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Monday, 16 June 2008

The Challenge of Teaching Science in a Christian Homeschooling Setting

This is a guest-post by Evolutionary Biologist Douglas Hayworth, and is the tenth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Douglas and his wife homeschool their three children.

One of the most challenging tasks facing homeschooling parents is providing a good science education to their children. And providing a healthy academic and theological perspective on evolution is one of the most difficult aspects of this task. There are several specific challenges that must be faced. First, there is typically a knowledge gap; few parents have the training necessary to properly guide middle- and high-school level learning in science subjects. Second, few if any science curricula from Christian publishers provide the necessary academic and philosophical guidance on issues of science and faith. To make matters worse, these publishers often claim or imply that they do provide strong guidance in these areas and thus give typical parents a false sense of security. Third, grade-appropriate supplementary resources are currently nonexistent or unavailable to homeschoolers. Fourth, hands-on laboratory experimentation, which is necessary to reinforce the empirical nature of science, is more difficult and expensive for individual households than for public and parochial schools. I derive these points from my personal experience as a homeschooling parent of three children and from my observation of nonscientist Christian homeschooling friends.

Challenge #1: Lack of Parental Scientific Knowledge
Lack of parental scientific knowledge is often a significant challenge. No parents are trained in the broad range of academic areas required to fully examine the evidence for cosmological, geological, and biological evolution. They must depend on the expertise of others. As their children grow older, parents must increasingly rely on the authority of their chosen curriculum and textbooks rather than their own life experience and direct knowledge. Ironically, this knowledge gap begins to form at exactly the time in children's education when they should be learning to critically evaluate information and authorities. This makes it more and more difficult to answer or meaningfully discuss important questions that will (or at least should) arise concerning the relationship of scientific knowledge and Christian faith.

Challenge #2: Inadequate Science Curricula
Most Christian homeschooling parents choose science textbooks and resources from Christian publishers. Having done so, most parents will become uncritical about its primary content and theistic perspective, falsely assuming that the curriculum adequately fills the knowledge gap by raising all the important questions and providing all the appropriate Christian answers. In fact, I am not aware of any "Christian" texts that fairly (i.e., meaningfully) cover science in relation to origins, natural history, evolution and design, not to mention other significant science topics that have theological implications. I contend that Christian parents (even young earth creationists (YEC) who wish to perpetuate the "incompatibility" or "conflict" thesis) would provide their children with a better science education (i.e., critical thinking skills) by learning from a secular textbook because they would be more vigilant in scrutinizing what is presented and therefore also more engaged in the subject.

Challenge #3: Finding Supplementary or Alternative Resources
Three years ago, my daughter's 7th grade curriculum included the first text (physical science) in J. Wile's series (Apologia Press), which our curriculum supplier (Sonlight) had recently adopted for middle and high school. I soon discovered that the book's entire presentation is bent and contorted to support YEC. At first, I attempted to use the situation as a learning opportunity for my daughter; I wrote discussion questions and counterpoint examples corresponding to Wile's book chapters. Needless to say, it was a lot of work for me, and I think not very productive for my daughter.

I finally came to the conclusion that it would be better to supplement a secular textbook with a discussion of relevant issues rather than attempt to undo and correct the theological bias and scientific errors of a Christian text. Secular textbooks that are intended for public school use must pass the scrutiny of many scientists and diverse school boards throughout the country; as a result, they more accurately present reliable scientific consensus and have very little theological baggage (see post #8 in this series). The disadvantage in using a public school textbook for homeschooling is that teacher resources (answer keys, etc.) are not available to the general public. For me personally, this is not a significant issue since I am trained in evolutionary biology and well read in science-theology issues, but I suspect it can present a significant challenge for typical parents. For 8th grade, my daughter used a Glencoe Life Science book, which a schoolteacher friend gave to me. That was a successful schooling year, but I had to manually "work" all the chapter questions in order to check her answers. As a biologist, I am not certain how well I will be able to help her with physics this coming school year.

Challenge #4: Providing "laboratory" experience
Interacting with the natural world using scientific methods is the surest way to instill an inquisitive attitude towards the structure and function of creation. Although individual households cannot afford the equipment needed to perform many traditional science experiments, they have the advantage of flexibility. For younger grade levels, I recommend using "knowledge encyclopedia" books (rather than traditional textbooks), coupled with as many hands-on activities as possible. Visit science centers, natural history museums, conduct cooking and other kitchen work as chemistry and physics lessons, plant a garden and measure growth rates, go bird watching and fossil hunting.

