Foster Critical Thinking in Schools

Original Article
Academic freedom fosters critical thinking and belongs in schools.

My approach to explanations of biological diversity, be they the variety of scientific materialism theories such as Darwinian evolution (my district curriculum mandate) or a discussion of the emerging design theory (non-curriculum viewpoint), is to encourage students to weigh evidence on both sides of an argument critically. Charles Darwin wrote, “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” I agree with Darwin here.

My primary focus is teaching the controversy of evolution, but I do retain the right to mention the viewpoint of design theory if asked by curious students if there are other explanations out there in the world of scientific thinking.

Teaching the controversy presents Darwinian materialism as unsettled dogma full of debates about key aspects of the theory, debates occurring among and between mainstream evolutionary biologists including the small minority of biologists who have completely rejected Darwinism. Are the theory’s weaknesses minor or fundamental? Loyalists insist the weaknesses will be resolved. Skeptics believe the weaknesses are major obstacles and will lead to its collapse. Whatever view, one should embrace teaching the controversy. These weaknesses should not be hidden nor should ongoing debates over the theory be suppressed.

This approach comports with the state of Washington’s high school assessment test and senior culminating projects, which expect students to be able to think critically, analyze information, and draw informed, reasoned conclusions. State Education Reform Goal 3 states: Student shows evidence of thinking analytically, logically, and creatively, while integrating experience and knowledge to form reasoned judgments and solve problems. These are critical thinking skills necessary to function competently in an ever competitive work world and to meet societal responsibilities such as jury duty.

Teaching the controversy is inclusive. Ninety-two U.S. senators agreed in a Sense-of-the-Senate addendum to the No Child Left Behind Act. Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy explained, “We want children to be able to speak and examine various scientific theories on the basis of all of the information that is available to them so they can talk about different concepts and do it intelligently with the best information that is before them.” Additionally the act states, “Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of views that exist.” Finally the Supreme Court has ruled that it is permissible to teach students about alternative scientific viewpoints and scientific criticism of prevailing theories.

Scientific controversy over this theory is real. Scientists are willing, despite ridicule, threats and ostracism, to express doubts about Darwinian materialism. Censorship in this arena is appalling; perhaps we are witnessing Scopes in reverse. Suppression of evidence, and other forms of marginalization against skeptics of any theory should never be acceptable to free and critically thinking people. A Chinese paleontologist recently commented, “In China we can criticize Darwin, but not the government; In America you can criticize the government, but not Darwin.”

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” the famed geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973. Perhaps this should be rephrased as, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of the ‘evidence.’ ”

This is what I expect my students to do.

Doug Cowan is a biology teacher in Port Orchard.