Scotland refuses to ban teaching of creationism

We tend to think that the teaching of creationism as being a problem in some American schools. The problem is rather closer to home than that.

Why Evolution Is True

Schools in England and Wales aren’t permitted to teach creationism, but for reasons that I can’t fathom, the Scots refuse to join them. This came to light when, as reported by Scotland’s Sunday Herald, the Scottish Secular Society (SSS) discovered that a group of American creationists “had been working as classroom assistants at a primary school in East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire.” (Note: it’s not clear whether this group actually taught creationism as science.)

The SSS petitioned the Scottish Parliament requesting explicit guidance on this issue (i.e., banning creationism the same way it’s done in the rest of the UK), but were turned back with this disappointing statement by a government official:

Tim Simons, Head of Curriculum Unit at the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate, has written to the parliament’s petitions committee that there are no plans to introduce ban guidance called for by the SSS.

Mr Simmons [sic] said: “I can…

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Creationism In The UK

I’ve never really encountered many creationists. There’s been the odd religious nutter in the streets of Newcastle trying to convert the shoppers but that’s about it. In forty years of teaching evolution I’ve been challenged in the classroom twice, once by a Jehovah’s Witness and once by a Christian fundamentalist. So I was a little surprised when I came across this article by the National Center for Science Education which reports on a poll about the public acceptance of evolution in Great Britain, Canada and the United States. Respondents were asked “Which of these statements comes closest to your own point of view regarding the origin and development of human beings on earth?” and offered the choices “Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years” and “God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years.”   In Britain 68% chose the evolution statement, 16% the creationist statement and 15% were unsure. This compares to 61%, 24% and 15% in Canada. In the USA it was 35%, 47% and 18%. I might take comfort from the fact that we enlightened Brits have a better grasp on reality than our scientifically backward American cousins but it was cold comfort. I’m concerned that over 30% of the British public don’t accept evolution as an explanation for the way things are.

It would seem I am not alone. It’s not the religious nutters in the streets we should worry about, it’s what is happening in schools. There are concerns that creationist organisations are visiting schools and sending them materials promoting their cause. Sciencemag carries an interesting report on the situation. This has prompted a number of eminent UK scientists to call for a re-think about the teaching of evolution in schools under the heading of, “Teach Evolution, not Creationism!”  Speaking of creationism and intelligent design, they say that, “There should be enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type.” 

Professor Richard Dawkins, one of the scientists supporting the campaign, has called for evolution to be taught in primary schools. The Daily Mail carried a report which provoked some interesting comments in the online version.

Darwin’s vile book of 1859 was followed by the murder of up to 15m people in the Belgian Congo, followed by all of the various genocides of the twentieth century – probably more than 100m in total. There were atrocities committed before 1859, but very few on a comparable scale to what has happened since. Presumably Richard Dawkins wants more genocide to occur in the future.

To be fair to the Daily Mail (not a statement I ever thought I’d use) that comment is not typical of the responses and has been heavily red-arrowed by other readers. Nevertheless, there is a justifiable concern that creationism is creeping into schools and that needs to be confronted. As a first step, readers of this blog might follow this link and sign an e-petition calling for the teaching of evolution to be mandatory in all publicly-funded schools.

Education Quackery

Ben Goldacre has once again highlighted the nonsense which is Brain Gym having previously written about it in his Bad Science Blog. Further comment from me is superfluous but it brought to mind the frightening amount of nonsense I had been exposed to in a teaching career spanning thirty nine years. A quick dredge through my (not always reliable) memory produced the following list.

1. Programmed Learning.
2. Teaching Machines.
3. TVEI.
4. Assessment for Learning.
5. ICT.
6. Accelerated Learning.
7. VAK (learning styles).
8. NLP (neurolinguistic programming).
9. Thinking Skills.
10.Multiple Intelligence
11. Emotional Intelligence.
12. Student Mentoring.

David Colquhoun has compiled a similar list
I have chosen those initiatives which were intended to have their greatest impact on classroom practice rather than those which affected the structure and organisation of the education system.
What they have in common is the lack of an evidence-base and a requirement for substantial financial outlay, both of which are characteristic of quackery. Why do teachers, generally intelligent, well-educated individuals fall for such nonsense? My thoughts are these.

Teaching is a tough job. Pressures from parents, senior management, Local Authorities, OFSTED and Government can produce a distorted mindset obsessed with achieving unrealistic targets by whatever means available. Some teachers search for the educational equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone, guaranteed to turn base materials into educational gold. All they need is the right text-book, resource, technique, or software and the transmutation would be guaranteed. Usually this doesn’t happen. There might be a short-lived placebo effect but the sought-after result remains as elusive as ever. Only slightly daunted, the would be educational alchemist moves on to the next dose of expensive woo.

There are better, cheaper and more reliable alternatives. The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring has a history of working with teachers and schools to make practice evidence based. They have worked with The Sutton Trust to encourage teachers to evaluate initiatives and make informed choices about the allocation of resources.