Monday, February 2, 2009

More on "Exploring Evolution"

Recently I posted a little about the evolution of the "Of Pandas and People" textbook, now called "Exploring Evolution" and just today I ran across a link to Biologist John Timmer's review. My previous link was to the NCSE, not the complete review. So here it is in all its glory! Scathing to say the least.

I have to say aside from many of the problems with the text, the one I find most disturbing is the misuse of a very effective teaching technique called Inquiry-Based Learning, or IBL. As an educator myself I find this technique can be extremely effective, however like any teaching technique there are right ways and wrong ways to use it. Apparently this text claims to use it, but John Timmer can find no actual evidence of it. In fact it seems they created their own approach and did what they usually do, steal a label that means the opposite of what they are doing and dare people to disagree. For example the recent spate of 'Academic Freedom" legislation has nothing to do with academic freedom. The now little-used "Teach the Controversy" had no scientific controversy to teach.

OK, first of all, what is Inquiry-Based Learning. It's an outgrowth of the experience-based learning ideas of the 60's, in that a teacher is not the source of knowledge, but a facilitator that allows the students to formulate questions and do the research and drawing of conclusions themselves. When this is effective is when the teacher is active in the facilitation and the students actually wind up working through some of the scientific methodology that led to many of the scientific theories we use regularly today. When it's ineffective is when the teacher fails to facilitate and guide the process and the conclusion reached are not supported by the logic and evidence of the research done.

For example an IBL lesson plan on Gravity should conclude with a logical framework explaining the force and how it can be applied. If the students reach a point where their conclusion is that Gravity is random and unable to be understood, the teacher failed in their role as facilitator. I believe it works best when the teacher is well prepared and has a very deep knowledge of the subject to prevent meanderings to far down paths that are not applicable to the lesson at hand.

There is a great deal of structure to an IBL lesson plan because each step is built on the previous step, using a technique called scaffolding. The down-side of IBL is usually the rapid schedule many subjects are covered. When I was in High School IBL was a province of the more advanced classes, the thinking is the 'Honors' students would be more involved using these techniques than the typical high school student.

Now I like IBL and I also use it in my advanced programming classes. I've found that at the intro-level there is simply too much information to present to allow the students to do research and draw their own conclusions -- due to time constraints. In fact my advanced classes are usually centered around building a complete project from Design, Development of the Interfaces, to the principle business logic, and finally to advanced features. It can be an extremely effective learning methodology!

However John Timmer takes the Discovery Institute (DI), and the authors Stephen C. Meyer and Paul Nelson, to task for failing to provide the necessary framework to effectively be considered an example of IBL. Instead they stop at step one and want students to question Evolution -- yet offer no guidelines to research and actually draw conclusions to show how science reached the level of support Evolution now has. They jump back and forth to apparently not permit any conclusion to be actually found and simple end up making anti-evolution comments and re-hashed of old, disproven arguments. The only possible conclusion seems to be "Evolution ain't right!" because the DI, and Meyer and Nelson say it ain't right.

This is NOT Inquiry-Based Learning! But they claim that's what it is. Don't be fooled! There is a little bit of science sprinkled in the book, but as John Timmer says:

"This is pretty typical of all the scientific material in the book. Even when it has its facts right, they're embedded in interpretations that none of the actual scientists cited are likely to recognize. The mere presence of actual science does nothing to outweigh the general morass of errors, distortions, and faulty logic that comprise the bulk of the book. The book as a whole acts like a funhouse mirror, distorting and removing the context from the bits of science that do appear."
"In this sense, the book's claim that it represents an attempt at inquiry-based learning is a sham. The process of IBL requires both an accurate presentation of information and an effort to lead students through scientific reasoning based on it. EE not only skips the accuracy requirement, but it abdicates the responsibility for reasoning entirely."
"But the book doesn't only promote stupidity, it demands it."
Read the review for yourself! If the text appears in a library will check it out. I refuse to pay money directly to those 'paragons of misguidance' to have a copy of my very own! In all honesty, if you wish to understand Biology, get one of Ken Miller's textbooks instead. But if you want to see how far the DI will go to push their agenda -- an agenda that the majority of the Christians in the world do not support -- this is the book for you.

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