For older ages, find projects that require learning more about a science subject or application thereof. For example, last year my son and I studied electronics together so he could learn how to assemble an LED timer circuit to light up a space ship model. Frequently look up "how stuff works" on the internet. Encourage your children to consider the theological implications of all that they observe around them. For example, when studying and examining ecology (e.g., ecosystems, food webs and nutrient cycles), ask your children (and yourself!), "How could this orderly, God-given "balance of nature" function without animal death?"

Help Meet the Challenge
In summary, good curricula and resources for teaching middle and high school science at home are scarce to nonexistent. Although there are some good supplementary books and study guides about creation-evolution issues that have been published recently (e.g., Origins by Deb and Loren Haarsma), these are high school level materials and are not integrated topically with an ordinary sequence of science topics. These also do not address some of the other science-theology issues, including those to relating to the practice of medicine. (A good world literature and history-based curriculum that covers the spectrum of Christian responses to medical advances is helpful here. By the way, this is the strength of the Sonlight Curriculum my wife uses for our children.)

Over the last couple of years, I have been navigating these intellectual waters, attempting to identify science resources for Christian homeschoolers who wish to teach something other than a YEC perspective.

Despite there being an immense amount of information available on the internet, parents will find it almost impossible to identify any well-organized, non-YEC curricula and other resources for science homeschooling within a Christian worldview. Thankfully, the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) has always sought to assist the church in appreciating the wonders and challenges of science. Recently, the executive director, Randy Isaac, asked if someone would be willing to organize a special section or wiki group on the ASA website to address the needs of homeschoolers. I immediately volunteered and am currently developing ideas for the project. My personal goal is not so much to advocate the evolutionary creationist view but to outline and review all available resources so that parents can make informed choices about the options that exist. Hopefully, complementary materials can be suggested, and (in time) new study guides and supplements can be written and posted.

The project is in its infancy, so I welcome any and all ideas that interested readers might have. What kinds of teaching aids are you looking for? Are you willing to review a particular textbook or curriculum that you have used? Have you written any materials for your own children? What kinds of questions have your children asked about science? I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments. You can also contact me directly by email at Doug@BecomingCreation.org.

26 comments:

Daniel said...

Thanks for the post. My wife and I are planning on home-schooling our 2 and 4 year old. We attended a home school convention and I noticed that all of the science books were YEC-based. I can tell it's going to be a challenge to find scientifically-accurate and Christian-based science resources. Thanks for the heads up on this issue!

Stephen Douglas said...

Hi Douglas!

I'd been anticipating your post above the others. This is because I have a homeschooled daughter going into the first grade with an insatiable curiosity for everything (especially science) and a wife experiencing trepidation at presenting evolution strictly from secular textbooks.

I just discovered an amazing book called Dinosaurs!, which I think might be a Catholic publication. My daughter found it at a used book sale and told me excitedly, "It has GOD in it!" I groaned and thought, "Lord, I don't want to explain the YEC/EC controversy to her at this age!" To my pleasant surprise, this book presents material from at least an old earth perspective. They talk cogently and simply about the Paluxy tracks (critically), radiometric dating, and even the geologic column. They mention the biblical story of the flood, but use it only as a way of introducing the topic of flood geology. While they never broach the topic of evolution directly, their comments that the geologic column shows us "earlier" life forms and "later" ones leads me to believe they accept evolution. They say that "God designed" this or that dinosaur to be able to do such and such; provided there is enough balance at later ages to show how God's designs were implemented (i.e., by random mutations, natural selection, etc.), this is an acceptable way of explaining to young children God's responsibility for the random processes of nature that bring about evolution. Now if we can just get these guys to write more explicitly of evolution, that would be helpful in filling a gaping hole.

Mel said...

I am very interested in your work with the ASA. My son is only a year old at present but we will probably consider homeschooling in the future. I am also trained in some aspects of evolution so it shouldn't be as much a challenge for me but I do anticipate encountering some obstacles, and I think it is a very important topic. Thank you for your post.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Doug,
One thing I would really like to see is a recommended book list, not text books but books that get middle-school or high-school kids excited about science. For example, I would highly recommend Simon Singh's "The Big Bang" as an introduction to cosmology. I don't think he is a Christian but the way he presents the story is exciting and is totally lacking (from what I remember) in slams or subtle swipes at religion in general or Christianity in particular (It seems many science authors have trouble avoiding this). His "Fermat's Enigma" is also good and one that kids considering entering post-secondary mathematics (my own field) would enjoy - ok, that probably appeals to a small minority of the population but that small minority includes me :-).

It would be interesting to get a lot of different Christian scientists to recommend books from their own field that they would recommend to high school students, maybe books that got them initially excited about their own field.

Douglas said...

Thanks for the comments, Daniel, Stephen, Mel and Steve.

