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Plan to add Holocaust and genocide teaching to science education raises questions

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AUGUSTA, Maine– Science teachers and advocates are expressing skepticism about a Maine proposal to update standards to integrate teaching about genocide, eugenics and the Holocaust into middle school science education. They argue that teachers need more training before introducing topics that are both sensitive and nuanced.

While critics of the proposed updates said they were born of good intentions — the proposal says science has “sometimes been used by those in power to oppress and abuse others” — they also said that injecting these materials into a middle school science curriculum could distract attention. conventional scientific principles and could jeopardize science education.

The proposal states that science education in the state should reflect the fact that “misinterpretation of fossil observations has led to a false idea of ​​human hierarchies and racial inequality.” The proposal also states that “historically, some people have abused and/or applied the ideas of natural selection and artificial selection to justify the genocide of various groups, such as albinos in Africa or Jews in Europe.”

The proposed updates have caught the attention of state education groups as well as national organizations that advocate for a better understanding of science. The concern in Democratic-controlled Maine contrasts with conflicts over education in some more conservative states, where criticism has focused on teaching about climate change, history and evolution United States in recent years.

The Maine Science Teachers Association testified before the state that adding the proposed content to educational standards without providing professional training for teachers could jeopardize science education. The updates, aimed at middle schoolers, could also make it harder for young minds to absorb the most fundamental science concepts they encounter for the first time, said Tonya Prentice, president of the Maine Science Teachers Association.

“When it comes to critical thinking skills, middle schoolers are still developing them, and that just puts them at a fundamentally higher level than we should expect,” Prentice said. “That’s a lot for adults to take in.”

Others said they felt the state had good intentions in trying to incorporate social history into science education, but agreed that Maine first needed to make sure its teachers were equipped to do so. The contributions scientists have made to theories like eugenics belong in science classes, but they need to be done well, said Joseph Graves Jr., a biology professor who serves on the board of directors of the National Center for scientific education, which includes hundreds of people. of teachers.

“The question is: Should these things be integrated into science lessons? My answer is absolutely yes,” said Graves Jr. “But it’s about knowing when to do it and whether the people doing it are doing it in a competent and educationally sound way.”

The Maine Department of Education is conducting this update, which is part of a review of standards required every five years. The proposed updates would ultimately need to be approved by a committee of the Maine Legislature.

The Maine Department of Education has accepted public comments on the proposal until mid-November and the next step is for the Legislative Education and Cultural Affairs Committee to make a decision on the standards, said Marcus Mrowka, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.

The updates are the result of new requirements from the Legislature to include certain types of education in the curriculum, Mrowka said. Schools are now required to include content on Native American and African American history as well as the history of genocide, including the Holocaust, Mrowka said. Mrowka said the update does not constitute a change to the standards but rather represents the inclusion of an additional explanation section to provide educators with additional context and opportunities to encourage critical thinking.

The recommended updates that should be adopted were made by teachers, and the Department of Education opened the review process to all science teachers who wanted to participate, Mrowka said. A group of two dozen Maine science educators met several times over the summer to lead the revision of the science standards, Mrowka said.

Teachers also worked with scholars and experts to include additional content areas required by the Legislature, Mrowka said.

“Teachers included an additional explanation section to provide educators with additional context and opportunities to encourage critical thinking that incorporates additional content required by the legislature,” Mrowka said.

The state solicited public comment on the current science standards earlier in the year and received many comments from educators about the importance of challenging students. Middle school students can experience “rigorous learning that is relevant to the world we live in,” testified Robert Ripley, a sixth-grade teacher in the Oxford Hills School District.

“We want our students to be the builders of tomorrow, and they need the skills to create this unknown future world,” Ripley testified.

Alison Miller, an associate professor at Bowdoin College and a member of the state’s science standards steering committee, called the revisions “misguided.” Miller said the heavy topics of genocide and scientific racism seemed baked into the standards.

“It’s not a topic that can be discussed,” Miller said. “It’s about context and nuance, and asking teachers to do it without the context and nuance needed to address such a broad and important topic is asking them to do it superficially or not at all. “

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