© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Science, interrupted

beakerConnor (15) came home on the second day of school and collapsed on the sofa with a defeated look I’ve come to recognize.

“Uh…good day?”

“No.” He looked up at me. “Science.”

He had enrolled for physical science and was looking forward to it, thinking it was physics. Turns out it’s actually basic mechanics and other concepts he’s already had. But it was the teacher himself who had made the biggest impression — and not a good one.

“He did this whole thing with overheads, and a bunch of it just didn’t make any sense,” he said. “This one overhead said something like…” Connor paused to remember the wording. “‘Experiments and evidence in the present can’t tell us anything about the distant past.’”

I’m not sure how much time passed as the wind-up monkey in my head banged his little cymbals. That my son’s high school science teacher was almost directly quoting the favorite trope of young earth creationist point man Ken “Were You There?” Ham was not encouraging.

“Then he goes off on this thing about ‘If no one was there to witness something, we can only guess about it. This is a big problem for the evolutionists…’ And he goes on and on about how they’ve got all these little bits of bones but how they can never really know what they mean.”

Hello.

I began to consider my options, the first of which is always “Let it go.” It’s taken me years to learn that accepting a certain base level of facepalming human malpractice is one of the keys to passing my short vivre with some degree of joie. But there are also options that involve me getting out of my chair. Just a few things to weigh first.

I’m serious about not using my kids as pawns in my personal and professional quests. I would do nothing without Connor’s permission. I also have to consider the possibility that he misunderstood somehow, or that this might have been a momentary lapse in an otherwise stellar career for this teacher.

Then there’s the question of outcomes. If I did pursue this, what would the goal be?

Well that’s easy. The goal in this case is to see that the long, patient slog of science, our astonishing attempt to see the world and ourselves more clearly, doesn’t proceed through centuries of observation and experimentation and debate, crawling uphill through the morass of our ancient fears and biases, inching toward tentative answers, finding them, testing them, discarding bad answers and reinforcing sound ones, weaving isolated facts into theory, strengthening the theory, building consensus, then finally, wearily carrying the hard-won knowledge up the steps of our schools — only to be smacked to the floor with a flyswatter, just inches from the ears of our kids, by a “science teacher” who wonders how that icky, sciency thing ever found its way into his classroom.

Let’s call him Mr. Taylor.

Becca and I talked it over at dinner, and she was much more decisive. “I’m sorry, that’s just crazy,” she said. “You have GOT to do something.”

I knew she was right. And on reflection, I found a solid reason to do something, and to do it effectively and well — my daughter Delaney (8).

Last year, Delaney’s second grade teacher shared something with me at conferences. “I asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grow up,” he said. “We went around the room, and it was football player, firefighter, teacher, the usual things. Delaney was the only one who wanted to be a scientist. But she said she isn’t sure yet whether she wants to be an astronomer or a paleontologist or a marine biologist. Isn’t that great?”

Yes it is. A year later, her heart and mind are still set on science.

If she wanted to be a mathematician and I discovered that the middle school math teachers were presenting 4 as a prime number and pi as “just a theory,” I’d do something — NOT just to spank the offenders and make myself feel big and strong and right, but to fix the problem. If she loved history and the high school history teachers were hamfistedly rewriting history to suit their political preferences, I’d dig in to correct that.

So is it really too much for Laney to expect that three years from now, when she reaches her first actual class in the subject she loves most of all, she’ll be able to learn about science, the real thing, from a science educator who is motivated not by fear, or conflict avoidance, or ignorance, or the pursuit of a religious agenda, but by a love of and respect for science itself?

So I would look into this Taylor thing, not for a quick fix, but to do some lasting good.

(Continued.)

Added: An incredible story of an inspiring Georgia science teacher

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This was written on Friday, 03. September 2010 at 09:36 and was filed under action, belief and believers, Kerfuffles, My kids, Parenting, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Dale, I am holding my breath while I await your follow-up posts on this critical issue. I can’t tell you how fervently I hope that you can come up with an effective and successful strategy for dealing with this!

    Comment: niftywriter – 03. September 2010 @ 10:18 am

  2. Go get ‘em Dale! The christian parents are the first ones to kick down the school doors if they even hear about a teacher being an atheist. Thor forbid if an atheist teacher ever even dared dismiss a garbage theory like ‘creationism’ in the classroom; they’d string the teacher up by the ears. In that regard, so too must we confront bad science and religious bias when it rears its ugly head.

    Comment: BrianE – 03. September 2010 @ 10:45 am

  3. Yikes! What is your state’s standard for this sort of thing?

    Comment: stbloomfield – 03. September 2010 @ 11:00 am

  4. @stbloomfield: Very high, actually. The Fordham study puts Georgia in the top tier for sound science standards. But as all teachers know, the standards don’t always trickle down to the classroom.

    In this guy’s case, it’s less a question of standards than general approach — unless there’s a standard that says “Teachers will not make up evidentiary principles from scratch.”

    Comment: Dale – 03. September 2010 @ 11:29 am

  5. I can’t wait to hear how this resolves. You’re doing the right thing not just for your kids, but for all the students. This posted actually reminded me of an incident I had completely forgotten.

    In high school (not that long ago for me; I am a graduate student) I took an AP Biology class with a truly phenomenal teacher. In late high school, I was also growing away slowly from my upbringing as Jehovah’s Witness (JWs are *old* Earth creationists. They believe in the scientifically accepted age of the earth, with the caveat that it has just been hanging around and staying the same.)

