i-68efa548cdb44e33126c5936c96fe3ed-evolution_2008.jpgContinuing with our discussion of the Evolution 2008 conference … many things have been going on and I have more to report than time to report it. But I will get to all of it, I assure you. Tonight, I just want to cover part of today’s Education Symposium (moderated by your’s truly) … not all of it at once, thought, as it is kind of complex.

If you happen to work for the University of Minnesota or know anyone who does, best to not read this or let anyone know about it. This is a little to heavy to be spoken of openly. (Since there are only 11 of you who read my blog, I think we’ll be safe.)

I want to comment briefly on two of the talks, one by PZ Myers and one by Mark Decker. The other talks in the symposium were excellent, but I want to address them separately.

First, to dispel rumors that PZ Myers passed out on he lawn in the middle of the campus; This is simply not true. It is true that he had slept only four hours over the previous two and a half days, and had just flown in that morning from Vegas, but he did not pass out on the lawn. In fact, we were able to wire him up quite nicely. Here are before and after photos of a little treatment we applied to get him through the afternoon (This is me on the right and our techie in the middle, in the first photo).

BEFORE:

i-c8cfc6454ec454c5288df0e8b8bf56ae-PZ_Myers_Fixing_Up.jpg

AFTER:

i-8b276f539ceb8841f7765a9e7856d438-PZ_Myers_Two_Heads_Panda.jpg

Wow, two heads!!!!

Oh, and I’ve got a shot of Mark Decker too:

i-44ef59f4fa3e5f463de65eb2f80754b5-Mark_Decker_Jesus_Christ_Dinosaur.jpg

Hate to put things in your head, but can you hear the music from Jesus Christ Superstar?


“Jesus Christ … Di-no-saur… Do you think you’re what they say you are …..”

OK, back to the point.

Decker went before Myers and gave an excellent Socratean presentation that utterly shocked the part of the audience that received his message. I am reluctant to actually report the details of what he said because it is about a conversation very much in process, but I can give you he gist.

Imagine this scenario. You are teaching introductory evolutionary biology in college. A student in the class approaches you and says:

“Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

Now, two thoughts occur to you. Two alternative responses, two alternative strategies. Here they are:

Plan A:

Tell the student… “OK, that’s fine, I totally understand and that’s your thing. But, this is a class on science. You know, a large number of scientists are actually religious. But science is about natural explanations or descriptions, not religious or supernatural explanations for things. So, when a scientist is working on her or his research, it is imperative to suspend religious ‘belief’ and act like an agnostic, at least for the time being. You need to do that in my class to really get the material. That is what I’m asking you to do.”

Plan B:

Do not attempt to tell the student that s/he needs to make any adjustment at all. You would be wrong to state or imply that the student should not give a religious belief priority or primacy over the material in the course. Do not ask the student to suspend a religious perspective while addressing the material (readings labs, etc.) in the course.

Mark did the following: He took this question to a high authority at the University of Minnesota, and he also asked the members of the audience what they thought. At this biology conference.

What do you think people said? I will not repeat it here but you are more than welcome to say what YOU would do!!!

PZ Myer’s talk was equally radical. I’m not going to describe this in any detail, because I have a feeling that he will do so by an by on his blog. What I will tell you is this: PZ has redesigned the introductory biology course at his school in a very interesting way. When it comes to evolution, he teaches the controversy.

PZ is in part leveraging the fact that the students all know his views because of his reputation and his well known blog. So this puts any creationoids on the defensive, so he starts off by getting them to relax in various way. The course starts with logic and philosophy, and spends a pretty large amount of time on this (including critical thinking, etc.) Maybe two weeks or so. Then he embraces a discussion of “the controversies” and has the students argue the various positions. (He did not give details here on the pedagogy.)

In this way he positions himself as moderator rather than proponent of one position or another, and the students learn.

I think it is a fantastic way to teach a college course. However, I must say that I was shocked at the fact that this critical question was NOT asked of PZ at the end of his talk: “How is this supposed to work in High School?”

