Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Hysteria over new GCSE science syllubus

The OCR examination board has sparked hysteria in the national media by making a reference to creationism in its new set of standards for GCSE science.

According to The Times, creationism is 'to be taught on GCSE science syllabus', while the Guardian cries: 'Exam board brings creationism into science class'.

These headlines are somewhat overblown. As the Guardian says: 'The new biology syllabus in England does not require the teaching of creationist views alongside Darwin's theory of evolution, but it opens the way for classroom discussions in science lessons and pupils will be assessed on work they do on this topic.'

Several print and radio news reports have also made a link between the new OCR syllabus and the possibility that 'intelligent design' might be taught in British schools. For example, in The Times, James Williams, science course leader at Sussex University’s school of education, says:

'This opens a legitimate gate for the inclusion of creationism or intelligent design in science classes as if they were legitimate theories on a par with evolution fact and theory. I’m happy for religious theories to be considered in religious education, but not in science where consideration could lead to a false verification of their status as being equal to scientific theories.'

Of course, this remark simply assumes that neither creationism nor ID are legitimate scientific theories on a par with evolution, because both are religious theories. One the one hand it is questionable why a religious theory cannot also be a scientific theory. On the other hand, ID is not a religious theory!

So what have OCR done to cause this storm in a tea cup? The new OCR 'Gateway to Science' curriculum asks pupils to examine how organisms become fossilised, and then it asks teachers to 'explain that the fossil record has been interpreted differently over time (eg creationist interpretation)'.

Why would the simple act of informing students about the fact that people with different beliefs have interpreted, or tried to interpret, empirical evidence such as the fossil record in different ways, causing such a storm?

The Times reports that: 'OCR, one of the three main exam boards in England, said that the syllabus was intended to make students aware of scientific controversy.' Here is the cause of all the trouble - the suggestion that we teach students that controversy about origins is not merely a scientific controversy about empirical data, but a controversy about how best to interpret empirical data, which is affected by people's background beliefs, including their metaphysical beliefs.

The nub of the problem

The really radical aspect of the OCR syllubus, as reported by the Guardian, is that it wants children to learn about 'ways in which scientific work may be affected by the contexts in which it takes place... and how these contexts may affect whether or not ideas are accepted.' Now, this is undoubtedly true. Teaching this fact to students will undoubtedly aid their understanding of science, of controversy within science, and of how science relates to other subjects that they study (especially 'RE'/'Philosophy & Ethics'). However, even OCR are ambivalent here, wanting to give with one hand and take with the other...

On the one hand, they want students to understand that what one counts as the best interpretation of the empirical data is relative to one's background beliefs:

The Times reports that a spokeswoman for OCR said: 'Candidates need to understand the social and historical context to scientific ideas both pre and post Darwin. Candidates are asked to discuss why the opponents of Darwinism thought the way they did and how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence.' (One hopes that students will learn that Darwin's opposition included leading scientists and philosophers of his day and that many Christians accepted evolution without any trouble...) John Noel, OCR’s science qualifications manager, told The Times Educational Supplement: 'It is simply looking at one particular example of how scientific interpretation changes over time. The history of scientific ideas not only has a legitimate place in science lessons, it is a requirement of the new programme of study.'

The National Curriculum Online website says for science at Key Stage 4: 'Students should be taught how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (for example Darwin's theory of evolution).' Classes should also cover 'ways in which scientific work may be affected by the context in which it takes place (for example, social, historical, moral, spiritual), and how these contexts may affect whether or not ideas are accepted.'

On the other hand, t
hey want students to accept background beliefs which make a belief in evolution a foregone conclusion and which define 'science' in such a way as to exclude creationism and ID by definition:

OCR's website declares that: 'Creationism and "intelligent design" are not regarded by OCR as scientific theories. They are beliefs that do not lie within scientific understanding.' James Williams fumes in the Guardian over the mere mention of creationism in science classes: 'This is not science, it is not recognised by the scientific community and to legitimise it like this is wrong.' (So recognition by the scientific community now defines science?!)

According to The Times, a spokesman at the Department for Education and Skills said: 'The National Curriculum for science clearly sets down that pupils should be taught that the fossil record is evidence for evolution.'

So there we have it - the British government's official view is that the fossil record is evidence for evolution (perhaps they should read this peer reviewed scientific paper by Stephen C. Meyer). Since OCR have pointed out that whether or not one accepts this view is dependent upon one's metaphysical/religious background beliefs, it would seem that the British government is implicitly endorsing background beliefs that have this consequence and opposing background beliefs that do not have this consequence.


Its seems to me that the new OCR science syllubus is a real step forward for science education. It opens the way for a worldview centred education system, allowing students to be told the truth about the relationship between empirical data, scientific theories and background beliefs of all kinds. This will aid pupil's understanding of scientific disagreements, and it will help them to see how science is related to the different philosophical and religious belief systems that they study in other subjects such as 'Philosophy & Ethics'.

Nervous newspaper headlines notwithstanding, these new science standards do not amount to state endorsement for teaching creationism or ID as theories which are even scientific, let alone true. The context of GCSE science remains one in which the state endorses teaching that evolution is true. Nevertheless, by the simple act of admitting to students that 'scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence' these new standards will let the genie out of the bottle, because however insistent OCR is about neither creationism nor ID being science, and however insistent the state is that the fossil record supports evolution, students who have been taught to recognize that such claims depend upon certain background assumptions might just examine the assumptions endorsed by OCR and by the state and decide that they don't agree...

BBC News report

Guardian report

The Times report

OCR website comment

ID in the UK blog report

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