Education Icon Education

NAS’s Draft “Framework for Science Education” Ignores Critical Thinking When Teaching Evolution

Casey Luskin

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is drafting a “Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards” which contains guidelines and standards on how to teach evolution. As we’ve noted before here on ENV, science education authorities often laud the importance of using critical thinking when teaching science, but then they completely ignore or eschew such educational approaches when it comes to teaching evolution. They single out evolution as the topic where scientific critique or critical analysis is carefully avoided. The NAS’s public preliminary draft “Framework for Science Education” (warning: large 6.8 Mb PDF file) uses exactly this approach.

Having perused the proposed draft framework and found some dogmatic statements about evolution, a few noteworthy points emerge. While some of the standards on evolution may be technically and/or partially correct, there are ZERO proposed standards that recognize important qualifications, limitations, and criticisms of these claims. There are also ZERO proposed standards that would allow for scientific critique of evolution.

Some of the more dogmatic and/or inaccurate standards include the following:

“Biological evolution explains the unity and diversity of species.” (LS Core Idea 4, p. 7-18)

“The fossil record … supports the idea that newer life forms descended from older life forms. DNA provides further evidence for lines of descent from ancestral species to later-appearing species.” (LS4.A, p. 7-18)

“How does genetic information provide evidence for evolution? Anatomical similarities and differences among various organisms living today are compared to those of organisms in the fossil record in order to reconstruct evolutionary history and infer lines of evolutionary descent.” (LS4.A, p. 7-18)

“The similarities and differences in DNA sequences, amino acid sequences, anatomical evidence, and fossil evidence provide information about the branching sequence of lines of evolutionary descent.” (LS4.A, p. 7-18)

“Natural selection leads to a diversity of organisms that are anatomically, behaviorally and physiologically well suited to survive and reproduce in a specific environment.” (LS4.C, p. 7-20)

“Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had a dramatic effect on biology because of his use of clear and understandable argument and the inclusion of a massive array of evidence to support the argument. Later evidence continues to support and refine this theory.” (LS4.C, p. 7-20)

Consider in particular the dogmatic nature of the last standard listed above: ‘”Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had a dramatic effect on biology because of his use of clear and understandable argument and the inclusion of a massive array of evidence to support the argument,” and “Later evidence continues to support” his theory. I could not find any section in the entire standards where any idea was presented in such a dogmatic fashion which pushed the pretense of 100% unqualified support from the data. Clearly, something’s up.

What’s ironic (though not surprising) is that while the draft framework treats evolution dogmatically, it pays lip service to critical thinking in many other sections. For example:

“From its inception, one focus of science education has been to develop scientific habits of mind such as the critical spirit which is the hallmark of the scientist, an understanding of the approach to scientific inquiry, and how to reason in a scientific context.” (p. 5-1)

“Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science. Rather, it is core to the practice of science and without it the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible.” (p. 5-7)

“Students also need the opportunity to experience the fact that any given set of data can be interpreted in different ways leading to different conclusions or that different models will lead to different predictions. Deciding upon which is better requires the experience of evaluating the merits of competing arguments, identifying the premises of an argument, and using counter arguments to test the validity of any argument under a range of circumstances. Offering up new theories, tentative explanations or new models for critical inspection by others is a key process in constructing reliable explanations of the material world.” (pp. 5-19 to 5-20)

“Scientists need to be able to examine, review, and evaluate their own knowledge. Holding some parts of a theory as more or less established and being aware of the ways in which that knowledge may be incomplete are critical scientific practices.” (p. 1-8)

“For scientists, responsibilities to science and to the broader community include honest reporting of results and information, evaluation and reporting of uncertainties and risks, informing policy decisions in responsible ways, engaging in the process of argumentation and critique that is key to developing scientific theories, and recognizing both honest mistakes and fraudulent results.” (p. 4-23)

“The ability to examine one’s own knowledge and conceptual frameworks, to evaluate them in relation to new information or competing alternative frameworks, and to alter them by a deliberate and conscious effort are essential key scientific practices that the idealized version offered by school science textbooks fails to recognize.” (p. 2-2)

“In the hypothesis space, scientists and engineers develop their theories, designs and models, and consider alternative explanations…” (p. 5-4)

“One of the important outcomes of classroom discussion is for students to recognize that scientific inquiry is characterized by a common set of 17 values that include logical thinking, precision, open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism, and honest and ethical reporting of findings.” (p. 4-21)

Too bad the NAS’s writers don’t recommend that teachers apply these good methods of practicing science when teaching evolution.

In fact, Jonathan Osborne, recent author of the Science paper suggesting that students should learn about the evidence that “that supports … or does not support [a given theory]” or use “critique,” is apparently on the committee that helped draft the framework. His bio in the document states:

His research focus is a mix of work on policy and pedagogy in the teaching and learning of science. In the policy domain, he is interested in exploring students’ attitudes toward science and how school science can be made more worthwhile and engaging, particularly for those who will not continue with the study of science. In pedagogy, the focus has been on making the case for the role of argumentation in science education both as a means of improving the use of a more dialogic approach to teaching science and improving student understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry.

While some ideas or direct language from Osborne’s Science paper can be found in the draft standards, none of those recommendations were applied in the sections on teaching evolution. Don’t expect that to change; the last thing Darwin lobbyists want is students engaging in “argumentation” or “critique” when learning evolution. Critical thinking is allowed and encouraged, as long as you’re not studying Darwin.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



NASNational Academy of Sciences