In a recent article in Science titled “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” education theorist Jonathan Osborne explains the importance of using debate, argument, and critique when teaching science. In fact, he laments that these teaching strategies not employed more often:
Argument and debate are common in science, yet they are virtually absent from science education. Recent research shows, however, that opportunities for students to engage in collaborative discourse and argumentation offer a means of enhancing student conceptual understanding and students’ skills and capabilities with scientific reasoning. As one of the hallmarks of the scientist is critical, rational skepticism, the lack of opportunities to develop the ability to reason and argue scientifically would appear to be a significant weakness in contemporary educational practice. In short, knowing what is wrong matters as much as knowing what is right. This paper presents a summary of the main features of this body of research and discusses its implications for the teaching and learning of science.
(Jonathan Osborne, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” Science, Vol. 328 (5977): 463-466 (April 23, 2010).)
Osborne notes that a major deficiency in modern science education is its lack of emphasis upon the arguments that scientists use when showing why certain ideas are right, or wrong:
Typically, in the rush to present the major features of the scientific landscape, most of the arguments required to achieve such knowledge are excised. Consequently, science can appear to its students as a monolith of facts, an authoritative discourse where the discursive exploration of ideas, their implications, and their importance is absent. Students then emerge with naïve ideas or misconceptions about the nature of science itself….
The problem, in essence, is that science education does not sufficiently emphasis inquiry-based learning. Yet according to Osborne, there are “a number of classroom-based studies, all of which show improvements in conceptual learning when students engage in argumentation.” In Osborne’s view, “Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice, and without argument and evaluation, the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible” (emphasis added).
Osborne cites work from sociology, philosophy, and science education showing that students best understand scientific concepts when learning “to discriminate between evidence that supports (inclusive) or does not support (exclusive) or that is simply indeterminate” (emphasis added).
Learning about evidence that “supports … or does not support” sure sounds like learning about the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. But didn’t we constantly hear last year during the Texas debate that teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution is “bad” for students, or would bring “creationism” into the science classroom?
Let no fair-minded person be fooled: Science education theory consistently shows that teaching students both the evidence for and against scientific theories can be a highly beneficial method of teaching science. Objections to this approach are bluffs which would abuse the First Amendment by turning it into a tool for censorship.
While I have no reason to believe that Jonathan Osborne himself is a skeptic of neo-Darwinian evolution, he does seem to be fair-minded. He argues that the very approach of — teaching the science that “supports … or does not support” is strongly supported by empirical studies of science education:
What is in little doubt is that employers, policy-makers, and educators believe that individuals’ ability to undertake critical, collaborative argumentation is an essential skill required by future societies. Of its own, the evidence from research to date is that mere contact with science does not develop such attributes. Indeed, the cultivation of critical skepticism, a feature that is one of the hallmarks of the scientist, would appear to have only minimal value within science education. Yet, research has demonstrated that teaching students to reason, argue, and think critically will enhance students’ conceptual learning.
Does This Apply to Evolution Education?
The obvious answer is yes, of course. But does Osborne have the courage to face the ridicule and suggest applying this approach directly to evolution-education? I can’t read Osborne’s mind, but he does make this encouraging comment in the article:
The study of reasoning also offers an opportunity to explore the types of arguments used in science, which may be abductive (inferences to the best possible explanation), such as Darwin’s arguments for the theory of evolution; hypothetico-deductive, such as Pasteur’s predictions about the outcome of the first test of his anthrax vaccine; or simply inductive generalizations archetypal represented by “laws.”
This much I know: leading pro-Darwin educational authorities who praise inquiry-based science education seem to ignore or disavow such beneficial methods of studying science when recommending ways to study evolution. As I explained recently in University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy, there is no small measure of hypocrisy reflected in the fact that leading science education authorities laud the importance of inquiry-based science education — with all of its critical thinking, skepticism, and consideration of alternative explanations — but then effectively jettison such pedagogical philosophies when recommending methods of teaching evolution.
The evidence seems clear: students learn science best when they study both the scientific evidence for and against a particular scientific theory. This also allows them to develop key scientific values like “critical skepticism.” Perhaps the lack of inquiry-based learning in evolution-education reflects the fact that skepticism on evolution is exactly what Darwin-lobbyists fear the most.