in their field.

So why after 115 years after it was proposed is evolution still sometimes referred to as a theory? Why is it still one of the most hotly debated and contentious issues in our schools today?  Why are some children being taught in science lessons that it is only something that some people ‘believe’?

As you can probably gather, this is something that I feel quite strongly about.  I realise that this post may turn more into a ‘rant’ than a detached look at a topical science story and that it may not follow the rules of this blog.  But I had a think and remembered that it was me who wrote the rules and so realised that I can bend them if I want to.  And what better way is there to celebrate Darwin’s birthday?

As you are aware this issue is a very thorny one in the US and I am not about to discuss the ins and out of this.  Take a look at this blog post for an update. You may think that the issue of teaching evolution in UK schools is not such a big deal?  Well, maybe you might think again as I present you the evidence:

The TES science forum has been hosting a thread on teaching evolution in science which now has 77 posts.  I was interested to read some of the ways that science teachers teach evolution to the students.  One poster likens it to a ‘fairy story that the examiners want to read’. Hmm… although there is a lot of good advice on how to tackle this issue.

A teachers TV video which has been promoted as an excellent way of teaching about evolution.  Starts off well – nice enquiry idea about how to teach natural selection (think I might nick that one) and then we come to 9:40 minutes in and my opinion suddenly changes.  Here we see a debate in a science class.  Half of the students are arguing for evolution – they present the evidence about why evolution must be true discussing fossils etc.  The other class present their ‘evidence’ for creationism.  Is a science lesson really the place to present ‘evidence’ to back up a belief? By all means, debate Big Bang over steady-state, put an historical context on it to look at Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics vs shrinking earth theory but surely don’t present beliefs to counteract a scientific fact.  What are these students learning about the scientific method here?  That all you need to prove something is true is a belief that it is?  I propose that vampires become part of the science curriculum because a lot of teenage girls believe that they exist.  There are even books that say it’s true – I’ve read some of them.

One of the pieces of evidence the students presented for creationism is that evolution could not have possibly resulted in something so complex as a human eye – but it can and did!  The evidence for this is astoundingly brilliant and would have been a great way for those students to learn about a mechanism of evolution rather than dismiss it and this video would be a great way of showing them this.

Remember the evolution of the peppered moth? That perfectly-formed way of teaching about natural selection?  The odds are that if you pick up one of the new textbooks written for the 2011 specs you will not see it in the pages on evolution.  This is because even this now has become an area of debate.

The hypothesis was extensively tested by Kettlewell in the 1950s who produced realms of data and evidence and it was excepted: the change in colour of the peppered moth was due to natural selection.  However, in 2002 a journalist, Judith Hooper, published a book ‘Of Moths and Men’ that stipulated that Kettlewell had committed scientific fraud by making up data.

Do a search on Google for ‘peppered moth’ and you will find on the first page just as many pages denouncing the theory as supporting it.  If a student was asked to research this for homework – what opinion would they form?  This is exactly why young minds need science teachers – to sift through the detritus and present them with the hard scientific facts (including that Kettlewell’s experiments were repeated in 2004/5 by scientists who concluded that he was correct).  So, here is a resource on the peppered moth for you to use if your textbook has decided to abandon it.

Lesson ideas

Use some of the ‘facts’ that creationists present to prove that evolution is false and ask your students to prove them wrong.  (Controversial, I know).  Try using the information on this website for the Noah Arks zoo farm in Bristol which has been awarded the ‘Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge’.  Why not take your students for a visit so the zoo can teach them about how Darwin was wrong?

Ask students to take a look through blog posts discussing the evolution debate and add their own comment to show what their thoughts are.  (Kudos goes to Ian over at teachingscience for inspiring this idea from his excellent post on using blogs in science lessons).  If anyone has any useful posts for this then please add them below :)

Use Twitter to start a debate.  Inspired by @2footgiraffe who asked his students to ask three people what they thought about evolution and then tweet the results to the hashtag #obio2. Why not ask your students to ask someone if they believe in evolution and why/why not?

More weblinks

Blog post in which a teacher in the US explains how he teaches evolution – some nice ideas.

Blog post on the Whiteboard Blog that contains links to lots of websites that will be useful when teaching evolution.

Amusing video (that you probably don’t want to show your students.)

Article from the TES about a free school that wants to teach creation in science lessons – a worrying new trend?