Evolution to be taught in UK primary schools

Evolution is to be taught in UK primary schools

And we still can’t get it on the Junior Cert Biology syllabus at secondary level.
Now when I say ‘we can’t get it on the syllabus’ that may be a little misleading – it may well be that no biology teacher cares enough to do anything about it. That may be a little harsh, but I have yet to hear any teacher raise the issue, and that’s what hurts.

There may well have been lectures on the topic of evolution over Science Week (because that’s when we show students that Science is interesting) and it is certainly one of the more popular topics when it comes to science documentaries (anybody else watching the incredible BBC series Life with David Attenborough?).

So why can’t we join the dots and teach it in our schools?

So next time you read about those silly yanks who want creationism taught in their high schools spare a thought for us equally silly paddies.


Annnnnd we’re back

It’s taken a while (actually all Summer) but thephysicsteacher.ie now contains student notes on all topics on the Junior Cert Science syllabus.

Each chapter contains a copy of the relevant points from the syllabus at the beginning. This gives the student an overview of what the chapter is about and also acts as a check for both student and teacher to ensure we have everything covered before we finish.

There is then the main body which contains the notes in a relatively condensed form.

Next come the questions; here we have included every relevant question which has appeared on an exam paper at higher or ordinary level. These have been arranged to follow the order of the concepts in the notes themselves.

Each question has a reference to the year when the question appeared. Some questions come up repeatedly and this is readily apparent by noting the numbering of years at the top.

Next come the solutions. These are not just the answers but where necessary fully worked out solutions.

Finally there is a bank of miscellaneous questions which rounds of the chapter.

So what next?

Because it’s my first year using this approach it will take at least the year to road-test it and fine tune as I go along. This time next year it should be closer to a polished product.

I teach second- and third-years and so far we have never needed to look at a text-book. The hope is that next year we can spare parents the expense of purchasing science text-books for Junior Science.

Of course the notes still need to be photocopied and distributed, but at least we cut down considerably on paper by using narrow margins, reducing size by printing two pages onto one A4 and photocopying back to back, with the result that most chapters are on one double-sided page. Students seem to have little trouble with this approach although they do have to invest in a plastic folder to contain the notes.

It would be nice to think that we could work in a paperless classroom, but this would require all students to have their own laptop in class so I’m not holding my breath.

The wonderful people at CESI have been helping with the presentation and I can’t see any reason why the notes can’t be published as an online book after we have road-tested it.

It can be updated every year both to improve the quality and add extra exam questions as they appear. In particular I would like to develop the questions to include a lot more ‘higher order’ thinking rather than just simple recall.

It needs to be in ‘editable’ format to allow other teachers to adapt it to their own needs.

I also need to add interactive links to the Junior Chemistry and Junior Biology pages of the website; currently I have over one hundred waiting patiently in the wings; they range from average to priceless.

It’s all freely available to download. In fact to save teachers and/or students the trouble of downloading 45 different chapters I can’t see any reason why I can’t copy them to cd and post them – at least initially.

The website already contains a guide to teaching Junior Cert Physics by topic; it would be nice if this could be expanded to include Chemistry and Biology, but this would involve a contribution from a more knowledgeable source than I.

And what I really want to do is to have evolution permeate the entire Biology section  – after all could there be anything more ridiculous than teaching Biology without reference to the underlying template upon which all life is built?

That, and the fact that it’s only the greatest story ever told.

That’ll do for now.

Junior Cert Physics      Junior Cert Biology         Junior Cert Chemistry

Scientific Certainty; What’s in a Theory?

Picking out the greatest disservice we do to out students as science-teachers is no easy task; there is quite an impressive list to pick from. Not reflecting or even being aware of this is in itself significant. I think C.S. Pierce put it best when he wrote “Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics [philosophy] . . . and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticised metaphyiscs with which they are packed.”

This year marks the 200th birthday of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th birthday of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species, so it seems like a good opportunity to address at least one of these issues here, namely the concept of absolute certainty in Science.

Science does not offer absolute proof; it never has and it never will. Science (and scientists, and science teachers) are their own worst enemy here, because for hundreds of years we have been (tacitly or otherwise) giving the impression that Science does offer – and can find – certainty.

A second related contributory factor is the word ‘Theory’. It has two completely different meanings, depending on whether it is being used in a scientific context or in general parlance. So where, in a student’s school science education, do we as teachers address this?
There’s a nice example of this in Richard Dawkins The Root of all Evil; See this in action at 8 minutes 30 seconds into the clip below.



The key here is at the very end.
Interviewee: You say “this is truth, because it’s based on evidence. That’s such a fuddy answer.”
Dawkins: We don’t say that, we say “we’re struggling towards the truth, and as new evidence comes in we refine it”.
Can’t recall ever saying that in my lessons, or indeed ever having heard it from a science teacher either.
Maybe the problem lies with us.

