How scenarios and using the nature and philosophy of science might help with challenging pupil questions…

R D Hodges

The problem

Stepping into a science classroom can feel like stepping into a field filled with a beef herd – all the heads turn towards you as you speak, and you don’t know which step you might take between a mother and her calf.  Will you exit the field with just a raised heartrate, or a more long-lasting injury?

There are parts of science which are heavy with ethics and philosophy, such as the theory of evolution, reproduction, genetics and the production and use of Stem Cells.  With the inevitability of curiosity in a 5 year old, these can lead to spontaneous questions from pupils.  Unfortunately, these issues also tend to run across the lines of difference between pupils, leading to a second risk: bullying.   Bullying relies on singling out an individual group who have a difference of some form and using that ‘difference’ against them.  Differences such a perceived intelligence, social status, ethnicity, sexuality and religion are easy targets. Unfortunately for science teachers, three of these dividers have used science as a faux battlefield: race, sexuality and religion.   Genetics have been misused to permit racism on a massive scale, and to suggest an unnecessary ‘cure’ to sexualities that do not fix with certain groups ideology.  The theory of evolution has been used to mock some religious groups, and via the origin of man, to further slight specific ethnicities.  Unsurprisingly, given history, our children are fairly likely to, very honestly, come out with questions relating to these difficult areas.  However, what can make this challenging is where their views stand out from their peers, or where their parents or carers have brought them up with a false understanding of science to support or refute?

For the new teacher, being faced for the first time with questions such as ‘evolution has disproved god, right?’ in a classroom where there are religious pupils, can be terrifying.  A 2014 study by Raven and Jurkiewicz in the US found that the majority of the 21 pre-service teachers questioned felt ill-prepared for such questions, and for dealing with bullying in general between pupils[1]. These teachers often fell back on the claim that ‘science is facts’ to try steer conversation out of the ‘danger zone.’ Yoon, Sulkowski and Ballman found in the same year in South Africa that having a contrasting gender or ethnicity to a pupil who was making inappropriate comments reduced preventary input[2].   However, Mahabeer found in 2020 that those were themselves bullied were better at both recognizing and dealing with it[3].

Does it exist in the UK?

As part of my PGCE course, trainees were required to read the Raven and Jurkiewicz article, and to make comment on it as part of a discussion.  In addition, there were comments on the material made by students in their internal discussions with one another. Looking through these discussions, two things were noticable:

  1. Trainee teachers were not convinced that the conclusions were accurate in the States, and certainly not in the UK
  2. Trainees did not feel confident in approaching the answering of tough questions by pupils in the classroom

To test whether these conclusions were at all accurate, I put my researcher hat on and designed an anonymous quiz on Google Forms for trainees to complete[4].   In total 12 completed the form, a hardly significant number, but their responses have some interesting elements.  Largely they confirm that trainees feel unprepared to deal with PHSE, tricky student questions, and bullying, but some scenarios at the end suggest the opposite might be true in practice.

The majority of my tiny sample felt unprepared to deliver PHSE, which all bar 1 of them will be required to teach as NQT teachers, and there was a general expressions of lack of preparedness for PHSE topics, including very low levels of training provision.

Graph 2
Training given for teaching PHSE
Graph 1
Confidence in teaching PHSE in the survey

However, the knowledge of bullying as a definition, and the confidence in identifying it were high amongst the student teachers, suggesting they feel able to identify bullying when they see it, and perhaps are nervous about dealing with it for the first time.   This stands in stark contrast to the amount of training that was felt to have been provided, and was attributed largely to life experience, supporting Mahabeer’s findings.[5]

Graph 3
Amount of training on bullying
Graph 4
Confidence to deal with various forms of bullying

Most fascinating in the survey however, was the contrast in confidence levels mentioned above, and the confidence with which these same trainees dealt with scenarios.  Four scenarios where pupils acted to taunt one another through misconceptions about a challenging topic in science, were presented to the trainees.  Trainees responded very differently to those in the American study[6], choosing largely to engage with the pupils, correcting the bullying, while also giving some whole-class re-direction on the misconception (or misappropriation of science) which had triggered the comment given.  Often, references were made to the understanding of the nature and philosophy of science to support the correct use of science, and how the subject fits into a broader worldview, rather than purely being ‘the facts’ as the Pre-service teachers had suggested.

QuestionTrainee Answers (summarized with quotes)
In a lesson on evolution, a pupil states that their family believes in Creationism and not evolution.  Their classmates loudly laugh at them, and call them stupid. What is your response?– reprimand those calling another child stupid

 

– clear discussion of individual’s right to their own opinions

– reference the ‘theory’, what a theory is, how we reached this conclusion as scientists

– explain that pupils need to learn the theory regardless of whether they believe it

“There is a huge amount of evidence to support this theory, so Scientists are confident this is broadly correct.[…] as Scientists it is our job to report on things there is evidence for, […]Assuming the existence in God, does it make more sense that he put this evidence there to trick us or that the creationalist bible verses are stories with philosophical and moral lessons to teach, but shouldn’t be taken 100% literally? Thus making the bible and Evolution compatible.”

