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The Science Teacher April/May 2014 : Page 8

April/May 2014 Minda Berbeco, Mark McCaffrey, Eric Meikle, and Glenn Branch Choose Controversies Wisely When teaching scientific argumentation, selecting the wrong topic can impair—rather than increase—student understanding Articles in last summer’s issue of The Science Teacher (intro-duced by Metz 2013), and other articles like them, tout the benefits of using scientific argumentation in teaching scien-tific inquiry. As science education professor Jonathan Os-borne says: “Argumentation is the means that scientists use to make their case for new ideas” (2010a). Indeed, understand-ing scientific practice is, in part, understanding scientific ar-gumentation. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) recognize “engaging in argument from evidence” as one of eight essential scientific and engineering practices. But be cautious in introducing students to scientific argumentation, especially in choosing a topic. It’s tempting to choose controversial topics to teach the skill of arguing from evidence. Controversies, after all, are what people argue about. But controversial topics also pose a risk: Choosing the wrong controversial topic can result in a net loss, rather than a gain, in student understanding. So how can educators choose appropriate controversial topics? Based on our work at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) to protect the teaching of evolution (and more recently climate change science) in public schools, we propose criteria for assessing whether a controversy is ap-propriate for a science classroom. Many attempts to under-mine the teaching of evolution and climate change science are presented as “teaching the controversy” (Scott 2007), so we at NCSE have become particularly adept at assessing controversies, real and supposed. Our criteria, based on and expanding Scott and Branch (2003), are not arcane or compli-cated, and we claim no particular originality: 1. If a controversy is presented as a scientific controversy, it should be a genuine scientific controversy. Don’t confuse a scientific topic that’s socially controver-sial with a scientifically controversial topic. Climate change and evolution, for example, are politically or religiously con-troversial, provoking headlines and arousing passions. But they are not scientifically controversial (unlike, say, quan-tum gravity). Indeed, quite the contrary: The vast majority of scientists in the relevant disciplines accept climate change and evolution (on climate change, see Cook et al. 2013; on evolution, see Pew Research Center 2009). Misrepresenting a socially controversial scientific topic as scientifically contro-versial is committing the deadliest sin in science education: misrepresenting the science. 2. Present a scientific controversy at a level understandable by the students. There’s no point, for example, in presenting contemporary debates over metabolism-first and replication-first approach-es to the study of the origin of life to introductory high school biology students. While they probably can, with instruction, grasp the basic issue, expecting them to understand the de-tailed multidisciplinary considerations involved—much less assessing the cogency of the arguments—is unreasonable. Indeed, faced with the task of reading research papers from the primary literature, students might conclude that argu-mentation in science is a matter of dueling incomprehensible technicalities—which is not the intended outcome. 3. Choose scientific controversies of manageable scope. Asking students to assess the scientific arguments for or against anthropogenic climate change, for example, is un-realistic. That sort of assessment involves a major effort by multiple scientists over the course of years. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s synthesis re-port (2007), intended as a mere summary of the evidence, in-volved the work of over 500 scientists. A specific controversy with a narrow focus is preferable. It’s far more realistic, for example, to ask students to evaluate competing estimates of how much sea levels will rise over the next 50 years or how bird migration patterns will change over the next 100 years. 4. The resources for each side of the controversy ought to be com-parable in quality and availability. A teacher under the misapprehension that geocentrism is scientifically controversial would have trouble finding re-sources supporting the argument that Earth is at the center of the universe. Such resources exist, to be sure, but they are 8 The Science Teacher

Commentary

Minda Berbeco, Mark McCaffrey, Eric Meikle, and Glenn Branch


Choose Controversies Wisely
When teaching scientific argumentation, selecting the wrong topic can impair—rather than increase—student understanding

Articles in last summer’s issue of The Science Teacher (introduced by Metz 2013), and other articles like them, tout the benefits of using scientific argumentation in teaching scientific inquiry. As science education professor Jonathan Osborne says: “Argumentation is the means that scientists use to make their case for new ideas” (2010a). Indeed, understanding scientific practice is, in part, understanding scientific argumentation. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) recognize “engaging in argument from evidence” as one of eight essential scientific and engineering practices. But be cautious in introducing students to scientific argumentation, especially in choosing a topic.

It’s tempting to choose controversial topics to teach the skill of arguing from evidence. Controversies, after all, are what people argue about. But controversial topics also pose a risk: Choosing the wrong controversial topic can result in a net loss, rather than a gain, in student understanding. So how can educators choose appropriate controversial topics?

Based on our work at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) to protect the teaching of evolution (and more recently climate change science) in public schools, we propose criteria for assessing whether a controversy is appropriate for a science classroom. Many attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution and climate change science are presented as “teaching the controversy” (Scott 2007), so we at NCSE have become particularly adept at assessing controversies, real and supposed. Our criteria, based on and expanding Scott and Branch (2003), are not arcane or complicated, and we claim no particular originality:

1. If a controversy is presented as a scientific controversy, it should be a genuine scientific controversy.
Don’t confuse a scientific topic that’s socially controversial with a scientifically controversial topic. Climate change and evolution, for example, are politically or religiously controversial, provoking headlines and arousing passions. But they are not scientifically controversial (unlike, say, quantum gravity). Indeed, quite the contrary: The vast majority of scientists in the relevant disciplines accept climate change and evolution (on climate change, see Cook et al. 2013; on evolution, see Pew Research Center 2009). Misrepresenting a socially controversial scientific topic as scientifically controversial is committing the deadliest sin in science education: misrepresenting the science.

