Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Misleading creationism question included on GCSE biology paper

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The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance examination board has come under fire after a question was included on its GCSE biology paper asking students to outline how creationism is used to explain the origins of life. According to the Daily Telegraph, the question presented four "theories of how new species of plants and animals have developed" – Darwinism, Lamarckism, Intelligent Design and Creationism – and asked pupils to match them with a one sentence definition. Creationism was defined as "fossils of all the different kinds of animals appear suddenly in the rocks, with no evidence of ancestors", while the correct answer for Intelligent Design defined it as a theory based on the "complicated way in which cells work".

A spokesperson for the AQA admitted that the question could be seen as misleading, but defended the decision to ask a question that mentioned creationism and ID:
"Merely asking a question about creationism and intelligent design does not imply support for these ideas. Neither idea is included in our specification and AQA does not support the teaching of these ideas as scientific.

"In the examination question, information was given to candidates and they were asked to relate evidence to conclusions. The use of the term 'theory' was intended in its common, everyday sense. However, we accept that in the context of a science examination this could be misleading and we will be addressing this issue for any future questions."

But James Williams, lecturer in education at Sussex University and a leading expert on the encroachment of creationism into education, has criticised the AQA for appearing to suggest that creationism and ID are scientific "theories":

"This gives an unwarranted high profile to creationism and intelligent design as ideas of equal status with tested scientific theories. I was alerted to the question by concerned biology teachers in schools who were dismayed that such a question could be set by an examination board."

I actually saw James Williams give a lecture on this subject at a recent BHA conference on Darwin – he's very good on how we should develop science education in Britain in order to keep pseudoscience out of the classroom. The lecture is on YouTube - it's well worth watching if you can spare a bit of time:


Joe Hayhurst said...

No mention of 'God' in those descriptions, either. Given that these were exam questions, that would lead me to ask what the students were being taught about creationism and ID - is 'God' mentioned in the lessons? If not, why the fuck not?

Anonymous said...

If the AQA "does not support the teaching of these ideas as scientific." why is there a question about it on an AQA GCSE paper?

I'm aware that exams may have changed, even in the small amount of time since I left school (5 years ago), but when I took my GCSEs, we weren't questioned on things that actively aren't taught in the class.

Neuroskeptic said...

I second Joe's wtf not - it sounds to me that the AQA are making a ham-fisted token attempt to "teach about the controversy" in the most superficial and pointless way.

Neal O said...

If the question was about the stork theory of reproduction I could buy AQA'a answer but creationism and ID, I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

I've only just come across this story but the thing about it that worries me most was this quote I found on the BBC website story and attributed to an AQA spokeswoman;

"She said pupils were not taught creationism as a valid scientific theory but that it would be strange not to mention it when discussing Darwinism."

Generally speaking the theory of evolution is only described as 'Darwinism' by ID and creationism proponents who want to reduce a scientific theory to the level of a belief or cult like support of an individual. The AQAs use of the term is disturbing.

I'd also like to know how much this question impacted on the marks of candidates.