Learning curve: How children formulate their own world views

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 10:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 10:15am

Students ask some thought-provoking questions. When teaching evolution in biology, students have frequently questioned my personal beliefs: "You chose to study this subject, so does it mean you believe in natural selection?" Or more interestingly: is my teaching of the subject "diluted by own personal beliefs?"

Recently, after I had taught the law of conservation of matter and energy to Form Two students, 11-year-old Ines Durand stayed behind after class and inquired: If matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, and if living things require energy and are made of matter, then how did life begin?

Her logical reasoning to make these intellectual connections gave me an insight into how facile it is for us to influence students, as they develop their own world views. Her father Emmanuel said: "It's an interesting situation because Ines has been influenced by 'creationism' concepts early on by my wife, who is Christian, and the church. Although I accept the idea of believing in one or multiple gods, I am not a religious man, and, as a biologist myself, I believe in evolution and not creationism.

"Because of her own intelligence and because she's growing up and probably because of [what is taught in] school, Ines has started asking questions of us and herself."

While at the core of the discussion is the role of religion in schools, the intelligent design versus evolution debate has elicited more sparks in American schools than in international and local schools in Hong Kong. In November 2005, the Kansas Board of Education amended the state's science standards, allowing criticism of evolution in the curriculum.

The theory of evolution was originally developed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century and has its premise in the concept of natural selection. "Survival of the fittest" proposes that organisms inherit traits that are favourable to survival and such adaptations can lead to the evolution of new species, and progression from simple to complex organisms.

Modern evolutionary theory has been refined by the growing understanding of genetic processes that have demonstrated that random mutations produce changes in animal and plant populations across generations. In contrast, advocates of intelligent design argue that genetic mutations alone cannot contribute to the development of complex organisms with sophisticated functionality, and that only a purposeful "designer" could have created them.

The theory of intelligent design is considered by the scientist community to be incompatible with the scientific process. This method of inquiry proposes a theory, gathers evidence that could either support or refute the theory, and then evaluates the theory in light of the evidence.

Scientists argue that intelligent design does not pass the scientific-method test because it cannot be refuted by physical evidence. Thus it is more a religious belief than a product of scientific thinking.

This religious basis, they argue, means it has no place in the science classroom.

I conducted an anonymous poll in two of my classes and asked students to qualify their choice with a short explanation.

Interestingly, the distribution of responses was approximately equal: one third of the classes believed in evolution, another third attributed intelligent design to the existence of life and the last group comprised of students who believed in both.

This can be summed up as: "I believe that the universe was initially created by intelligent design billions and billions of years ago, but after that, evolution is what has made the universe the way it is now."

Emmanuel Durand's world view was a reminder to me as a parent and educator. "It's interesting to see that Ines is in a stage where she makes [up] her own mind towards what she will be later in life."

We have a responsibility to help students formulate their own world views without imposing our own on them. We should always provide them with opportunities to develop their views as objectively as possible.

Irrespective of whether life evolved through natural selection or exists by intelligent design, what has transcended the same time frame are the qualities we attribute to our definition of a "good person".

What is important is to remind our students and children this festive season is that irrespective of individual beliefs, the human values that this religious holiday signifies are a common denominator.

Peace on earth and goodwill to all.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School