Learning Matters: Education tips from Indiana University
Controversy involving intelligent design and public schools, classroom discussions -- or the lack thereof -- about the war in Iraq, and the Underground Railroad are discussed by Indiana University education experts this month.
Intelligent design, evolution and public schools. An Indiana University school law expert expects the nationwide controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in public schools to continue despite a blistering ruling by a federal judge in December that intelligent design is not science and does not belong in public school science classrooms.
- "Evolution opponents are employing a smart strategy. They're recasting the issue to focus less on the religion-science conflict and more on academic freedom and broadening the curriculum," said Martha McCarthy, Chancellor's Professor of Education in IU's Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. "They are urging schools to teach the controversy between ID and evolution in science courses. But many scientists say there is no scientific controversy, that the controversy is about teaching religion in the classroom."
- Evolution opponents are having notable success in the political arena, particularly when targeting smaller, potentially more vulnerable political boards that consider academic standards or textbook adoptions for particular states. Supporters of ID, such as the Discovery Institute in Seattle, are working hard to influence science standards in numerous states as they attempt to discredit evolution as well as change the very definition of science. McCarthy cited Kansas as an example. Its newly adopted science standards call for criticism of evolution and a broader definition of science that allows for supernatural explanations without imposing or prohibiting the teaching of ID. Advocates of ID distinguish it from creationism in that the designer is not identified, and they accept that Earth is much older than the biblical account suggests. "If initiatives are carefully worded, as in Kansas, they will be difficult to challenge in court," McCarthy said.
McCarthy discussed the legal history, political developments and implications of the movement to "teach the controversy" in a commentary appearing this month in the Education Law Reporter. Criticism of teaching about evolution has existed since Charles Darwin first wrote The Origin of Species almost 150 years ago, going through an evolution of its own as passionate opponents continue to fight against the teaching of the theory. Around 60 years ago, fewer than half of American high school biology teachers discussed evolution in their classes. In the last five years, there has been political activity at the school district or state level in 40 states, according to the National Center for Science Education. NCSE reported that 78 challenges to teaching evolution were made at the state level or in school districts in 31 states last year alone. In late December, a federal district judge barred a Pennsylvania school district from teaching intelligent design in biology classes. In what McCarthy described as a "harsh" 139-page ruling, the judge explained that ID is creationism in disguise and lambasted the school board for attempting to insert religion into science classes, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
McCarthy can be reached at 812-856-8384 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
American teen-agers want to talk about the war in Iraq, particularly in a venue where they can hear a range of opinions. Middle school and high school students who participated in an Indiana University study, however, reported a reluctance by their teachers to discuss the war. These students consistently ranked their teachers as highly reliable sources of information, yet they turn to the media, primarily the Internet and television news, to learn about the war in Iraq even though they consider the media much less reliable. "You have a situation where students are receiving their information from the sources they trust the least," said David Flinders, an associate professor in the IU School of Education's Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Teachers worry that discussions about the war will become controversial, Flinders said. Teachers and students both, however, are missing an important learning opportunity by ignoring one of the towering issues of the day, helping it become a non-issue for today's youth. "Schools are places where it's OK for people to disagree, and it benefits students educationally to hear different views," he said. Last spring and summer, Flinders conducted one-on-one interviews with 23 students in Indiana middle schools and high schools. His findings appeared in the December issue of Phi Delta Kappan, the professional journal of Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional association for educational scholars and practitioners. Some of his other findings include:
- Students said they wanted to learn how to think critically about the facts surrounding the war, but they were split about whether their lessons should boost student patriotism. Flinders said a debate among educators involves the role of patriotism in lessons involving terrorism. Some camps lean more toward emphasizing issues that stimulate patriotism, while other camps want to emphasize critical thinking skills. Some students were concerned that "flag waving" would desensitize students to patriotic concerns, just as repeatedly reciting the Pledge of Alliance reduces its meaning for some students.
- Students labeled themselves politically, but often their comments defied their labels, leading Flinders to believe student views about the war in Iraq cannot be easily predicted or stereotyped.
- Unlike pro-war and anti-war sentiments involving Vietnam, the views of students in Flinders' study did not appear to be divisive. In fact, he described an antipathy among students that he said reflects the American population in general. Despite the steady flow of news about the war in Iraq, students characterized it as something distant from their lives, something that did not affect them much.
Flinders can be reached at 812-856-8189 and email@example.com.
Elementary and middle school students can now learn about the Underground Railroad through an interactive CD-ROM. "The CD-ROM brings national history to our neighborhood, allowing students to make more personal connections with a journey that otherwise may seem abstract and distant to them," said Magdalena Herdoiza-Estevez, associate professor of education at Indiana University Southeast. "This is especially true if we consider the social and racial make-up of southern Indiana." The CD-ROM, which includes a comprehensive curriculum guide, presents the people, places and stories of the Underground Railroad in southern Indiana. Based on research by a local historian, the material details the history of Floyd County's participation in the Underground Railroad. "It was very interesting to find so many references to simple people who put together that fabulous process here at home," she said. The curriculum guide and CD-ROM also make connections with the national movement, including more leaders and topics that explain the economic role of slavery, and the related legal and political issues. "Lessons including 'experiential' exercises enhance the possibilities for making personal connections with this human drama and offer a look at slavery today around the world. It gives a sense of the pending tasks of freedom for all," said Herdoiza-Estevez. The Indiana Humanities Council was one of the sponsors of the project, which was produced by the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany, Ind. IU Southeast students helped Herdoiza-Estevez assemble and develop the materials for the curriculum guide. Herdoiza-Estevez also secured research and grant money from IU Southeast. The curriculum guide has been tested in classrooms and was introduced in December and January at two professional development events for teachers in Indiana and Kentucky. The IU Southeast library has four sets of the curriculum guides, which include books, music and videos, for teachers to use. Herdoiza-Estevez can be reached at 812-941-2302 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
For additional help with these tips, contact Tracy James, IU Media Relations, 812-855-0084 and email@example.com.