Educational policy and terminology

In order to attract the attention of textbook-purchasing teachers and administrators, Explore Evolution claims it is utilizing the most up-to-date science pedagogy. "Inquiry-based" education is indeed an approach encouraged in most states' science education standards, and teachers should be encouraged to find ways for students to apply the scientific method in the process of learning science. An inquiry-based approach is one in which students, under the guidance of the teacher, actively construct an understanding of a scientific explanation. It involves active learning, rather than passive absorption of facts, and often utilizes hands-on exercises to help students learn to think like a scientist.

Unlike the claim made in Explore Evolution,inquiry-based education does not require students to evaluate "arguments scientists have had and are having, about current theories in light of the evidence." The purpose of a middle school or high school science classroom is to provide students with a sound understanding of the basics of a scientific discipline upon which (ideally) they can build a further understanding. It is not to encourage beginning learners to debate cutting-edge scientific research which they have inadequate background to evaluate. The supposed goals of inquiry-learning as presented in Explore Evolution bear little kinship to how this approach is understood by educators.

Similarly, Explore Evolution is incorrect that inquiry-learning assumes that "students gain a better understanding of a subject if they are taught about the arguments that scientists have in the process of formulating their theories." Students certainly can profit from looking at the history of the development of evolutionary biology, but this is not what the authors of Explore Evolution are proposing. Instead, they want students to investigate alleged arguments among scientists over the "truth" of evolution, an argument that takes place only in the creationist literature, not in the university science classrooms or professional scientific journals.

According to the authors, students will become better critical thinkers after undertaking the "critical analysis of evolution" presented in Explore Evolution. And yet students are never given the opportunity to develop and test their own hypotheses, and are rarely if ever given the information they would need to undertake such an exercise. On the contrary, the inaccurate information presented in Explore Evolution, would handicap any student actually trying to construct an understanding of evolution. Thus in this book, "critical analysis of evolution" is translated to "criticize evolution". Needless to say, this is far cry from true inquiry-based education.

The authors are partly correct when they contend that inquiry-learning makes science more interesting and enjoyable, and controversy may indeed pique student interest in a subject. But how much more appropriate it would be to use an actual scientific controversy within evolution, rather than a nonexistent one: evolutionary biologists are not debating whether evolution occurred, only the details.

Santorum Amendment and UK National Curriculum

Summary of problems:

Neither the United States Congress nor the UK's National Curriculum treat evolution as scientifically controversial nor do they recommend teaching about social controversies. The "policy" statements found in this section of Explore Evolution are misrepresented and misquoted. For example, the so-called "Santorum amendment", was actually removed from No Child Left Behind legislation before it was passed, yet EE quotes it, pretending it has the weight of policy or law. Even if it were the law of the land - which it is not - it only speaks to a political issue, not a scientific controversy. The authors of EE are once again attempting to blur the important distinction between public controversy and scientific controversy.

Full discussion:

Explore Evolution states,
United States federal education policy calls for teaching students about competing views of controversial scientific issues. As the U.S. Congress has stated, "[W]here topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of views that exist." [footnote in original: This statement occurs in the authoritative conference report language of the No Child Left Behind federal education act.] In the United Kingdom, the National Curriculum for Key Stage 4 Science now recommends that, "Pupils should be taught how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (for example, Darwin's theory of evolution)."
EE, p. ii

The Congressional "language" was in an amendment that was briefly inserted into the No Child Left Behind bill by a creationist Senator, Rick Santorum, but removed by the committee which unified the versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate. The passage EE cites was never approved by Congress, and was explicitly removed from the bill with the approval of both Houses. It cannot be construed as federal policy, let alone as a statement by Congress, and is not at all "authoritative". For more, see NCSE's discussion of the topic (PDF) for more background and analysis.

The treatment of the U.K.'s "National Curriculum" is equally contorted. The OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations board - the group responsible for evaluating students' comprehension of issues in the curriculum) explains that they do not regard evolution as a scientific controversy today, only at the time Darwin published:

At OCR, we believe candidates need to understand the social and historical context to scientific ideas both pre and post Darwin. In our Gateway Science specification, candidates are asked to discuss why the opponents of Darwinism thought the way they did and how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence. Creationism and "intelligent design" are not regarded by OCR as scientific theories. They are beliefs that do not lie within scientific understanding.

The authors of EE lifted some of the wording out of this statement regarding "social and historical context to ideas", deleted the reference to the past in "why the opponents of Darwinism thought the way they did", and added words to make their snippet grammatical. They put quotes around their patchwork and try passing it off as a recommendation found in the U.K.'s "National Curriculum".

