the discussion you have when you’re really having a discussion

One of the (many) things I enjoy about teaching is seeing students develop the confidence to take part in discussions & present (& defend) their own views on the topic du jour. Classes where that happens are really seriously enjoyable. And so it was on Friday, when I was in a tutorial class & we were (initially) working on gaining skills in paraphrasing.

This is a key skill that I would like all my first-years to develop. As part of the assessment for this paper, they need to research and write an essay, and when I’m marking I don’t want to see any evidence of plagiarism. So when they find a paper that has informaton that a student would like to use in their essay, they need to a) read for understanding, b) recognise how that material can be integrated with the narrative of their essay, & c) put that information in their own words (with appropriate citations & references, of course!). If they can do that, not only will they be avoiding the pitfalls of plagiarism, but they’ll also have developed a better understanding of the original information & of the wider topic.

But this is a learned skill & needs practice. So for the tut, I presented the class with a couple of selections from recent papers – one from a paper that I & a colleague had published last year, and another on symbiosis (which I’ve written about here). It was the first excerpt that really got things going, so I’ll give you the selected text here & then talk about what happened next:

Since the end of the 19th century there have been public debates in New Zealand that influenced the position of evolution in the science curriculum. In his review of evolution in the New Zealand curriculum, McGeorge (1992) found that as long as the term ‘evolution’ was not used in the teaching syllabus it did not seem to present a problem. The explicit inclusion of the term in the senior student syllabus, in 1928, promptly sparked protests that calmed down only when the Department of Education made it clear that ‘evolution’ referred only to ‘physical geography or natural theology’ (p.208). McGeorge concluded that subsequently there were no major problems associcated with the teaching of evolution, apart from the occasional debate, simply because it did "not appear as a specific topic in school biology until Form 7 [equivalent to year 13]" (p.217) and thus did not attract much attention. He cites a member of the New Zealand Creation Literature Society, who said that "if evolution were dealt with more widely they would push for an even-handed treatment of both evolution and creationism" (p.217).

The 1993 science curriculum (Ministry of Education 1993) did not move much from this position. Evolution gains an explicit mention only in the level 8 (living world) section of the science curriculum, which students encounter in their final year of secondary school (year 13. In fact the 1993 document, while giving evolution as a sample learning context at level 8 (p.68), provides much room for individual interpretation: for a possible learning experience it suggests that students "could hold a debate about evolution and critically evaluate the theories relating to this biological issue", and that their learning could be assessed by the "ability to select appropriate information … which explore[s] the current theories about evolution" (p.69, emphasis added) (source of excerpt: Campbell & Otrel-Cass, 2010)

Well, the class read this, & talked about it in groups, & then I asked for comment. Interestingly, someone suggested that – quite apart from the various politicking pressure groups – one reason for delaying introduction to the topic of evolution might be that students wouldn’t be capable of the abstract thought needed to deal with some of the concepts, if the subject was introduced much earlier. I was impressed, & said so – plus I could say that this was a viewpoint that the authors of the paper hadn’t considered (lol), but equally that this was not something that appeared to have been taken into consideration by the curriculum planners back in the early-mid 20th century. Someone else countered that students might be able to understand the whole thing better if they were gradually introduced to various supporting ideas over time, which is certainly something that should be happening with the 2007 curriculum iteration. (The cynics among us wondered if it might not simply have minimised the number of students exposed to the concept of evolution, since only a small number of students were progressing to year 13 in the time period under discussion.)

That – plus various paraphrases that were put forward – took care of the first paragraph. So we moved on to the second, which is where things got really interesting as we started to talk about the distinction between acceptance and belief, and about the potential effects of religious faith on attitudes to science, and about the nature of science itself (& why some ‘theories’ are not theories at all, but unscientific/non-scientific propositions). One of the students said that they were really taken with something I said right at the start of the paper, along the lines of "I recognise that you may not all accept evolution as fact & theory, but nonetheless you need to understand it if you’re intending to go on & study biology". Which led to talk about why I’d used the word ‘accept’, something I’d done quite deliberately: a scientist will ‘accept’ a theory on the basis of the evidence available in support but will still continue to test the bounds of that theory, while the word ‘belief’ tends to have connotations of unquestioning acceptance. I think one of the general conclusions we came to was that science can tell you a lot about how the world works, & while religion’s not very helpful in that regard, for someone of religious faith it can tell you how to live in that world. (This may not satisfy the ‘gnu’ atheists but it is a position that my students were comfortable with.)

And we talked about ‘intelligent design’ and the many problems with this particular viewpoint – for example, its inability to explain how something that’s been ‘designed’ would differ from its ‘undesigned’ alternative; its lack of predictive power; and the paucity of peer-reviewed publications in relevant science journals. Not to mention the clearly theological underpinnings exemplified in the ‘Wedge’ document – here we touched on the whole ‘god of the gaps’ argument.

Eventually we did get back to paraphrasing 🙂 but it was an interesting & valuable discussion that was respectful of the perspectives of others, and which (among other things) may well have enhanced my students’ understanding of the nature of science.


A discussion that – according to at least one blogger – I never allow my students to have… (i can assure him, such discussions are welcomed & common in my classroom – judging by the tone of his writing & his attitudes to those who hold opposing views, I seriously doubt I could say the same for him.)

A.Campbell & K.Otrel-Cass (2010) Teaching evolution in New Zealand’s schools – reviewing changes in the New Zealand Science curriculum. Research in Science Education 40 (published on-line 21 April 2010). DOI: 10.1007/s11165-010-9173-6

2 thoughts on “the discussion you have when you’re really having a discussion”

  • Alison,
    It sounds like an interesting class. I wish more teachers here would present it in such a way. Too often they are much too nervous about a knee-jerk reaction by a student, or student’s parents, that would end up threatening their jobs. Too many school administrators are less interested in supporting their teachers than in avoiding anything smattering of controversy.
    I’m not sure if you heard, but Texas is considering a bill specifically to protect anyone who questions evolutionary theory — specifically Intelligent Design proponents — from any sort of negative career impacts. I really wish the Texas Legistlature had been present to hear your classes discussion.
    Ted Herrlich

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Hi Ted – thanks for your comments. I had heard about the Texas bill; in fact, I had the impressiont that there’s a whole raft of such things, all of them claiming to protect ‘academic freedom’. Which rather suggests that the legislators don’t really have a good understanding of what the term means. ‘Academic freedom’ = the right of an expert in a particular field to speak out in that area. It is not, as many in the US seem to feel, the right to present an unscientific/non-scientific point of view and demand no negative response. A pity to hear that this sort of thing seems to be gaining traction over there.

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