Monday, March 12, 2012

"We shouldn't fight the culture wars in the high-school classroom"

In fact, nothing taught in school is "culture-free". I am reminded of this every time I recall how I was taught history -- all but devoid of black faces save nameless slaves and George Washington Carver. Likewise the books I was exposed to in my literature classes.

Much, if not most of what science has to tell us about our world is theory: the origin of Universe, the birth of our solar system. I have a 1,000 page tome on my bookshelf that attempts to explain what gravity is.

As Bucky Fuller so wisely stated: the goal of education should be to teach children HOW to think, not WHAT to think. I'm sure that notion scares a lot of people much more than the theory of evolution or climate change combined! (GW)

School Standards Wade into Climate Debate

By Tennille Tracy
Wall Street Journal
March 12, 2012

After many years in which evolution was the most contentious issue in science education, climate change is now the battle du jour in school districts across the country.

The fight could heat up further in April, when several national bodies are set to release a draft of new science standards that include detailed instruction on climate change.

The groups preparing the standards include the National Research Council, which is part of the congressionally chartered National Academies. They are working from a document they drew up last year that says climate change is caused in part by manmade events, such as the burning of fossil fuels. The document says rising temperatures could have "large consequences" for the planet.

Most climate experts accept those notions as settled science. But they are still debated by some scientists, helping to fuel conflicts between parents and teachers.

When Treena Joi, a teacher at Corte Madera School in Portola Valley, Calif., last year showed her sixth-grade students the global-warming movie "An Inconvenient Truth"—a documentary in which former Vice President Al Gore issues dire warnings about climate change—the drama quickly spread beyond the classroom.

A father filed a formal complaint accusing Ms. Joi of "brainwashing" the students. He demanded that she apologize to her students or be fired, according to the complaint. The local school superintendent settled the matter by requiring parental permission before students viewed the movie in the future and prohibiting teachers from talking about ways to address climate change.

Ms. Joi said she knew the movie had stirred controversy but was surprised by the extent of the response. "I've taught other subjects—evolution and sex-ed—without as much pushback," she said.

Skeptics say students are getting a one-sided picture when teachers unveil scary scenarios and blame human activities for global warming. "At this point, I think there is no evidence to support alarm," said Richard Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a vocal critic of climate-change theories.

The battle over climate change is reminiscent of the debate over evolution, which first began decades ago, in which parents and outside groups, usually coming from a Christian perspective, object to teaching Darwin's theory as scientific fact.

Parents on both sides are sensitive to perceived slights in the classroom. Kimberly Danforth, a 50-year-old mother in Clifton Park, N.Y., said she complained to a school science adviser when she learned that her daughter's ninth-grade teacher faked a gagging motion while talking about climate change.

The teacher explained he was playing devil's advocate and actually believed in mainstream climate-change theories, but Ms. Danforth, who believes children should be taught about global warming, wasn't persuaded. "He seemed to be thumbing his nose at our values," she said.

The National Center for Science Education, an advocacy group that has defended the teaching of evolution, now has an initiative to support climate-change education. Like evolution, climate change is "settled science," said the center's executive director, Eugenie Scott. "We shouldn't fight the culture wars in the high-school classroom."

A conservative think tank, the Heartland Institute, is pursuing a competing effort to develop a K-12 curriculum that questions the idea of manmade global warming, according to David Wojick, a consultant who is designing the plan.

An online search about climate-change education shows "a vast and expensive array of…teaching materials" backing the view that manmade events contribute to climate change, Mr. Wojick said. "Teaching the scientific debate instead is a grand challenge," he added.

The new science standards, which are being updated for the first time since the mid-1990s, are set to be made final by year end. They will teach students graduating from eighth grade that human activities are "major factors" in global warming, according to the document adopted last year. Students graduating from 12th grade would be taught that future warming predictions are based on models that inform "decisions about how to slow its rate and consequences."

Loris Chen, a science teacher at Eisenhower Middle School in Wyckoff, N.J., said teachers have a responsibility to introduce young people to the scientific consensus. "There are some students who, for various reasons, come into class with a belief against climate change or global warming," she said. "I try to tell them, 'Keep an open mind and see where the data leads you.' "

While states set their own educational curriculum, many are likely to use the scientific standards as guidelines. But the approach to climate change could be a sticking point for some states. In one, South Dakota, the state House has already passed a resolution saying climate change should be taught as a "theory rather than a proven fact."

Rose Pugliese, a lawyer in western Colorado who has asked her local school board to prevent teachers from presenting climate change as fact, said schools should encourage students to reach their own conclusions.

"Unless we've got conclusive evidence one way or another—and I don't think we'll have that for hundreds of years—I think both sides should be taught," Ms. Pugliese said. "Allow the kids to figure it out for themselves."

That approach would mislead students, contends Martin Storksdieck, a director at the National Research Council who is helping to develop the new science standards. "What would be conveyed to them is not how science works—it's how politics works," Mr. Storksdieck said.


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