Apparently, a couple of you are getting a jump-start on home-school preparations! We often take for granted the very young. It's worth thinking about how our sense of "science" vs. "spirit" modes of thinking develops; certainly some foundational concepts are laid at a fairly young age. My next post will focus on younger children a little more than this first post did.

I wish that I could claim to have carefully reviewed materials from many different publishers. In fact, I could be wrong in the general statements that I made about the scientific quality and/or theological depth of materials from Christian publishers. I would be happy (and so would most readers of this blog) to be proved wrong, i.e., to find out that someone has published a really great science curriculum for Christian homeschoolers.

Let's keep a look-out and begin compiling a good bibliography!

Patrick said...

I to have had issues finding good science curriculum. Currently my oldest will be starting 3rd.

Last year I used
www.noeoscience.com
for my science. I will probably use it again, but I wish there was better.

I have found a blog of a Hugh Ross (Day Age) homeschooler. She mentions the difficulties of YE material too.
kravmom.blogspot.com

I have a Roman Catholic friend who uses Kolbe Academy. According to the website, their science is a Harcourt text and a RC booklet. Perhaps there is a Protestant way of doing the same.

Keep us informed.

Cliff Martin said...

We have been homeschooling since 1984 (when I was a YEC, having transitioned to EC in the 90s) and we still have two in school at home. We have never been able to resolve the problem of good science texts from the Christian publishers. The two mentions of Roman Catholic sources might have promise. Catholics have been around the Christian Education block a few times, and they are generally more open to evolutionary science than most Protestants. How much "protestantizing" would a RC booklet for a Harcourt science text require? Would they find room for Mariology in science book?

Anonymous said...

"...No parents are trained in the broad range of academic areas required to fully examine the evidence for cosmological, geological, and biological evolution. They must depend on the expertise of others..." - D. Hayworth

Shockingly -- in recorded history, no human being or group of human beings have ever FULLY examined all that is (unless one counts Jesus Christ). There are truly NO experts within the scientific community. Any scientist who would contend that they are an expert is a person of deep and irrational faith. What presuppositions do so called scientists base their knowledge upon? Presuppositions are a requirement when one steps outside of the natural/observable world and into the philosophical (i.e., Creationism or Evolutionism).


"O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called: Which some professing have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with thee. Amen." 1 Timothy 6:20-21 (KJV)

Gordon J. Glover said...

Anonymous said: "Shockingly -- in recorded history, no human being or group of human beings have ever FULLY examined all that is..."

Just curious, did an "expert" on the history of human knowledge tell you that? Or did you yourself "fully examine" everyone who has ever lived?

I believe Douglas' point is this: most parents will blindly trust the science "approved" by other Christian organizations, and are not themselves prepared to evaluate scientific-sounding claims that have been largely discredited by those who posess the training, qualifications and experience to properly evaluate them.

Anonymous said...

How many times, Gordon, have we heard something like this:

"Answers are forthcoming"

or this:

"Scientist are open to scratching out and re-writing their interpretation of data. That's the beauty of science."


I just can't buy into the notion that "experts in their field" have perfect knowledge or unbiased training.


"Just curious, did an "expert" on the history of human knowledge tell you that? Or did you yourself "fully examine" everyone who has ever lived?" - Gordon

Oh, pardon me. Have we added a person with perfect knowledge to the genius book of world records? By what objective standard was that determined? Who was on the selection committee? Surely, they had no bias or imperfection.

Look, I'm sorry for blowing off steam and I really am.

What truly irks me on this subject is not that educators want to find accurate material (they should, I'm an educator). I'm disturbed to think that intelligent people actually think that we have access to definitive, unbiased views of science from any source other than God.

Study of science is significant because we are commanded by God to be stewards of all that exists. Science is significant because through it the Bible says that every person is without excuse for not knowing God.

The age of the earth, the origins of life, etc... seem most important to those who 1)want to justify belief in God or 2) want to justify disbelief in God.

God exists. His creations are beyond comprehension, yet we should study them for the purpose of managing them in the best we can for His glory. All speculations beyond what can be studied directly should be confined to philosophy classes. I'm so sorry that Darwin's theory of origins was introduced into history, sociology and science classrooms.

Despite the many attempts to say that evolution = science and has nothing to do with origins, in practical terms it does.

Every post regarding origins has to do with faith.


"...most parents will blindly trust the science "approved" by other Christian organizations, and are not themselves prepared to evaluate scientific-sounding claims that have been largely discredited by those who posess the training, qualifications and experience to properly evaluate them." - Gordon

You are saying the same thing twice except you imply that one source (Christian organizations) are not trustworthy and that another source (those who possess training, etc..)are trustworthy. I believe in either case, one could say the other has been brainwashed.

