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Teachers should express their views when teaching controversial science, say
UK science education experts, September, 2004 by Anna Salleh .
Justin Dillon of King's College, London and team make their argument in
the latest issue of the Development Education Journal.
"The traditional approach to leading a discussion on a controversial science
subject is for the teacher to take a neutral role," said Dillon, who
lectures on science education.
"We believe that this strategy is wrong and that it is unethical to pretend
to pupils that teachers have no opinion."
He said science teachers tended to present science as neutral, objective and
dispassionate. But debates on the safety of genetically modified crops and
the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine showed scientists' research was influenced
by their own sets of values.
Dillon said teachers also had their own biases they should reveal.
"Teachers should be open with their own biases rather than pretend to be
neutral and students should be asked to take any bias into account when
making up their minds on a topic," he said. "Taking a neutral stance is not
a good strategy for teaching children how society works."
"For example, making policy on a national scale for a vaccine can often
involve balancing individual needs against those of society as a whole. Such
decision-making policies involve ethical, social and political issues that
go beyond a simplistic rational analysis of the facts."
Dillon and team argued teachers should encourage students to develop more
positive and realistic opinions of science and help them develop the skills
to assess differing expert theories, find more information, and not to
automatically accept received wisdom.
They recommended that teachers share their own views with students and
explain how they arrived at their position. The team also said it was
important that teachers and pupils contemplated their own views to avoid the
prejudice that came from a lack of critical thought.
Teaching controversial science
Deborah Crossing, executive director of the Australian Science Teachers
Association (ASTA), said that controversies such as immunisation,
Australia's relationship to the Kyoto Protocol and genetic engineering were
regularly discussed in Australian schools.
She said teachers in Australia were probably not encouraged to express their
own point of view when teaching controversies, and this might be because of
concerns about litigation. Instead, she said, they were encouraged to
"A good teacher will engage debate, provide the students with different
points of scientific view, get them to question, get them to test and get
them to come up with their own solution," Crossing told ABC Science Online.
"It's kind of irrelevant whether they put their point of view," she said.
"The important thing is that they are encouraging their students to come up
with their point of view based on good scientific evidence and [showing
them] how to assess whether it's good scientific evidence."
Crossing also said that students often did not question their teachers'
views and this was counterproductive.
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