Value of Reiss

19th September 2008 at 01:00

I was saddened to learn of the Royal Society's decision to ask Michael Reiss to stand down from his post as director of education following widespread coverage of remarks he made about teaching evolution to students with creationist world views. The gist of Professor Reiss's argument was that the appropriate response to students who raise their beliefs in class when they are taught the scientific theory of natural selection should not be to ignore, dismiss or ridicule the students' views. Rather, teachers should respect their ideas as a starting point for discussion and challenge them through the scientific arguments that have led to evolution by natural selection becoming a strongly supported and widely accepted model for how life on earth has developed.

Professor Reiss's comments are said to have damaged the reputation of the Royal Society. As he has made it absolutely clear, he was not suggesting teaching creationist ideas (as some misleading media reports implied). In addition, his views about the status of evolution (as a successful scientific theory) and creationism (as something that is not scientifically supported and so not a scientific theory or model) seem totally in keeping with the broad scientific consensus. As this seems to be widely accepted, it is hard to see how his comments are objectionable.

I can only conclude that what was found objectionable about Professor Reiss's position was that he was using his vast experience as a science teacher and researcher of science classrooms to suggest that certain approaches, naively offered by some academic scientists with no experience of teaching in the school system, are likely to be ineffective. Rather, he draws upon the widely accepted, evidence-based position adopted by most science educators that the best way to develop children's thinking is to give them the chance to talk about their ideas.

This general principle is central to science education, and is strongly supported by research evidence, just as natural selection is in biology. It reflects the scientific values of maintaining an open mind and of considering and evaluating evidence we hope to instil in students.

Dr Keith Taber, Senior lecturer, Science Education Centre, University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.

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