Crafting Gentleness

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Call for Resignation of Prof. Michael Reiss over Creationism controversy

Copy of email sent to the Times Educational Supplement

I was saddened to learn of the Royal Society's decision (announced today at http://royalsociety .org/) to ask Prof. Michael Reiss to stand down form his post as Director of Education following widespread coverage of remarks he made about teaching evolution to students with creationist world-views.

The gist of Prof. Reiss' argument was that the appropriate response to students who raise their beliefs in class when they are taught the scientific theory of natural selection should not be to ignore, dismiss or ridicule the students' views, but rather to respect their ideas as a starting point for discussion, and to challenge them through the scientific arguments that have led to evolution by natural selection becoming some a strongly supported and widely accepted model for how life on earth has developed.

Prof. Reiss' comments are said to have damaged the reputation of the Royal Society. As it seems accepted that, as Prof. Reiss has made it absolutely clear, he was not suggesting teaching creationist ideas (as some misleading media reports implied or suggested); and that his views about the status of evolution (as a successful scientific theory) and creationism (as something that is not scientifically supported and so not a scientific theory or model) seem totally in keeping with the broad scientific consensus, it is hard to see how his comments are objectionable. If the mis-reporting was seen as potentially damaging to the Royal Society, then it should have taken the opportunity to use the widespread media interest to reiterate and explain its own position.

I can only conclude that what was found objectionable about Prof. Reiss' position was that he was using his vast experience as a science teacher and researcher of science classrooms to suggest that certain approaches naively offered by some academic scientists with no experience of teaching in the school system, are likely to be ineffective. Rather, he draws upon the widely accepted, evidence-based position adopted by most science educators, that the best way to develop children's thinking is to give them the chance to talk about their ideas, and to explore and understand why scientists have come to understand things differently. This general principle is central to science education, and is strongly supported by research evidence: just as natural selection is in biology. It reflects the scientific values of maintaining an open mind, and of considering and evaluating evidence, that we hope to instill in students. Of course, children with strong creationist views may not be prepared to question their existing ideas if these are central to their cultural and family identities: but Reiss' recommendations make more sense than simply dismissing their ideas as irrelevant and telling them to instead learn something that contradicts their own strong convictions. Children's creationist views may be irrelevant to science, but they are highly significant to both their learning of the science, and their developing attitudes to science as a source of reliable knowledge. Those FRS who decided to ignore this and call for Reiss dismissal, seem to be forgetting that their own expertise is in science, not schooling, which is presumably why they appointed a science teacher and educational researcher to high office in the Society.

In summary, the decision to dismiss Reiss seems to suggests that some academic scientists feel they know best in education, and are not prepared to listen to experts informed by a different field of research than their own. I fear that it will be this decision to sack rather than explain which could bring the Royal Society in disrepute, not the inaccurate reporting of a talk in the media. In my view, the Royal Society has today done a disservice to science education in the UK, and so indirectly to the future of science.

-- Dr. Keith S. Taber

http://www.educ. staff/taber. html
http://people. uk/kst24/
University Senior Lecturer in Science Education
Science Education Centre
University of Cambridge
Faculty of Education
184 Hills Road
Cambridge CB2 8PQ
United Kingdom


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