Last Thursday the Nebraska Department of Education released its new standards for science education in our Public Schools. These standards are updated every seven years. Because I serve on the Education Committee, these new science standards are of special interest to me. More than any other subject, science reveals our philosophy of education.
When I compared the new 2017 science standards to the old ones from 2010, two topics immediately jumped out at me. Both of these topics are hotly contested in the political arena. Before I share my analysis of the new science standards, let me say that students and families have the right to decide for themselves concerning the truth of all controversial topics in science. My issue is not with teaching these topics, but why these topics are no longer being treated as scientific theories.
The first topic I noticed was biological evolution. In 2010 the science standards specifically referred to biological evolution as a theory. In 2010 students were expected to “describe the theory of evolution,” and to “apply the theory of biological evolution to explain diversity of life over time.” The new science standards omit this language altogether. Instead of analyzing biological evolution as one possible theory among many for the origin of life, the new standards seem to turn students into apologists for biological evolution. For instance, the new standards will require students to “Communicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.” Elsewhere the new standards state that students shall “demonstrate understanding of how multiple lines of evidence contribute to the strength of scientific theories of natural selection and evolution.” To me, these kinds of statements communicate an unnecessary and preferential value judgment in favor of biological evolution.
The other topic which caused me concern was climate change. In 2010 the science standards merely asked students to describe the “natural influences” on the global climate. By way of contrast, the new scientific standards now ask students to “…illustrate the relationships among Earth systems to the degree to which those relationships are being modified due to human activity.” To assume that human activity can modify Earth’s systems is to choose sides on a politically charged and hotly debated topic in science. Again, these kinds of statements communicate an unnecessary and preferential value judgment in favor of climate change.
In the 20th Century Karl Popper championed the idea of falsifiability in science. He reasoned that good science does not simply try to prove its favorite theories to be true, but it also attempts to show its favorite theories to be false as well. If a scientific theory is not disprovable, it should not be considered good science. By choosing sides in controversial scientific debates, we rob our students of the opportunity to learn what good science really looks like. Instead of leading students to favor one scientific theory over another, shouldn’t we really be in the business of teaching students how to think scientifically for themselves by weighing all sides of an issue? Instead of indoctrinating children in the “strengths” of biological evolution and climate change, imagine what the outcome would be if we were to teach the weaknesses of these scientific doctrines as well. Philosophy of education is better when we teach students how to think, rather than what to think.