Saturday, April 15, 2017

Give Teachers in Texas a Fighting Change to Actually Teach Science!

My very first blog post, just over a decade ago, concerned the Great State of Texas (is Texas stepping backwards?), it was about the questionable action of firing your science curriculum head just before a science curriculum review because she did her job.  Over the years I have posted quite a bit about Texas, things like:

Just to name a few posts.  Creationism advocates have been constantly working on turning Texas into a theocracy by any means possible.  A few years back they won a semi-victory -- they didn't win outright and get their dream of tossing Evolution completely out of the state, they did get to introduce wishy-washy terms that follow the DI's whole 'strengths and weaknesses' marketing campaign.

Well, the latest news is more positive.  The Texas School Board has a chance to remove that whole strengths and weaknesses wording from their standards.  Guess who doesn't like that idea?  The Discovery Institute (DI), of course.  Sarah Chaffee's turn to complain.  I'm sure little davey 'klingy' klinghoffer will follow-up like he usually does.  Sarah's post: "Texas Ed Board Pressured to Make It Harder for Teachers and Students to Evaluate Evolution Evidence".  I will say one thing for Sarah, when she toes the company line, she really toes that line.  Here is part of her opening:
"Amid much media and Darwin lobby pressure, the biology committee presented draft streamlined science standards in the fall. These streamlined standards removed good language from the 2009 standards that protected examination of evidence both for and against major origins issues — the fossil record and abrupt appearance, the origins of life, and the complexity of the cell."
So, according to Sarah, it's the media and Darwin lobby that apply pressure to change the science standards.  I guess the actions of the people who actually teach and work in biology doesn't matter, it's all the media's and lobbyists.  So . . . Creationists aren't being represented in the press and Creationist groups, like the Discovery Institute, aren't lobbying?  I think Sarah is doing a bit of cherry-picking here, don't you?

Here is where I think she gets a bit off track:
"The proposed change is a bad idea. Learning how to evaluate scientific explanations is a key skill needed by future scientists and citizens alike; and students are certainly capable of evaluating scientific claims under the guidance of a teacher. "
Teachers receive an education in 'Education', which includes something called Bloom's Taxonomy, which is a set of hierarchical models used to classify educational learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity.  These models are used in everything from lesson planning to building tests and setting evaluation criteria.  In the Cognitive Domain (knowledge-based) there are 6 levels, briefly stated these are:
  • Remembering:  involves recognizing or remembering facts, terms, basic concepts, or answers without necessarily understanding what they mean. An example might be to name three common varieties of apple.
  • Comprehending: involves demonstrating understanding of facts and ideas by organizing, comparing, translating, interpreting, giving descriptions, and stating the main ideas.  An example - compare the identifying characteristics of a Golden Delicious apple with a Granny Smith apple.
  • Applying: involves using acquired knowledge—solving problems in new situations by applying acquired knowledge, facts, techniques and rules. Learners should be able to use prior knowledge to solve problems, identify connections and relationships and how they apply in new situations.  As in would apples prevent scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin C?
  • Analyzing: involves examining and breaking information into component parts, determining how the parts relate to one another, identifying motives or causes, and making inferences and find evidence to support generalizations. An example - list four ways of serving foods made with apples and explain which ones have the highest health benefits. Provide references to support your statements.
  • Synthesizing: involves building a structure or pattern from diverse elements; it also refers to the act of putting parts together to form a whole. An example - convert an "unhealthy" recipe for apple pie to a "healthy" recipe by replacing your choice of ingredients. Explain the health benefits of using the ingredients you chose vs. the original ones.
  • Evaluating: involves presenting and defending opinions by making judgments about information, validity of ideas, or quality of work based on a set of criteria. An example - which kinds of apples are best for baking a pie, and why?
As you can see High School spends most of it's time working in the first three layers of the taxonomy, which can be explained as 'Remembering, Comprehending, and Using'. Analyzing, Synthesizing, and Evaluating are much more at the upper levels of education, including graduate studies. The committee is concerned that the evaluation of scientific explanations would take too much class time and require too much detailed knowledge on the part of students -- and they are right.

Seriously, look at the level of understanding it would take to Evaluate the validity of ideas based on a set of criteria.  Sarah, and her bosses, don't really want that -- which might explained why they never seem to give us any objective criteria about ID.  Actually many scientists, real working biologists, have examined the validity of ID and dismissed it.  Maybe Sarah and the DI do want high school-ers evaluating them?

While you might not think 'Evaluating' seems too complicated, let's just look at the simply example of which kinds of apples are the best for baking.  If we ask 10 different bakers, we would probably get 10 different answers.  So how do you evaluate such a question?  Let's start with how many variety of apples are there?  My local grocery store has about 12 depending on the season.  According to Wikipedia, there are over 7500 different varieties.

Think of the process we would have to go through to answer the question.  The collection of the apples and other ingredients, the formulation of a standard recipe -- remember apple pies are more than just apples -- then we would have to bake enough pies of the apples -- but if you wanted to do it right it's not just one type of apple per pie, but most often a mix.  So how many possible combinations would we have to test?  We would then have to establish a set of criteria and find a panel to judge the pies according to that criteria.  Think of the knowledge required, skill needed, and sheer amount of time you would have to have at your disposal to perform an actual evaluation, not Sarah's 'evaluation is easy, can be done with a little guidance from a teacher', no real education level Evaluation, with the upper-case 'E'.

Now if you weren't willing to go that route, what are you left with?  The Discovery Institute's favorite methodology, intuition.  Yes, the DI is the organization of Douglas Axe who wrote 'Undeniable', a religious book explaining how intuition is as valid a scientific tool as education, experience, and experimentation.  We've written about Doug, his religious tract, and intuition a number of times, I think the most recent was here.

So let's use the same example for how high school-ers students would 'evaluate' and address the same question.  A DI staffer, maybe even Sarah herself, would get up in front of a carefully selected group of students who already buy into their apple pie concept and describe an apple pie in the loosest possible terms while watching their core student group nod their heads at every word.  No ingredients, no cooking method, no recipe, just describe the most generic apple pie with terms like round, crust, and apples and 'other stuff'.  They wouldn't even identify who baked this phantom apple pie.  Then they would say, "And those are the best apples for pie" and hurriedly walk out of the room to avoid being questioned.  Later in press releases and pontificating to religious groups, they would declare their success at answering a complex question with only their intuition.  Sound familiar?  No actual cooking, no testing, no evaluating, just words with no support at all.  And then they would start to whine and complain because no one takes them seriously!  After all, no one does.

So maybe that's part of the problem.  The DI needs to learn about Bloom's Taxonomy and realize that education isn't the idea of forming an opinion and then only listening to other carefully filtered opinions that validate it.  It's a much more complicated process, at least when you want to do it right.

Well I certainly hope that Texas does the right thing and dumps anything left over from the DI's last visit, especially the additions to their last set of science standards.  I doubt they will get rid of it all, there are simply too many Creationists on the board who think the only education is one that agrees with their narrow religious views, but hopefully the board will water down that religious influence to give science teachers a fighting change to teach actual science, as opposed to the pseudo-science variety.

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