The British Minister of Education, who supervises OCR, later explained that "The national curriculum programme of study for science at key stage 4 covers evolution. It sets out that pupils should be taught 'that the fossil record is evidence for evolution' and also 'how variation and selection may lead to evolution or extinction'." Clearly, the British standards contradict the statement in Explore Evolution that there are competing scientific views on evolution's validity and, in fact, affirm the importance of evolution in modern biology.

These two examples of egregious "quote mining" should dispel any notion that Explore Evolution embraces ethical scholarship.

Inquiry-based learning

Summary of problems:

The approach toward learning actually used in EE is directly at odds with the inquiry-based approaches developed by leading science educators. EE gives students incomplete and/or misleading information and provides canned questions and answers, rather than providing students with appropriate background information and allowing them to formulate testable hypotheses.

Full discussion:

In the inquiry-based approaches which are gaining acceptance in science education, the student is provided with appropriate background data, and then encouraged to generate a testable hypothesis, test it, and decide if the hypothesis should be accepted or rejected. These approaches reinforce the student's knowledge of the power and the limitations of the scientific method, and allow the student to arrive at a novel (to them) answer via their own efforts. Such "Eureka moments" can strongly reinforce the facts and concepts that are deemed pedagogically important by the instructors, and can even lead to insights that are unrelated to the immediate facts and observations. The power of this approach rests entirely on the notion that the student understands the background, poses the hypothesis, tests the hypothesis, and makes his/her own conclusions. The role of the instructor is very different in this model. As noted on the Duke University Center for Inquiry-based Learning site: "When using inquiry, teachers must bite their tongues. Too many hints, too many questions, and too many answers take all the learning out of the process. And all the fun, too."

Unfortunately, this description is completely at odds with the approach used in Explore Evolution. In every instance, students are led through exercises where the authors provide the questions. In every instance, the student is given incomplete or even misleading information in the sections labeled "Case For", and then this incomplete or misleading information is rebutted by the authors (not by the student) in the "Reply" sections. Even in the "Further Debate" sections, there is no attempt to add critical information (e.g. citations of recent publications), which might allow the student to generate hypotheses and test those hypotheses. There is no opportunity for the Eureka moment; the students are merely led down the path that the authors desire them to tread. So the claim that this book is "inquiry-based" fails on at least two counts. First, the information needed to promote genuine inquiry is never given; the authors set up strawman arguments rather than provide the necessary complete information. Secondly, the students do not generate their own questions, do not test their own hypotheses, and never get a chance to experience the joy of discovery that has been found to be critical in any truly inquiry-based endeavor.

The approach taken in this book is old-fashioned in terms of pedagogy, and radically different from the innovative and effective inquiry-based approaches developed in recent years. EE's method most closely resembles legal argumentation. The jurors (the students) are subjected to two presentations of opposite sides in a dichotomy, and asked to make up their minds. Jurors are not allowed to ask questions in a courtroom, and students are not allowed to ask questions in this book. Furthermore, just as might be the case in a courtroom, the jurors do not have access to all of the facts.

The phrase "inquiry-based learning" is exploited to promote the view that students should "debate Darwinism" in order to learn it. This is simply the Discovery Institute's latest strategy for insinuating and reinforcing doubts about the evolutionary sciences.

"Our goal in using this approach is to expose you to the discoveries, evidence, and arguments that are shaping the current debates over the modern version of Darwin's theory, and to encourage you to think deeply and critically about them."

No good teacher or scientist is against scientific debate or critical thinking. The authors of EE, however, use this ideal as a guise for promoting misleading, incorrect, and incomplete information about evolution. Unfortunately, anti-evolutionists have time and time again called for "critical thinking" or "critical analysis" of evolution, as a way to encourage students to criticize evolution and doubt its validity.

This statement is skillfully written to sound like good pedagogy. In reality, it deceptively uses the phrase "debates over the modern version of Darwin's theory" to insinuate doubt about the validity of evolution.

It is quite telling that Dave Springer, one of the administrators of Uncommon Descent, the blog of ID-proponent William Demsbki, recently wrote this on one of the threads there.

Why is it that chance worshipping (sic) biologists are continually surprised at what they discover but design advocates aren’t surprised at all?
DaveScot (Dave Springer, blog administrator) Uncommon Descent Discovery Institute website, August 15, 2007.

This question clarifies a distinction between the authors/publishers of EE and the scientific enterprise. The surprise of discovery is one of the best things about science. The smugness implicit in "I knew it all along", captured in this comment and fostered by the DI in this book, disdains surprises, and is the antithesis of inquiry-based learning. Scientists doing research actually do make unexpected discoveries; they are the lifeblood of real science. Surprises, discovery, and the joy of discovery are the incentives in inquiry-based learning. Explore Evolution is neither scientific nor inquiry-based. Instead, it reveals its revelation-based roots of neo-creationism, in stark contrast to the inquiry-based roots of modern science and modern science education.