No matter how often you or I pursue answers, is will be impossible for us to investigate every significant question thoroughly (we do not possess perfect logic or a complete set of facts). I'd guess that on certain subjects (e.g., science, history, photography), every single person (including scientists) have to trust those they've decided are reliable to provide them with good information.

Hoping that I've made my point as well as it can be made, kind regards.

Gordon J. Glover said...

If science were not allowed to reinterpret data in light of new discovery, the experts would still believe:

1.) the earth is flat
2.) the earth is fixed
3.) the earth is young

That is what makes science a tool of learning and exploration. If it were not allowed to change, it would merely be dogma -- which is incapable of adding anything non-trivial to our material knowledge of the created order.

Anonymous said...

Gordon, I'll summarize:

"Trust God, all others cash."

There are no completely trustworthy textbooks or completely trustworthy philosophies regarding science. They must all be tested and then left up to faith (faith in spontaneous generation, etc... or faith in God's ability to do whatever He did).

Meanwhile, we must study what we can study and learn what we can learn in order to be stewards of this great place in which we live.

Jimpithecus said...

Anonymous, your posts are hard to follow. While it is true that no one is an expert in everything, experts in one field or another have written textbooks that are very good. The problem with so many of the home school curricula is that they rely on textbooks that are written by people that are not experts in their field. Why would I go to John or Henry Morris for information on biology and evolution when neither has the training in the field?

Steve Martin said...

Douglas,

You said:
In fact, I could be wrong in the general statements that I made about the scientific quality and/or theological depth of materials from Christian publishers

If so, they have to be the worst marketers ever. :-)

Hi Cliff,

Homeschooling since 1984. Wow, that is some career! I’m assuming that most of your early science stuff had a YEC slant. Were you teaching your kids from these science books when you were wrestling with the origins issue? I’m sure there has got to be a good story or two in that situation.

Anonymous,
One of your main arguments (I think) is that everyone is biased. I think this is absolutely true. And all of us are wrong some times - even the “experts”. However, I think the implication is that someone that is “biased” is less trustworthy and that experts should be distrusted because if they are biased.

I don’t think that is necessarily the case. For example, Jesus' disciples were completely biased about the resurrection of Christ; they were also the experts on the resurrection because they had first-hand knowledge. I strongly believe they were also right. I know this is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison but I think it demonstrates my point.

Many of us here (I’m speaking for at least Cliff, Gordon, and myself) were originally very biased against biological evolution. It took us a long time to overcome this bias. Our acceptance of evolution came only after looking long and hard at the evidence.

Jimpithecus said...

I actually came to Christ after I had incorporated evolution into my scientific constructs. For me, there was just never a contradiction. That, perhaps, comes from having a father who also did not take the first eleven chapters of Genesis literally. It wasn't until I became much more heavily involved in church activities and education that I came into contact with the YEC model. It surprised me, to say the least.

Anonymous, I understand your concern about the age of the earth being important to people trying to justify their belief/disbelief, but I also think there is something else afoot. Alan Hayward wrote in the preface of his book on science and creation (the name escapes me at the moment) one of the reasons he wrote the book is that he knew Christians were being led astray by badly constructed pseudoscience in the form of creationism and he wanted to combat that. I feel the same way. It is not necessarily that I want to justify my belief. I don't need to do that. Like Abraham, I have been justified through faith. I just don't want people blindly accepting a form of science that has no foundation in observable data or evidence.

Anonymous said...

Steve, thank you for allowing my comments.

Recognizing one's inadequacies and bias (and those of their mentor) is the first step in becoming a good student. There is only one source of truth and you have made it clear that you know in Whom it can be found. I trust Him to work in both you and me to bring about what is good for our families.

Since you seem to have set your mind, I would like to direct you to -- http://sunandshield.blogspot.com The writer is a Christian and a retired University Science Professor. I believe you will find that you and he will be mostly like-minded. He may also be an excellent resource as you teach your children.

Again, thank you for reading (and hosting) my comments.

Kind Regards.

Anonymous said...

Jim,

"I actually came to Christ after I had incorporated evolution into my scientific constructs." - Jim

Thank you for saying that! I am encouraged by your words. I've been in contact with a very large number atheists lately who say that during their teen years (usually around age 14) they began to seriously consider the claims of evolution. At that point, they began to see that God must be a human invention since there are natural explanations for nearly everything.

"I just don't want people blindly accepting a form of science that has no foundation in observable data or evidence." - Jim

I agree.

