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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Florida ponders teaching evolution - some thoughts from Ontario

Apparently, a drive to teach evolution is taking root in Florida.

Assuming that one is not going to teach evolution simply as a form of indoctrination in materialism, there is an interesting question about when and how to teach it. I remember trying to unpack that question for a bemused Toronto Star reporter a while back (the one who incorrectly identified me as a fundamentalist).

Briefly, you can teach sciences by starting with physics and then going through chemistry to biology and finishing with ecology. Or you can do it the other way around. Of course, you could put them all over the map too, for theconvenience of scheduling. I don't like that third method, but then I never liked crazy quilts. Either of the first two methods will work well for comprehension in general, but a key consequence follows:

If you start with physics, you will be teaching physics in Grade Nine and biology/ecology in Grade Twelve. If you start with ecology/biology, you will be teaching them in Grade Nine and physics in Grade Twelve. The main problem is - obviously - a practical one.

How deeply can you go into a topic with Niners? When I was in high school in Ontario forty-five years ago, we started with biology. We studied evolution, but it was very simple. For example, we were asked to note the rudimentary hind legs of a snake. The idea that the snake once had legs but lost them through disuse was introduced as the explanation. We were shown a tree of life diagram (a picturesque idea now largely exploded). We certainly didn't learn anything very complex because we couldn't have.

Today in Ontario, we do a more indepth biology course in Grade Twelve. Some have criticized this arrangement because many students drop out of sciences by Grade Twelve and don't learn about evolution. That's true, but it is also true that the ones who do study biology in Grade Twelve learn a lot more about evolution than they could likely have handled in Grade Nine. The Grade Twelve biology textbook (McGraw-Hill Ryerson) on my shelf has nearly 100 pages on evolution, discussing things the Niners couldn't handle.

So there you are: If you want a topic studied in depth by those who are likely to go on in sciences, your best bet is to take it up in Grade Twelve. If you want to make sure that everyone knows a little of it, your best bet is to take it up in Grade Nine. I suppose there are various options in between.

Alternatively, if the Florida authorities want to introduce evolution as propaganda for materialism, in and out of season and at all times and places, ... they are creating an audience for intelligent design. People who had never thought about intelligent design before will start thinking about it.

Addition re Ontario curriculum:

A friend writes with up-to-the minute Ontario Curriculum information:

For the academic (university-bound) students, the arrangement is as follows:

In Grade 9 and 10, the students do a general science curriculum which divides the year between four different scientific subjects: physics, chemistry, biology, and earth and space science. My impression is that the first three subjects get more attention than the fourth, but that may vary from school to school. The biology unit in Grade 9 covers primarily the biology of the cell, whereas in Grade 10 the biology unit is entirely on ecology.

In Grade 11, physics, chemistry and biology are all offered as independent subjects, the prerequisite for each being Grade 10 science.

In Grade 12, physics, chemistry and biology are all offered again as independent subjects, the prerequisite for each being the corresponding Grade 11 course.

In Grade 12 there is also an Earth and Space Science course, the prerequisite being Grade 10 Science.

A student who intends to major in biology at university will presumably take biology in Grade 11 and 12, which means that this student will have studied biology for four years in high school, albeit for only about a third of a year in each of Grade 9 and Grade 10. This four-year sequence provides the first-year university student with a reasonably sophisticated knowledge base in biology, and, since admission to Year 1 Science programmes at virtually any Canadian university requires Grade 12 Chemistry and Grade 12 Physics, a good solid grounding (again, four years) in each of those subjects as well.

I haven't looked in detail into the "evolution" component of the Ontario biology courses, but I note that "evolution" isn't mentioned on any of the course outlines until Grade 12, and I know from my own careful examination that the ecology textbook for Grade 10 has virtually no discussion of evolution at all, yet provides a very thorough grounding in the basic principles of ecology: food chains, water cycle, carbon cycle, etc. This goes to show that you can educate science students very soundly in how living nature works without forcing them to side with any particular view regarding how living nature originated.

The basic structure and contents of the Ontario secondary curriculum are laid out in a Ministry of Education document to be found here.

This looks quite good really, and much better than I could have hoped for, because the student tackles each subject with an ascending degree of complexity. It explains why the course can go into considerable detail about evolution in Grade 12.

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