You are in a lesson on Genetic Engineering, and a pupil turns to a neighbour and says ‘see, genes control everything, so you must have gay genes’.  What is your response?–       Keep pupils behind (probably separately) and have a longer discussion with them around the topics

 

–       Reprimand pupils for the use of a slur towards another pupil

–       Explain that although we think there are genetic connections (people are born with their sexuality) our current understanding it is not tied to a single gene

“Make it clear that such language is derogatory whether the pupil is homosexual or not and has no place in the classroom but also highlight that there is some scientific evidence for a genetic basis for sexual preferences so the pupil was in fact “born this way” (aka being gay is not a preference) but there is no such thing as a “gay gene”. “

During a science lesson, a pupil states loudly ‘Science has proven that God doesn’t exist, and science is always right, so we shouldn’t have to do RS anymore.’ You know at least one pupil in your class has a strong person faith.  What do you do?–       Reprimand in class or afterwards for pupil who may have caused offence to other pupils

 

–       Evidence basis of science, which changes over time, is different from belief

–       Science has not disproven God

–       RS is bigger than just whether god is real or not

“Science hasn’t disproven the existence of God. Science is simply an attempt to view our universe through an objective lense. It is unbias and ever changing. It does deal with facts but what it isn’t attempting to do is prove or disprove religion. And belief is incredibly important. Ethics comes imto what you believe and whether you’re religious or not you will have beliefs on how you should live your life.”

During a discussion on the origin of man, two BAME pupils begin to have a loud discussion about whether some races are more evolved than others because humans spread out from Africa.   What do you do?–       Opportunity for class discussion on why this may or may not be an acceptable thing to say from scientific and ethical standpoint

 

–       Timing of evolution, and how their can be greater genetic difference between those of the same ‘race’ and those of two different ‘races’

“Evidence is that the spread of humans around the globe happened too recently, and in the absence of any selective pressure, for any observable evolutionary differences to have occured. Interestingly, as we have begun to better understand our DNA, we have discovered that many Europeans are part neadertal and that generally, humans are so similar that two people who look alike from the outside can have more genetic diversity than two people who don’t.”

In a department meeting, there is a discussion about a pupil whose parents have pulled them out of sex ed in PHSE and wants them to also miss the Reproduction module in Science.  What would be your argument to the parents?–       Reproduction in science cannot be opted out of according to law, as it can in PHSE

 

–       HOD should be responsible for approaching/supporting the approach of teachers to these parents via the head teacher

–       Preparation of the materials to be used to be sent to the parents if this will help ease their concerns

“According to the government guidelines that is a conversation for the Head to have with the parents, not the science teacher. If I was the head, the argument for attendance would centre on how it’s important to participate in the curriculum to best prepare students for life in the real world.”

Takeaways…

There are two things that I think we can take from this…

Second, we need to give trainee teachers in lockdown some confidence through the use of scenarios.

But first, it backs up a theory of mine that we can use the nature and philosophy of science to deal with some of the bullying issues we face in schools.

A solution in the nature of science?

As mentioned above, there had been an online discussion of the Raven and Jurkweicz article in my PGCE course.   I (and a number of my peers) mentioned my dismay at using the phrase ‘science is the facts’ to skip over challenging questions due to fear of racial or religious differences.  I suggested an approach which I had found effective in the past; using history of science and its philosophy to approach both the question and the issue surrounding it.

I had a slightly unusual route into teaching science.  Off the back of studying Medical Science and History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, my first teaching post was as a teacher of Theology and Philosophy (TP) and an assistant Chaplain at a boarding school.  My predecessors in the post had come from more theological backgrounds and sought shadowing experience in the TP department, but I decided to have a look around both History and Science to shadow.  The next year I was teaching Science and TP to the same class of year seven pupils.  The back-to-back timetabling of TP and Science was draining, but it gave me a unique opportunity to explore how my teacher identity changed between the two lessons – and allowed conversations started in one type of lessons to continue into the other. For example, when covering evolution, I could move the lessons so that religious beliefs around creation and the science of evolution were back to back, almost a continuing discussion. And when a question that was more philosophical came up in science, I could bounce it to the TP lesson, with the pupils knowledge that I genuinely would come back to it.

This strange structure also allowed me to explore using a little history and philosophy of science to answer some tricky questions.  I found that I could explain in the above example that there are different views about creation and the theory of evolution, but that it was far more effective to give pupils a history of what people have believed about evolution, encouraging different pupils to share their views from different cultural backgrounds.  Pupils are then able to see themselves how different those views may be, hopefully reducing some ridicule of pupils with certain views, whilst also giving a good coverage of the science, and potentially adding something a little more broad and balanced to their learning.

Final Musings

In completing this research it has been fascinating to see that a number of trainee teachers are employing the same method of looking at the nature and philosophy of science in order to answer tough questions from pupils.  Potentially, this could lead to a greater level of teaching of the nature and philosophy of science to pupils in secondary school, which is currently somewhat squeezed out of the curriculum.

The challenge, of course, will be how to fit such teaching into a regular teaching timetable.  Most curricula are more than happy to contain the tricky topics,but have little space for a detour for a specific question.  How do we fit in nature of science?  Some questions will be quick to answer, but others require deeper explanations which we may not have time for? How do we square that circle? I will be honest, I am not sure.

[1] Raven, S., & Jurkiewicz, M. A. (2014). Preservice Secondary Science Teachers’ Experiences and Ideas about Bullying in Science Classrooms. Science Educator, 23(1), 65-72..

[2] Yoon, Jina & Sulkowski, Michael & Bauman, Sheri. (2014). Teachers’ Responses to Bullying Incidents: Effects of Teacher Characteristics and Contexts. Journal of School Violence. 15. 1-23. 10.1080/15388220.2014.963592.

[3]Mahabeer, P., 2020. Novice teachers’ beliefs and fears on bullying in schools in South Africa. KOERS — Bulletin
for Christian Scholarship, 85(1). Available at: https://doi.org/10.19108/ KOERS.85.1.2445

[4] The form can be found here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdmm095—gXUELs7h7lfGiwPUjQD_Kdi0Hp6gXrIjegu_eIw/viewform?usp=sf_link

[5] Mahabeer (2020)

[6] Raven & Jurkiewicz (2014)

One thought on “Philosophy over Fear

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