Next year, students in Alabama schools will finally be held to something resembling actual standards in science class. For years, Alabama has had the dubious distinction of being the only state in the union to include a “warning label” on science books that informs students they are about to delve into the scary, scary world of evolution.
The sticker warns that evolution is a “controversial theory,” that students should learn to “wrestle with the unanswered questions and unresolved problems still faced by evolutionary theory,” and that “instructional material associated with controversy should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”
For the first time since 2005, Alabama is updating its science standards, which previously said students “should understand the nature of evolutionary theories,” but did not actually require such an understanding. This of course, doesn’t mean that Alabama is quite ready to join the rest of us in the 21st century, however:
“Educators say the new rules — part of a major change that includes more experimentation and hands-on instruction and less lecturing — don’t require that students believe in evolution or accept the idea that climate is changing globally.But public school students will be required for the first time to understand the theory of evolution. And teachers will be required to address climate change, which wasn’t a focus the last time the state set science standards in 2005.”
The new standards, which were developed by a 40-member committee that included people with “very strong religious beliefs” who worked together with more rational people to develop the new guidelines, according to Michal Robinson, a science specialist for the state education agency.
“We still have to teach what the science is,” Robinson said Friday. “If students want to go into a science field in college or beyond, they have to have a foundation.”
The new standard is much more clear that students should have a strong basis for their scientific education, stating in the preface:
“The theory of evolution has a role in explaining unity and diversity of life on earth. This theory is substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence. Therefore, this course of study requires our students to understand the principles of the theory of evolution from the perspective of established scientific knowledge. The committee recognizes and appreciates the diverse views associated with the theory of evolution.”
According to Steve Ricks, director of the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, the biggest changes with the new standards are in the teaching methods that will be used. Rather than simply forcing students to listen to lectures and memorize facts, teachers will be introducing hands-on experimentation. Ricks points out that this approach is a gigantic improvement over the skeptical stance Alabama schools have previously taken on the subject of evolution.
“I don’t see how students would be able to learn this material without doing the science,” he said. “We are trying to teach kids to reason and solve problems.”
It is important to note that, while the state sets minimum standards, actual implementation and curriculum decisions are the responsibility of local school officials. Instructors will point out that not everyone agrees on man’s impact on climate change despite a near-consensus among scientists that man is responsible, and the disclaimer stickers warning that evolution, which is accepted by 98 percent of scientists as true, is “controversial,” will remain (at least for now). A committee that will review science textbooks in November may consider finally removing the misleading warning labels.
“You might not accept it, but that doesn’t change the fact,” science teacher Ryan Reardon told NPR. “Talking about evolution in a classroom is controversial, but there is no controversy about how all the organisms on the planet are related to each other.” As for climate change, Reardon says this may present an issue for teachers, because “climate science is not something that a typical Alabama science teacher is going to have had as part of their training.”
Reardon says that the hands-on education will be a boon for students — something he will certainly use to his advantage:
“I’m gonna let the data smack ’em in the face. I’m gonna ask them what that suggests, and then I’m gonna ask ’em what the ramifications are.”
Naturally, some conservatives have a problem with students in Alabama finally learning actual science in a meaningful manner:
While the new standards are not in any way a perfect solution to Alabama’s abysmal science education, it’s safe to say that the state is “evolving” on the issue.
Who knows? Perhaps this is God’s will, conservatives. Who are you to question it?
Watch a report on the new standards, below:
For an idea of how science education previously worked in Alabama, watch the following informative video: