Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Evolution in Ontario Schools

The United Church Observer comments on the deficiencies of Canada's education system when it comes to teaching evolution Where's Darwin?].
“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” wrote the late Ukrainian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who found evidence for evolution by studying the genetic varietals of fruit flies. To most scientists, Darwinian evolution is the unifying principle of biology, as solid and significant as Newtonian gravity or Copernican heliocentrism. But you wouldn’t guess it from its place in Canada’s school system.

In all but one provincial science curriculum, evolution is relegated to a single unit in a Grade 11 or 12 elective course taken by a sliver of each graduating class. It would not be a stretch to say the majority of Canadian high school students graduate without ever encountering Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
The situation in Ontario is a little more complicated than this statement suggests. There's plenty of opportunities in Grades 1-8 to learn about diversity, change and adaptation but unfortunately it's true that the word "evolution" isn't mentioned [The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8: Science and Technology, 2007]. I'm told by several teachers that they frequently talk about evolution even though it's not specifically mentioned in the curriculum guidelines. It would be much better to put the fundamental concept of biology in the provincial curriculum.

Evolution is only covered specifically in Grade 12 Biology [The Ontario Curriculum Grades 11 and 12: Science]. As mentioned in the United Church of Canada article, this course is only taken by a small percentage of students in Ontario high schools.

The curriculum looks pretty good (see below). I wonder how it compares with the curricula in typical American high schools? Does anyone know?

The fact that this material is required in Grade 12 Biology suggests that high school science teachers will probably be familiar with the basic concepts of evolution and I'd be surprised if it doesn't get brought up in other courses. After all, the same teachers that teach Grade 12 Biology are often teaching other courses as well.

The fact that the Province of Ontario curriculum is so strongly supportive of evolution in the Grade 12 curriculum indicates that the government doesn't have any doubts about the validity of evolution even though they may be a bit wishy-washy about mentioning it in the primary grades.
Overall Expectations
By the end of this course, students will:
• analyse evolutionary mechanisms, and the processes and products of evolution;
• evaluate the scientific evidence that supports the theory of evolution;
• analyse how the science of evolution can be related to current areas of biological study, and how technological development has extended or modified knowledge in the field of evolution.

Specific Expectations
Understanding Basic Concepts
By the end of this course, students will:
– define the concept of speciation and explain the mechanisms of speciation;
– describe, and put in historical and cultural context, some scientists’ contributions that have changed evolutionary concepts (e.g., describe the contributions – and the prevailing beliefs of their time – of Lyell, Malthus, Lamarck,Darwin, and Gould and Eldridge);
– analyse evolutionary mechanisms (e.g., natural selection, sexual selection, genetic variation, genetic drift, artificial selection, biotechnology) and their effects on biodiversity and extinction (e.g., describe examples that illustrate current theories of evolution, such as the darkening over time, in polluted areas, of the pigment of the peppered moth, an example of industrial melanism);
– explain, using examples, the process of adaptation of individual organisms to their environment (e.g., explain the significance of a short life cycle in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria populations).
– formulate and weigh hypotheses that reflect the various perspectives that have influenced the development of the theory of evolution (e.g., apply different theoretical models for interpreting evidence).

Developing Skills of Inquiry and Communication
By the end of this course, students will:
– outline evidence and arguments pertaining to the origin, development, and diversity of living organisms on Earth (e.g., evaluate current evidence that supports the theory of evolution and that feeds the debate on gradualism and punctuated equilibrium);
– identify questions to investigate that arise from concepts of evolution and diversity (e.g.,Why do micro-organisms evolve so quickly? What factors have contributed to the dilemma that pharmaceutical companies face in trying to develop new antibiotics because so many micro-organisms are resistant to existing antibiotics?);
– solve problems related to evolution using the Hardy-Weinberg equation;
– develop and use appropriate sampling procedures to conduct investigations into questions related to evolution (e.g., to determine the incidence of various hereditary characteristics in a given population), and record data and information;

Relating Science to Technology, Society, and the Environment
By the end of this course, students will:
– relate present-day research and theories on the mechanisms of evolution to current ideas in molecular genetics (e.g., relate current thinking about adaptations to ideas about genetic mutations);
– describe and analyse examples of technology that have extended or modified the scientific understanding of evolution (e.g., the contribution of radiometric dating to the palaeontological analysis of fossils).