In a high school setting, there can be problems with “Teaching the Controversy” in this way or in any other way. For one thing, there is actually more required content in a high school class than in a college class, for various reasons, so spending a total of 25 percent of the class on “thinking” is not possible (though may be it should be). (PZ did acknowledge this problem.) In addition, if you have relatively immature HS students debating sensitive topics, things can go badly. “So what?” you say…

Well, if things go badly in a high school class now and then, it may be no big deal in many cases. But if things go badly in a part of the class that is foundational to the rest of the class, as in this case, than one is in trouble. High school teachers tend to be conservative for a reason.

However, I do think this approach can (and should) be adopted for either a Social Studies class or a cross-disciplinary elective in social studies and life science. Such an effort could lead to working out the kinks and refining the approach to adapt it to the high school context, and possibly to shape it into something that could be used in the biology class.

I will try to make my next Evolution 2008 post on Dr. Tatiana’s sex advice.


More Posts on Evolution 2008

Comments

  1. #1 sailor
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

    As I hope we will make clear in this course, you do not have to believe in evolution. Evolution, unlike religion is not something that takes belief. Evolution happens, it is demonstrable by experiment. During this course I will be presenting the evidence of this. To pass this course you will need to know about, and understand this evidence. One thing I will not be doing, is telling you what to believe, that is entirely in your court.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

    Okay…Here’s a penny. Don’t be an ignoramus, go buy a clue.
    Your religion may tell you not to believe in gravity too, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fact. Get over it, or flunk – you decide.

  3. #3 Andrew
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

    D- … Next!!!!

  4. #4 Andrew
    June 23, 2008

    “Here’s a penny. ”

    The price of clues has dropped in recent years. (or am I thinking of thoughts.)

  5. #5 Evilutionist
    June 23, 2008

    Joint the debating team and get back to your lab bench before I put a curse on you.

  6. #6 Joel_m
    June 23, 2008

    Is it the case, then, that learning takes place at a university despite the administration?

  7. #7 Wellington
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

    Do check to see that the student has this right. In many cases they do not. The student may be a member of a religion that does not oppose creationism.

  8. #8 Horace
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

    No problem. We’ll base your grade on your ability to perform miracles during lab.

  9. #9 Solarium
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

    It is good for the student to understand that the advice being suggested (the serious advice) is in his or her own interest. That should be stressed.

  10. #10 Michelle
    June 23, 2008

    Is it the case, then, that learning takes place at a university despite the administration?

    And/or despite the students.

  11. #11 Rocky
    June 23, 2008

    Actually you have 12 readers. I’ve just never said anything before.

    You raise what is essentially my problem: how do you teach critical thinking to high school students? The schools certainly are not going to do so for reasons that often are not under their control.

    I know of plenty of resources for myself but am really unaware of any on-line or other sources geared towards the younger crowd. I have a daughter about to start high school as an honors student (such as that is in Louisiana) and I would dearly love to fortify her (and her younger sister) to learn to think critically. I am neither a teacher nor trained formally in anything remotely connected with science. I have no idea how to teach these things. All that I know has been self-taught and a fifty year learning process is just a bit too long to be relevant.

    Remember this is the playstation-youtube-anime generation so a long and deep book is just going to be used as a paperweight (or a potential weapon in the running battles between sisters – just kidding). Best would be a series of “talking points”. Not that my daughter would not be capable of reading anything deep (she does all the time); it is a matter of time. I only have the summer before she starts to get at least something in there

    Any suggestions?

  12. #12 Sailor
    June 23, 2008

    “No problem. We’ll base your grade on your ability to perform miracles during lab.”

    Horace that is perfect!

    Rocky, since evolution is the normally threatened subject, consider getting Dawkin’s “Growing up in the universe”. I bought several of these and give them away. Great for people of any age and an ideal starting point for discussion. available from
    http://richarddawkins.net/store/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=3

  13. #13 Tim
    June 23, 2008

    “No problem. We’ll base your grade on your ability to perform miracles during lab.”

