Teaching Students Evolution with Patience, Respect and the Nature of Science

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The Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science’s (COPUS) year of science has chosen February’ theme as “Evolution.” Darwin, born in February 1809, published the Origin of the Species launching the theory of Evolution; the foundational theory for all of biology.  Evolution, the National Academy of Sciences states, is “the central concept of biology.” Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973) once said about evolution, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”

Evolution continues to be met, in the United States, with much public debate and public challenges in the education community to its veracity.  These debates often end in landmark court decisions like the Scopes trial in 1925, Epperson v. Arkansas in1968, Edwards v. Aguilar in 1987 in and of course the Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School in 2005.  From all the public debate one would think that the scientific community was in discord over evolution, yet under examination the scientific fields has no discord.  Evolution is consistently being tested and used, as all robust theories are, to develop future questions and predictions.  Yet if there is no discord within the science community, why is there effort after effort to alter or challenge the teaching of evolution in schools?  We have moved from Creationism as science to Intelligent Design as science, to teach the “Controversy” and now to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. Why single out evolution? 

According to Berkman et. al., (2008) found in a nationally representative survey of teachers concerning the teaching of evolution that one in eight high school biology teachers still present creationism as science and almost one in six believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.  Teachers who hold creation science or intelligent design beliefs or teachers who have had little training in evolution spent substantially less time teaching evolution than teachers who had more training in evolution or hold evolution as scientifically valid theory.  James Williams (2008), in The Scientist, stated that graduates in science disciplines and universities in Britain and around the world have a poor grasp on the meaning simple scientific terminology.  If the graduates of our universities and the teachers of science themselves do not understand the nature of science (NOS), then how will they be able to teach it properly and how will our students learn it properly?

So what is the solution?  The answer may be contrary to what you expect, we need to teach for understanding of the NOS and address the students long held beliefs with patience and respect.  Some in the scientific community would have you avoid addressing non-science issues in science classrooms.  Michael Reiss, past director of education at the Royal Society, Britain’s academy of science was removed from his position for suggesting such an approach as reported by Daniel Cleary (2008) in Science.  After Science published, “Crossing the Divide” by Jennifer Couzin (2008) concerning Stephen Godfrey struggle at becoming a scientist from out of a strong faith-based childhood, Craig Stevens (2008) responded that Science magazine should never print anything on the struggle with learning evolution because it gives the non-science approaches credibility.  But the approach of avoidance does not work in education.  Eugene Scott of the National Center for Science Education, in “Creation and classrooms” (2008) advises that responses from the teacher with a shut-up-and-take-it-elsewhere approach will be perceived as a humiliating personal put-down therefore obstructing rather than encouraging enquiry and understanding.  This does not mean we are to bring all kinds of non-science ideas into the classroom; on the contrary we are not to bring any of them into the classroom.  However when we teach and our students struggle with their prior learning, that we must treat our student’s prior belief with respect and not just dismiss their beliefs or we will not be able to teach the student.  Andrew Whipple (2008), who has taught biology for 20 years at an evangelical university, responded to Couzin’s article about Stevens that he understands and agrees that we need to be willing to listen to the concerns of those holding contrary positions.   He calls us to move from our dogmatic pronouncements to a more humble approach.  This humble approach may provide what we as teachers desire the most, “teachable moments.”

Recent research at the university level supports this approach of engaging students’ beliefs rather than dismissing them as an effective way to teach evolution.  Steven Verhey (2005) study demonstrates that when students apply an understanding of the NOS to the study of evolution and to prior beliefs they begin to truly understand the NOS and the veracity of evolution as theory.  This technique may be especially needed for training those pre-service teachers who are going into biology and/or science education.  Craig Nelson (2005) of Indiana University supports these findings but is concerned that the technique described may not be appropriate for high school students who’s intellect may be insufficiently developed at an early age.  I agree, yet this technique may give us an understanding in how we all should approach the teaching of students in science with patience, respect for our students and a strong understanding of the NOS.

As we celebrate Darwin and Evolution during February, lets remember that when we teach this most important theory in biology to our students that we teach it using the NOS and we treat those students who struggle learning about evolution with the patience and respect they need and deserve.

Berkman MB, Pacheco JS, Plutzer E (2008) “Evolution and creationism in America’s classrooms: A national portrait.” PLoS Biol 6(5): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124

Clery, Daniel (2008): “Misjudged Talk Opens Creationist Rift at Royal Society” Science: September VOL 321 26

Couzin, Jennifer (2008): “Crossing the Divide” Science 22 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5866 pp. 1034-1036.

Creation and classrooms” Editorial (2008): Nature: September VOL 455, issue 7212, 25

Dobzhansky, Theodosius (1973) “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” The American Biology Teacher: March VOL 35:125-129)

Holden, Constance Editor (2005): “Two Views Better Than One?” Random Samples Science: November VOL 310 25

Nelson, Craig E. (2005): “How Can We Help Students Really Understand Evolution?” BioScience: November Vol 55, No. 11

Stevens, Craig W (2008):  Evolution and faith:  empathy is misplaced.”  Science: May 320, p. 745, 9

Verhey, Steven D. (2005), “The Effect of Engaging Prior Learning on Student Attitudes toward Creationism and Evolution.” BioScience: November Vol. 55, No 11

Whipple, Andy (2008), “Evolution and Faith: Empathy is Crucial” Science: May VOL 320 9 p. 745

Williams, James (2008) “What Makes Science ‘Science’” The Scientist: October VOL 2
2; Issue 10, Page 29

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