Plan to add teaching of Holocaust, genocide to science education draws questions from Maine teachers

AUGUSTA, Maine — Teachers and science advocates are skeptical of a Maine proposal to update standards to include teaching about genocide, eugenics and the Holocaust in high school science education. They argue that teachers need more training before introducing such sensitive and nuanced topics.

While critics of the proposed updates said they came from good intentions — the proposal states that science has “sometimes been used by those in power to oppress and abuse others” — they also said injecting the materials into high school science curriculum would undermine the could divert attention from conventional scientific principles and endanger science education.

The proposal states that science education in the state should reflect that “misinterpretation of fossil observations has led to the 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 genocide of various groups, such as albinos in Africa or Jews in Europe.”

The proposed updates have drawn the attention of teacher groups across the state and national organizations advocating for a better understanding of science. The concerns in Democratic-controlled Maine contrast with conflicts over education in some more conservative states, where criticism in recent years has focused on education about climate change, American history and evolution.

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

“In terms of critical thinking skills, high school students are still developing them, and that just takes it to a level that is fundamentally higher than we would expect them to be able to handle,” Prentice said. “That's a lot for adults to process.”

Others said they thought the state had good intentions in trying to incorporate social history into science education, but agreed that Maine should first make sure its teachers are equipped to do so. The contributions scientists have made to theories like eugenics belong in the natural sciences, but they must be done properly, says Joseph Graves Jr., professor of biology and member of the board of directors of the National Center for Science Education, where hundreds of people are part of it. of teachers.

“The question is: Should these things be included in science lessons? My answer is absolutely yes,” Graves Jr. said. “But it comes down to when to do it and whether the people doing it are doing it in a way that is expert and pedagogically sound.”

The Maine Department of Education is conducting the update, which is part of a review of the 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 through mid-November, and the next step is for the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee to decide on the standards, said Marcus Mrowka, a spokesman for the education department.

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 the history of Native Americans and African Americans, as well as the history of genocide, including the Holocaust, Mrowka said. Mrowka said the update does not represent a change to the standards, but rather represents the addition of a further explanation section to provide teachers with additional contexts and opportunities to encourage critical thinking.

The recommended updates available for adoption were created by teachers, and the education department opened the review process to any science teachers who wanted to be involved, Mrowka said. A group of 20 Maine science teachers met several times last summer to lead the revision of the science standards, Mrowka said.

The teachers also worked with scientists and experts to include the additional content areas the Legislature needed, Mrowka said.

“The teachers have added a further explanation section to provide teachers with additional contexts and opportunities to encourage critical thinking, which includes the additional content required by the Legislature,” Mrowka said.

The state solicited public comments on current science standards earlier this year and received numerous comments from educators about the importance of challenging students. High school students can struggle with “rigorous and relevant learning for the world we live in,” attests 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 that 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 appeared to be included in the standards.

“This is not a topic that can be shoehorned,” Miller said. “This is about context and nuance, and if you ask teachers to do it without the context and nuance needed to cover such a big and important topic, then you're asking them to do it superficially or completely not.”