    That would result in a very u-shaped grade distribution, I would imagine.

  14. #14 RuthR
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

    Answer: “Here, read this.”

    Then hand the student pretty much anything. A box of Kleenex. The school newspaper. Maybe a book.

  15. #15 Zeno
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion.”

    I’m a math teacher (college level) but took a course in physical anthropology from a colleague (just because I wanted to). Here’s how she responded to the concerns of self-described creationist students:

    “I am teaching anthropology according to the best contemporary understanding of science. This is not a class about what you believe. It is a class about anthropology. At the end of the semester, I am supposed to report whether or not you understand the course content and the evidence that supports it. I will grade you based on your mastery of the material. Your private beliefs are your own concern and will not prevent you from doing well in this class unless you insist on giving dogmatic answers instead of science-based answers to questions about science.”

  16. #16 Michelle
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

    “Look, I’m an evolutionist. I don’t believe this creation stuff because it makes my brain hurt.”

  17. #17 Randy
    June 23, 2008

    “Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

    Have any of you considered the possibility that the person in the administration was right, and that you have no legal right to force your beliefs on this student?

  18. #18 Solarium
    June 23, 2008

    Actually you have 12 readers. I’ve just never said anything before.

    11 again. Randy just took his ball home.

  19. #19 Coriolis
    June 23, 2008

    Rocky, if you want you can try something a bit more unorthodox giving her one of Feynman’s autobiographical books,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Do_You_Care_What_Other_People_Think%3F

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surely_You%27re_Joking%2C_Mr._Feynman!

    In my opinion they are great books when it comes to it comes to a funny account of how to approach all sorts of mysticism and critical thinking in general, with alot of silly anecdotes in between. I read them first when I was… 12 or 13 and I think they distill alot of the essence of what it is to be a good scientist (or at least physicist ;)). And they are very easy/conversational reading, compared to basically anything.

    Just one minor warning, they have a few somewhat more serious topics (like the atomic bomb), and maybe even one or two “naughty” topics (like Feynman doing his physics in a topless bar and being the only guy to testify in defense of it when they were going to close it down :)). Although if your daughter is starting HS and she hasn’t seen/heard far worse then she must be living under a rock.

  20. #20 themadlolscientist
    June 23, 2008

    @ Rocky: A great place to start is Understanding Evolution at UCBerkeley. It has resources for both students and teachers.

  21. #21 Charlie
    June 23, 2008

    13 readers.

    Rocky, speaking as someone who has just graduated from high school, I would go into the science section of your local bookstore with money and shout at them: ‘Go, take anything from here!’

    Stuff like Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking would be good. Other stuff to supplement that would be ‘Chaos’, by James Gleick, Freakonomics, and ‘Blink’ by Malcom Gladwell.

    Politics and pointing out bullshit is also great for getting thinking going, as my parents did with me. You don’t have to start on science.

    I happen to be part of this ‘youtube-playstaion-anime’ generation you’re talking about. Frankly, we’re just as bad as your generation when it comes to attention span and using books as paperweights. :) Please don’t generalize all of us, we’re going to be paying taxes to keep you guys in the way you’re accustomed for the next thirty years.

  22. #22 Rocky
    June 23, 2008

    OMG, Charlie! If I gave you any impression that I see your (and my children’s) generation in a negative light, then I apologize. That is certainly NOT the way I feel. You guys are, in fact, absolutely no different from us… Just different distractions. I was much the same as my daughter when I was her age (in fact she is better than I was).

    Thank You for the suggestions.. I love Feynman, also. I am reading “Six Easy Pieces” now.

  23. #23 Andrew
    June 23, 2008

    Are you not going to tell us why Jesus is cradling a dinosaur? Or is this obvious and I’m just not getting it.