2. Present a scientific controversy at a level understandable by the students.
There’s no point, for example, in presenting contemporary debates over metabolism-first and replication-first approaches to the study of the origin of life to introductory high school biology students. While they probably can, with instruction, grasp the basic issue, expecting them to understand the detailed multidisciplinary considerations involved—much less assessing the cogency of the arguments—is unreasonable. Indeed, faced with the task of reading research papers from the primary literature, students might conclude that argumentation in science is a matter of dueling incomprehensible technicalities—which is not the intended outcome.

3. Choose scientific controversies of manageable scope.
Asking students to assess the scientific arguments for or against anthropogenic climate change, for example, is unrealistic. That sort of assessment involves a major effort by multiple scientists over the course of years. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s synthesis report (2007), intended as a mere summary of the evidence, involved the work of over 500 scientists. A specific controversy with a narrow focus is preferable. It’s far more realistic, for example, to ask students to evaluate competing estimates of how much sea levels will rise over the next 50 years or how bird migration patterns will change over the next 100 years.

4. The resources for each side of the controversy ought to be comparable in quality and availability.
A teacher under the misapprehension that geocentrism is scientifically controversial would have trouble finding resources supporting the argument that Earth is at the center of the universe. Such resources exist, to be sure, but they are scarce, scientifically unreliable, and pedagogically unsophisticated. The same is true of the textbooks, films, websites, and ancillary instructional materials promoted by creationists and climate change rejecters. The fact that neither evolution nor climate change is scientifically controversial aside, students aren’t likely to appreciate scientific argumentation better through exposure to such materials, since they are not good models of scientific practice.

5. If presenting a non-scientific controversy, present it as nonscientific, with the relevant scientific consensus presented first and clearly distinguished from the non-scientific controversy.
A teacher who wants students to discuss the social and ethical controversies regarding human cloning, for example, ought first to explain the scientific consensus that human cloning is feasible, since mammal cloning in general is feasible. Only then move on to whether human cloning would be prudent or imprudent, beneficial or detrimental, moral or immoral. If students are to assess the social and ethical arguments for and against human cloning, instruct them to respect the consensus on the scientific facts; arguments for or against human cloning premised on false claims about its feasibility are simply unsound.

A further question is whether to discuss non-scientific controversies in a science class at all. On the one hand, teachers may worry that doing so distracts students from the scientific content, that they themselves are unprepared to discuss such material, or that doing so may seem to advocate a particular point of view. On the other hand, discussing such controversies often helps students to appreciate the nature of science and understand the role of science in society; it also may help to assuage possible student discomfort with the scientific topic that’s controversial, especially regarding potentially fraught topics such as climate change and evolution.

We are not taking a definitive stance on whether to discuss non-scientific controversies in a science class. But because they occur in non-scientific contexts, discussing non-scientific controversies doesn’t in itself help students appreciate the role of argumentation in scientific practice. Accordingly, beyond heeding the numbered recommendations above, it’s valuable to explicitly contrast scientific argumentation— aimed at reaching a consensus in a collaborative search for the truth—with the freewheeling, undisciplined, and often antagonistic argumentation of ordinary life (Metz 2013).

Beside the choice of a suitable topic are other potential pitfalls in introducing students to scientific argumentation. Asking students to debate—as they might on a debating team—isn’t helpful, because that is not a scientific style of argument. Arguing the merits and demerits of a position based on a scientific misconception may, by repeated presentation, serve to reinforce it, even if the students acknowledge the problems of the position. And it can be counterproductive for students to engage in scientific argumentation without having time for adequate preparation.

Perhaps the most worrying danger, though, is from ideologues who object to teaching such scientifically uncontroversial topics as evolution and climate change. Teaching scientific argumentation is unquestionably important. Still, teachers’ efforts can be exploited by those attempting to include unscientific argumentation as a theme in science education. Osborne, the science education professor quoted above, for one, discovered that his scholarship was thus abused in Texas, where “the work on argumentation that I and others have done” was invoked “for ideological purposes” by the Texas state board of education, “to encourage their teachers to give an inappropriate amount of time to accounts of the discredited evidence against evolution” (2010b). Policy makers, science teacher educators, and science educators alike should be wary.

Minda Berbeco (berbeco@ncse.com) and Mark McCaffrey (mccaffrey@ncse.com) are programs and policy directors, Eric Meikle (meikle@ncse.com) is the education project director, and Glenn Branch (branch@ncse.com) is deputy director at the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California.

Read the full article at http://digital.nsta.org/article/Commentary/1665438/202138/article.html.

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