How duff exams spawn failure

Natural selection is too hard for educators - not the kids, says Tim Birkhead

November 13, 2008

One of my most revealing recent experiences was being asked to review a manuscript for an educational journal. The editors wanted me to assess the paper to ensure that the biology was correct.

When I read the manuscript, the issue was as follows: in several published resources for teaching Key Stage 3, secondary-school science pupils aged 11 to 14 are asked the following question: "Why do fish produce so many eggs?"

The official answer provided by the teaching resources is "because so many are eaten by predators". Certainly, many fish eggs are eaten by predators, but this is not the correct answer.

The correct answer is that a lot of fish eggs are eaten by predators because fish produce a lot of eggs. Fish produce a lot of eggs because this is the strategy that results in the maximum number of surviving offspring in that particular environment and is therefore favoured by natural selection.

The author of the paper correctly pointed out the inappropriate nature of the question for that level and the incorrect official answer. The author also said that to understand the correct answer, one had to understand natural selection. I was disappointed that the journal's editors were unsure whether the author was making a valid point, but even more shocked that those who devised the teaching material should be so misguided, so ignorant and so glib about misinforming schoolchildren.

This is not an isolated incident. Teachers I know tell me that they are continuously finding such errors across all disciplines, a sure sign of dumbing down and of inadequately qualified people setting curriculums and examinations. It is also symptomatic of a decline in standards, especially in the rigour of scientific thought.

This decline has come about because of a greater emphasis on process and training in education. The experiment in social engineering has gone on long enough - the results are absolutely clear. Focusing on process and training, and teaching to the test, generates a plethora of poorly educated individuals, some of whom then become dull, unimaginative bureaucrats, posing as educators, poised to mis-educate the next generation. A downward spiral, indeed.

There is an old saying that those who cannot teach, teach teachers. It now appears that those who cannot teach teachers, design the curriculum and set examinations.

The author of the paper criticising the "fish and eggs question" also felt that it was unreasonable to expect 11 to 14-year-olds to understand natural selection. In one sense I agree, but in another I disagree. Explained carefully enough, I think that most Key Stage 3 children would understand the concept.

The problem is that there is insufficient time in the curriculum and that some biology teachers do not understand natural selection themselves. The concept is subtle and deceptively simple and - as is all too apparent - easily misunderstood.

It is precisely because natural selection is not taught appropriately that creationism has been allowed to gain a foothold. Oh dear, I'm beginning to sound like Richard Dawkins. Rebutting creationism isn't the issue; rather it is a case of knowing enough about natural selection and the way science operates to be able to take an informed position. Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, which explains natural selection with exquisite and entertaining clarity, has been around for more than 30 years, so there is no real excuse.

Nor is there any excuse for not giving evolution and natural selection sufficient space on the syllabus to ensure a proper understanding. In the 1970s, the great evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Dobzhansky's statement is not quite true, for I know many extremely successful academics who describe themselves as biologists who haven't a clue about natural selection. However, evolutionary thinking is the basis for a great deal of understanding of the natural world.

It should be a prerequisite of all graduates (biologists or otherwise) that they know and understand it - especially those charged with educating our kids. We need higher standards among those teaching teachers. It would be totally unacceptable to misteach photosynthesis or respiration. It is also completely unacceptable to misteach natural selection, one of the most fundamental concepts in biology.

The problem goes way beyond natural selection; it is about thinking and being able to understand concepts. Natural selection isn't difficult to grasp, but it is more difficult than learning by rote the formula for photosynthesis or respiration. The natural selection issue epitomises the way many of our children are educated: facts and box-ticking, for this is the easiest way (so some believe) to assess them.

That they cannot string together a simple argument or understand concepts seems not to matter any more, yet this is precisely what prepares one for life in the real world, regardless of whether one intends to be a biologist or not.

Perhaps if we were a bit better at getting schoolchildren to understand concepts and if there were rather more scientists in government, we wouldn't be in the financial mess we are in now.

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