    This incredible teacher taught evolution directly, unapologetically, kindly, and clearly…and it all made sense. Each step in my understanding, I told myself that okay, I could accept his information up to this arbitrary point, at least. But our lessons were clear, logical, and elegant. It never stopped making sense.
    At the end of the year, he asked –tactfully- how many of us still believed evolution was a lie. I raised my hand. I think I had spent so long being told that it was nonsense, that it was all bad science, that I assumed that my own understanding was suspect. If I “got” evolution, it was because I was missing the absurdity that all the sincere religious people in my life saw clearly. I wish I could apologize to that teacher for putting my hand up in his classroom, in front of all the other students who had shared that amazing year of science education with me.

    That simple, solid education has been the basis for all my eye-opening science study since then. From that perspective, I am so grateful that you are fighting this battle. All teachers have to do is present the facts, unapologetically, as clearly as possible. The lasting benefits emerge slowly, not as a minor victory in an ideological popularity contest.

    Comment: Allison – 03. September 2010 @ 11:38 am

  6. [...] The Meming of Life » Science, interrupted Parenting Beyond Belief … [...]

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  7. Holy self-indulgent comment, Batman! I didn’t realize how long my epic was until I took another look at it. I apologize for derailing your post with my anecdata, Dale. I can’t wait to hear what happens in Connor’s classroom.

    Comment: Allison – 03. September 2010 @ 12:08 pm

  8. Whoo. Good luck.

    Ken Ham’s distortions of science and religion* make me see red and raise my blood pressure. So I particularly wish you as much peace as possible as you try to navigate this mess.

    *He’s more or less said that if you accept evolution, you can’t be a saved Christian.

    Comment: Mercredi – 03. September 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  9. @Allison: Not at all! I love to hear those stories. It keeps filling in the full picture for me.

    @Mercredi: That’s why it’s important to work for the long haul. In the short run, most victories are hollow. Fortunately the more I learn about my adopted state’s standards and the admirable work of administrators, teachers, and parents over the years, the more encouraged I am.

    Comment: Dale – 03. September 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  10. I love and hate cliffhangers! I’m curious as to how this plays out… when I was teaching high school physics and chemistry, I had to deal with annoying parental phone calls when I taught about the age of the universe / age of the earth / banded iron formations, etc.

    I read the article you linked to on Ms. New, in Georgia, and was struck by the following: “Ms. New said that from then on, including the entire 2005-06 school year, she had no problem teaching evolution. “What saved me, was I didn’t have to argue evolution with these people. All I had to say was, ‘I’m following state standards.’ ” ”

    It depresses me that, in the end, it was not an explanation of evidence that won, but an argument from authority.

    This reminds me of the importance of having good standards, written by content-area experts. They’ll provide a valuable tool for you in dealing with this teacher. How many teachers in my home state of Texas will use the revised social studies standards as cover to butcher students’ understanding of civics?

    Comment: Scaurus – 03. September 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  11. [...] Dear Mr. Taylor (Part 1) (Continued from “Science, interrupted“) [...]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Dear Mr. Taylor (Part 1) Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 05. September 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  12. Dale, Dale, Dale. The National Center for Science Education exists specifically to provide advice and help in this very kind of situation. They have broad and deep experience, and are not flame-throwing culture warriors. You are trying to re-invent a wheel that’s already on the ground and rolling. I’m disappointed that a guy as plugged in as your are doesn’t know about NCSE’s work.

    Comment: RBH – 06. September 2010 @ 1:21 pm

  13. What an odd assumption, RBH. I know NCSE so well that in 2002 I donated a portion of the proceeds from my first book to them. I was a member for several years after that. Last quarter, my foundation raised over $3600 for NCSE. So yes, I know who they are and that they are not “flame-throwing culture warriors.”

    I also doubt that Eugenie Scott would have any problem knowing a parent has started a simple conversation with a teacher without involving NCSE. I will inform them in due course, and I will use them as a resource as needed.

    Comment: Dale – 06. September 2010 @ 6:53 pm

  14. [...] exactly that situation. Keep an eye on his blog for the latest updates. Here’s part one: Science Interrupted. “He did this whole thing with overheads, and a bunch of it just didn’t make any sense,” he [...]

    Pingback: Florida Citizens for Science » Blog Archive » What would you do? – 06. September 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  15. My apologies, Dale. I should not have leaped so quickly. But I was struck by there being no mention of NCSE yet.

    Comment: RBH – 07. September 2010 @ 12:26 am

  16. [...] ladder (Being the ongoing story of a parent responding to bad science in the classroom. See also Part 1, Part 2, Part [...]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Up the ladder Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 09. September 2010 @ 9:32 am

  17. [...] Recognizing good results (Last in a series of six. Start here.) [...]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Recognizing good results Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 14. September 2010 @ 11:01 am

  18. [...] son’s school. I can’t strongly enough urge you to read the entire saga, starting with the first post and continuing via the links at the [...]

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  19. [...] in the classroom is the teacher? Laden cites parenting blogger Dale McGowan, who responded to a creationist science teacher by writing a pointed letter asking for more conventional lectures. Laden sighs, “You [...]

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  21. [...] that’s on paper. As Ms. Warner and Mr. Taylor clearly show, individuals in the system will do their level best to undercut even the best [...]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » When science goes south Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 10. February 2011 @ 9:15 am

  22. [...] happy to fire off a blistering corrective to the Mr. Taylors and Ms. Warners, the educators who fall down on the job and take our kids with them. But [...]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Kudos to the good Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 31. March 2011 @ 1:52 pm

  23. [...] bad things do happen, the bad is hugely outweighed by the good. And when things do go south, a thoughtful [...]

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  24. I came across this article through a link on a parentinQ&A site, http://parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/2718/how-do-you-handle-a-conflict-between-your-child-and-a-teacher
    and I am amazed at the writing style! This is certainly a blog I am going to follow! It’s already in my RSS reader, and I’m looking at the linked articles already.

    Comment: torbengb – 31. August 2011 @ 3:11 pm

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