How many of us for that matter would be able to distinguish between the following:
(and for two marks can you put a scientist’s name to each one?)

Was the human species pre-ordained?


I think this is one of the most significant questions that mankind has ever addressed, and yet I very rarely come across any reference to it.
Stephen Jay Gould is probably the scientist best associated with this. His well known metaphor runs as follows:

If you re-ran the tape of evolutionary history, an entirely different set of creatures would emerge. Man would not exist because the multitude of random changes that resulted in us would never be repeated exactly the same way.

Gould is by a long way my favourite science-writer (or was, until Bill Bryson dipped his big toe in the genre), and therefore I was always likely to agree with this view. The concept also appeals to be in that it reinforces our insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a program dealing with exactly this topic while browsing through the archives of In Our Time; a wonderful series where Melvyn Bragg discusses the big questions of civilisation (subscribe to his newsletter – it’s wonderful reading).

Who were the original proponents of the idea of a grand design? Were they deliberately setting out to find a scientific theory that could sit alongside religious faith? On the other hand, can the concept of contingency – or the randomness of evolution – be compatible with a belief in God?

Visit In Our Time to listen to the program (all quotes and image taken from that page). The discussion takes twenty minutes to get around to this topic, and the jury seems to go against Gould, but it’s good stuff nonetheless.
Take a few minutes to browse through the other programs (it’s not just Science; there’s also History, Culture, Religion and Philosophy) then save this page to your favourites and listen to other programs as you browse next time.

Of course this is much too interesting a question to appear on any Science syllabus.

Fractals and Dinosaurs

Continuing with the space and dinosaurs theme:
I get my transition years to do a project on absolutely any topic on Science which interests them, preferably something off the beaten track (i.e. not in the textbooks). fortunately this doesn’t seem to be a drawback in the slightest. Almost no aspect of science which interests them is on any science syllabus.
Because I am as likely to be interested in their topic as they are, I suggested I would look for resources also and post them here.

In relation to fractals, the classic video is called The Colours of Infinity. The original DVD and accompanying book is available in the school library.
The problem for anyone doing a project on dinosaurs is sifting through the vast information that is out there. This clip is pitched at about the right level.

The Colours of Infinity:

When Dinosaurs ruled America

Play the survival game: a cool resource for teaching Evolution


The Science Channel have produced a wonderful learning resource on evolution here. I tried it with my Transition Year class and they found it addictive, as did my Leaving Cert Physics class when they walked in and saw it on the screen.  For what is arguably the greatest idea mankind has ever come up with, there appears to be remarkably few quality resources available online.

The Welcome Trust have produced some text-based resources here (top right of page), which isn’t quite the same thing.
Is it because we as teachers are not pushing to have it taught at all levels in schools that there are so few resources out there?
Or are there resources online that I just don’t know about?

Almost half of the world’s primate species are in danger of extinction

Mankind’s closest relatives – the world’s monkeys, apes and other primates – are disappearing from the face of the Earth, with some being literally eaten to extinction.

Source: IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (see article here)

And we’re supposed to be the intelligent ones.

Science, evolution and creationism (again)

I have written before about creationism and science education, and how it is not mentioned in Junior Cert Science. Every so often these surveys appear in the papers; this one was in the New Scientist last May. Researchers polled a random sample of nearly 2000 high-school science teachers across the US in 2007:

[ ] asked about the teachers’ personal beliefs . . . 16% of the total said they believed human beings had been created by God within the last 10,000 years.

I guess the number shouldn’t be surprising, but I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable.

Why Ozymandias?

I have this poem on the door of my lab.

Why Ozymandias?
Obviously it’s one of my favourite poems. I am always reminded of the final scene from Planet of the Apes where Taylor comes across the upper half of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand.

You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!


No matter how important I think I am,
No matter how important we think this civilisation is,
No matter how important we think the human species is,
No matter how important we think the planet Earth is,
In the grand scheme of things we are only here for a very short time.
Let’s make the most of it.

The central theme of Ozymandias is mankind’s hubris. In fourteen short lines, Shelley condenses the history of not only Ozymandias’ rise, peak, and fall, but also that of an entire civilization. Without directly stating it, Shelley shows that all works of humankind – including power structures and governments -eventually must pass into history, no matter how permanent they may seem at the apex of their influence. Ozymandias’ short-sighted pride seems amusing at first – until the reader realizes that the lessons conveyed are equally applicable today. All things must pass.
From Wikipedia

I like this website for poetry because it includes readers’ comments which are educational in themselves. I’m sure there are other such sites out there – if you know of any you would recommend please let us know.