Monday, March 11, 2013

The Teachable Moment

At a recent meeting of the National Association of Biology Teachers, Dr. Shirley Malcolm, one of the leaders of modern science education, gave a keynote presentation about the direction that science education is going vs. the way it should go.

During the question and answer period, a creationist sympathizer got up to the microphone. She said that at Mt. St. Helens in Washington large canyons had formed very quickly after the 1980 volcanic eruption. She said the creationists used this as evidence that entire landscapes, which we assume take millions of years to form, can be formed quickly. Perhaps, she suggested, we could learn something by listening to the creationists.

Dr. Malcolm’s answer was a simple put-down: We will not discuss creationism in our classrooms. Applause.

But I think a teachable moment was missed here, and such a moment would be missed if a teacher crushed a creationist student’s comments. I would perhaps have said, “Yes, canyons formed at Mt. St. Helens that look similar to canyons that took millions of years to form elsewhere. But deposits such as those revealed by the Colorado River have thousands of layers, some sedimentary, some volcanic, and the volcanic layers can be dated; and they are millions of years old. If you use the same procedures to study the Mt. St. Helens deposits, you would find them to all be volcanic and all young.”

Such a response would not have been a put-down, and it would have challenged the creationist side to undertake a scientific investigation. It also invites casual observers to look beyond the mere resemblance between canyons at Mt. St. Helens and the Grand Canyon.

My sincerest thanks to all of you who supported my candidacy for Pope (see previous entry). Now we will just wait and see what happens. If green smoke comes out of the chimney, that might mean that they chose me.

1 comment:

  1. Could not agree with you more; this was a missed opportunity. The last time I taught a large lecture class of intro biology, a creationist student interrupted with such a question. And I asked, "Did this type of question work when you were in high school?" Then I explained that he was now in the big leagues and things worked differently here because I know how to answer such questions. And I took the 15 mins necessary to point out the flaws, the mistaken assumptions, and indeed what the science actually said. It was time well spent and he didn't try to interject creationism again.