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For U.K. Students, Education or Indoctrination?

Sarah Chaffee


Have you heard of the Oxford tutorial? I remember my English teacher in high school waxing eloquent about that glorious pedagogic tradition: a professor with one to three students, throwing ideas back and forth, discussing and unpacking concepts. A video from Oxford University describes the experience:

Now we have something out of the U.K. that is decidedly not aimed at what Oxford thinks their tutorials do — “develop your ability to think for yourself — an essential skill for academic success.”

A new study from Nature Ecology & Evolution reported at supposedly shows that acceptance of evolution is linked to lack of scientific knowledge.

They found that non-acceptors of evolution tended to be in the foundation science classes where students’ understanding of science generally was weak, their understanding of evolution being just one part of that.

The study also asked whether the non-acceptors’ ability to improve their understanding of evolution through teaching was any weaker than their ability to improve their understanding of the less emotive, but related topic, basic genetics.

The non-acceptor students had lower prior understanding of both evolution and genetics, and they responded poorly not only to the teaching of evolution, but, importantly, also to genetics. This indicates they were less likely to accept evolution because they struggled to understand science rather than due to psychological conflicts with their beliefs.

The researchers concluded that the current system of science teaching was not optimal for the lower aptitude students.

Professor Laurence Hurst, Director of the Milner Centre for Evolution, led the study. He said: “Previous studies in the USA found strong rejecters of evolution were often highly intelligent and understood concepts but were able to pick holes in the data to match their belief systems.

“So we were surprised to find that in UK schoolchildren there was no evidence of psychological conflict in the low acceptors — it was simply that they were unlikely to accept evolution if they were struggling to understand the concepts.

Tying evolution “acceptance” to intelligence…again. The conclusion is suspect on its face Since when does acceptance of some proposition means you’re smart?

But there are other issues here. What is meant by “evolution”? There are many different uses of the term. As for the comparison with genetics: More, and better, teaching of textbook material results in more comprehension of it I would like to know just how evolution and genetics are being taught to the “non-acceptor” contingent. Maybe the problem is with the teaching, not with the students.

What is good science education? It’s not teaching with a goal of mere acceptance. It’s engaging students in the practices of scientific inquiry. Maybe students don’t understand what the textbook is saying because they are not being engaged. I have no problem with their studying as much about evolution as Professor Hurst would like. But I would like their instruction to go beyond just regurgitating evidence for evolution. Here’s a suggestion: Try livening things up by introducing students to the scientific controversies over evolution.

Let’s take our students’ education up a notch. Instead of aiming at “acceptance” of evolution, schools should seek to acquaint students with what experts in the field are asking about neo-Darwinism. Providing opportunities for young people to interact with expert opinion, after all, is what some of the best education in the U.K. has been about for hundreds of years.

Photo: Oxford University tutorial, via YouTube.