[Hat Tip: John Pieret "Refried Great Northern Beans" who loves finding examples where other countries are as bad as his. ]


  1. (e.g., evaluate current evidence that supports the theory of evolution and that feeds the debate on gradualism and punctuated equilibrium)

    You mean they're (gasp!) teaching the controversy? 8-)

  2. The curriculum looks OK to me. I did high school in Alberta (granted, a long time ago), and took all of the science courses offered, and I do not remember any unit specifically on evolution.

    The downside to Ontario's setup is that only students that take grade 12 biology learn it. Evolution should be an ongoing theme in a child's science education, starting with their first class on biology (in whatever grade that's in).

    As Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense without it. So it doesn't make much sense to teach biology until the kids understand evolution.

  3. Trouble is, Dobzy was wrong. Lots in biology makes sense without evolution. You don't need to know anything about evolution to understand membranes, for example, or the mechanisms involved in mitosis, or carbon fixation in photosynthesis. Dobzy might have been more accurate if he had said: Diversity is explained by speciation, which is an important aspect of evolution....

    But then no one would quote him.

  4. Dobzhansky was not wrong. He was just talking about a different kind of "sense" than you are.

    Take the Calvin cycle, for example. You may understand how the pathway works to fix carbon and you may even realize that no laws of physics and chemistry are broken.

    That doesn't mean the pathway makes sense. It's inefficient and overly complex. No "designer" in their right mind would design such a sloppy pathway just to fix carbon atoms.

    It's only when you realize that the pathway evolved from a primitive pentose phosphate pathway that is really begins to make sense. And once you understand that chloroplasts came from cyanobacteria it makes even more sense.

  5. It is also taught in the Grade 12 Earth and Space Sciences course, SES4U, in the Earth History unit.

    However, an even tinier sliver of students take that course--so tiny that many schools don't even offer it. At least all schools offer Grade 12 Biology....

    In the next year or two there will be a revision of the current science curriculum. I caught a glimpse of the draft proposals a while back, and it looked like they are planning to move Evoluiton from Grade 12 to Grade 11, and replace it with an entire biochemistry unit.

    The downside is that in Grade 11 we won't be able to teach it with the depth that we can now, if it is placed correctly in the sequence of units taught (which entirely up to the teacher to decide). The upside is that it fits in so well with the Grade 11 biology curriculum it can very easily be used as THE core unifiying principle for the entire course.

    The other upside is that many more students take Grade 11 biology than they take Grade 12, mostly because in order to graduate they need at least one more higer-level science beyond Grade 10 (the last year science is required).

  6. Prof. Moran writes:

    "Take the Calvin cycle, for example. You may understand how the pathway works to fix carbon and you may even realize that no laws of physics and chemistry are broken. That doesn't mean the pathway makes sense. It's inefficient and overly complex. No 'designer' in their right mind would design such a sloppy pathway just to fix carbon atoms."

    The Calvin cycle as we know it evolved and it is just as efficient and just as complex as it needed to be. It is what it is. And you can understand it, for what it is in fact without needing to know that it evolved. We understood a good deal about cells long before we understood anything about evolution or genetics.

    All this is really just to say that biologists have so far failed to integrate the theory of evolution fully into their pedagogy because they have failed to integrate it fully into their science! U of T, to its great credit, forces students to study evolution and ecology as a prerequisite before they can study the "real" thing--molecular biology and genetics. But most other universities (and most schools) teach evolution as a "module". In part this is only a pedagogical or bureaucratic choice; but I think it reflects a much deeper structural problem in biology.

    Everything in biology can be understood TO A VERY HIGH DEGREE in the absence of evolution. Nothing in evolutionary biology, however, can be understood in the absence of genetics and molecular biology. This is indeed backwards, but it is telling...

  7. "That doesn't mean the pathway makes sense. It's inefficient and overly complex. No "designer" in their right mind would design such a sloppy pathway just to fix carbon atoms."

    - Being a Bioengineering student I whole-heartedly disagree! This patway is magnificently efficient in its use of resources. It is not hard to appreciate- but it was interesting to know where it came from- but honestly I could care less.

  8. anonymous says,

    - Being a Bioengineering student I whole-heartedly disagree!

    Irony noted.

    This pathway is magnificently efficient in its use of resources.

    Being a biochemist, I'd be happy to debate that with you. Please reply at [Fixing Carbon: Building a Better Rubisco] where we discuss the well-known inefficiency of rubisco.

  9. Well I can show you- however my ability to illustrate my point is limited to math. And I know how Artsies are intimidated by that :P Granted I read the post and and comments and therefore see why you "biochemists" would think that way.

  10. In terms of efficieny- I meant from a design stance view rather than the traditional sense.

  11. Holy shit! The arrogance of IDiots is only surpassed by their ignorance!