  24. #24 Shirakawasuna
    June 23, 2008

    Aww, c’mon. You have at least 13 readers!

    I’d love to see not just these questions addressed by people with significant teaching experience, as is the case with Dr. Myers and others, but some actual fun data to see if these things can be quantified and therefore get some verifiable results. Many of the topics addressed might be hard to quantify, but hey, this is sociology/education we’re talking about ;).

    If say the “PZ method” (or whatever) happens to work wonders, it’d be great to see some teaching method reform in the U.S. As a somewhat recent graduate, I can vouch for the fact that we’re teaching modern information in a very old style, one that has been shown to fail in many ways compared to others.

    To Rocky: have your daughter bother some creationists. Seriously. I learned more about biology in high school from stupid little arguments online with people who hold very silly beliefs than I did in biology class. Sometimes it’s easier to research a topic for an hour if you’re trying to see if someone’s silly belief or statement is wrong and if so if it is, as is usually the case with creationists, fractally wrong.

  25. #25 Charlie
    June 24, 2008

    Rocky, no problem. :D It’s just One of Those Things really. I think Samuel Pepes made a similar comment to yours 300 years ago, so really, it’s nothing new.

  26. #26 Charlie
    June 24, 2008

    Rocky, no problem. :D It’s just One of Those Things really. I think Samuel Pepes made a similar comment to yours 300 years ago, so really, it’s nothing new.

  27. #27 Doctor Spurt
    June 24, 2008

    I teach Natural Selection in a Philosophy class, so I get to say “this class is about arguments, and how to evaluate them. You get to claim whatever you want as long as you defend it with with valid arguments using premises that are true or have decent independent warrant, and are less controversial than the conclusions they’re being used to defend. If you personally want to carry on believing something that doesn’t meet those standards that’s fine, just don’t bug me with it in assignments and exams.”

  28. #28 Doctor Spurt
    June 24, 2008

    Me again. One further thought. I think we need to be careful here. The injunction to “teach THE controversy” is, as we know, a political attempt to create the impression that there is a genuine debate *internal to science* over whether Natural Selection is correct or not. I agree that it can sometimes be useful to teach NS vs ‘My Imaginary Friend Did It All’ debates, in the history of science or of ideas, in critical reasoning course, etc., and that in some sense this involves teaching a controversy, but this isn’t teaching “the” controversy that the spook-fiends are into promotiong. Bottom line: doing what is being suggested here doesn’t amount to running up a white flag over ID, and using the very term favoured by the IDiots seems like a very avoidable own goal.

  29. #29 Doctor Spurt
    June 24, 2008

    Me again. One further thought. I think we need to be careful here. The injunction to “teach THE controversy” is, as we know, a political attempt to create the impression that there is a genuine debate *internal to science* over whether Natural Selection is correct or not. I agree that it can sometimes be useful to teach NS vs ‘My Imaginary Friend Did It All’ debates, in the history of science or of ideas, in critical reasoning course, etc., and that in some sense this involves teaching a controversy, but this isn’t teaching “the” controversy that the spook-fiends are into promotiong. Bottom line: doing what is being suggested here doesn’t amount to running up a white flag over ID, and using the very term favoured by the IDiots seems like a very avoidable own goal.

  30. #30 Adolfo Hall
    June 30, 2009

    I’m interested in PZ’s techniques, but the correct place to “teach the controversy” is in civics class, because it’s a political controversy. It’s beyond the scope of a science class for the same reason that it’s beyond the scope of music class.

  31. #31 Adolfo Hall
    June 30, 2009

    I’m interested in PZ’s techniques, but the correct place to “teach the controversy” is in civics class, because it’s a political controversy. It’s beyond the scope of a science class for the same reason that it’s beyond the scope of music class.

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    June 30, 2009

    Adolfo: I agree with what you say regarding high schools in this country at this time. But in first year college it works.

    However, if I was in charge of the world (or one private high school even) I’d like to see it tried in a high school. With lawyers standing by.