- How does one accept that matter, energy, and space could accidentally and spontaneously appear out of nowhere?
- How does one become satisfied with the mechanisms of evolution which cannot adequately explain how life as we know it came about?
- Could all of the fine tuning in our solar system, planet, bodies be a coincidence or an accident?

We are compelled at every turn to consider God. Regardless of where we set our minds, it will be a test of faith. For Christians (who must live by faith and are justified by faith), we have a gracious God who will work all things to His glory and work all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rm 8:28).

Again, thank you for the encouraging information.



Unless, other comments are directed to me, I bid you all a kind farewell.

Martin LaBar said...

Great post. This is where the rubber meets the road. If something isn't done to change the presentation, by sincere Christians, who mean well, of views on origins, there will be few Christians, indeed, able to give responses that make any sense about science to to intelligent, educated, sincere non-Christian seekers. And if what we say about origins is nonsense, why should they believe what we say about Christ?

Thanks.

Douglas said...

A comment about "Experts":

Had space not been limited for the blog post, I would have thoroughly qualified my assertions about experts and authorities. In fact, I did include a statement to the effect that I will be outside my area of expertise within science when I help my daughter with physics next year (although I have read my share of Polkinghorne and others to be familiar with some of the exciting science-theology issues).

The fact is, we all accept the authority of others for a great many things in everyday life. The important question is, "Which authority will you choose?" Many Christians I know rely on the authority of their pastor for their opinions about evolution. Yet the typical pastor knows next to nothing about the relevant science. I may not be unbiased but, as a PhD in evolutionary biology, I am highly educated about all the competing ideas and research regarding that field of knowledge. Surely my opinion about the subject is more worthy of serious consideration than the typical pastor's. For an interesting discussion of "chosing authorities" read Margaret Gray Towne's book called "Honest to Genesis". (By the way, Dr. Towne has both biology and theology degrees.)

As for my admission that I may have over-generalized about Christian homeschool curriculum publishers, I was merely acknowledging that I am not an absolute authority on the subject of educational materials. Although I have not been able to find non-YEC Christian curriculum, that does not mean it does not exist somewhere. I hope that it does exist or that this blog post initiates the assembling of a sufficient network of interested parents to convince a publisher to invest in creating material for us.

Grace and Peace.

Anonymous said...

This seems directed to me...

"Surely my opinion about the subject is more worthy of serious consideration than the typical pastor's" - Douglas

One would hope.

You are trying to specialize on the creation. They are trying to specialize on the Creator.

From my limited view, there should be great collaboration between scientists and pastors. However, when it all comes down to it, only God has all of the answers and the correct interpretation of data.

Gordon J. Glover said...

"...when it all comes down to it, only God has all of the answers and the correct interpretation of data."

Amen. But since we don't access to the entire counsel of God, we have to conduct our own investigations into the technical details of how God upholds and sustains His creation.

If we look to Scripture to provide us the technical details, we might replace things like "sperm cells and egg cells" with divine knitting needles.

Stephen Douglas said...

Douglas et al.,

I was just reminded of a site I discovered just after accepting evolution by the Institute for Biblical & Scientific Studies. Despite the impressive name, it is still a fledgling effort and needs some real attention and money behind it to grow - and I think the readers of this blog may be just the people to do it.

Note that in the left sidebar, the founder of the site, Dr. Steven Meyers (not that one), has shown interest in developing an online resource for homeschoolers studying not only biology, but almost every other major subject within science and a few outside science (like English) also.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Anonymous,
BTW, you are welcome to stick around. If you do, please sign a name (even if it is just a pseudonym) .. addressing someone as anonymous seems kind-of weird to me.

And, yes I do appreciate Martin LaBar’s blog at sunandshield. It is in my RSS reader.

Martin: Thanks for the comment & your regular thought provoking posts.

Stephen: Thanks for that link. Just clicked through on “homeschooling – biology” and came up with http://www.emc.maricopa.edu/faculty/farabee/BIOBK/BioBookTOC.html . Now that looks interesting. Have you seen that Douglas? What do you think?

Douglas said...

Thanks everyone for the discussion and tips. I will put together a preliminary list of links to different sites that contain potentially useful material on this subject. I'll post it on my website (BecomingCreation dot Org) and also let Steve Martin know, so he can inform this group when it's available.

Doug

Shauna said...

I have not used it yet, but I have read that Real Science 4 Kids covers science from a neutral point of view.

Karl A. said...

Hi Douglas,
Poignant account of your recent church experience on your blog...
I looked on your blog for the promised compilation of science materials, couldn't find it. Is there anything there yet? Thanks. Living overseas, we'll need to be ordering our curriculum in a couple months and am hoping to find something that works.