Some brief thoughts on teaching evolution and associated Earth systems concepts

A contribution to Blog Against Theocracy

Note that I made a few minor additions to the original post in brown text. 

Today’s post is intended to help us think in perhaps slightly different ways about the trouble of teaching things that seem to contradict literal readings of the Bible. It’s also intended to draw attention to Blog Against Theocracy — a defense of the separation of church and state. Also see:

The general topic is one I could go on at great length about — I’ve taught a course on teaching about evolution (see the last course listed on the page) and have written some about it too (Wavering & Duggan-Haas, Legislative Challenges to the Teaching of Evolution: The Science Educators’ Response in NCSE Reports, November/December 2002). I will be brief here, though. First, I will state what I believe is at the heart of the problem and then will raise questions about commonly suggested solutions to the problem that I see as problematic as well.

The Three-Pronged Problem:

The difficulties of teaching about evolution in the United States are grounded in the confluence of three sets of misconceptions:

  1. Misconceptions about evolution and the nature of science.
  2. Misconceptions about religion and the nature of religion.
  3. Misconceptions about the nature of our constitutional democracy.

Misconceptions within any one of these three classes can effectively hang up teaching and learning about the core ideas. Put two of them together and you’re screwed. And, I think most Americans, including most teachers (and perhaps even including myself) hold some fairly substantial subset of misconceptions in these categories. This raises the problem of the common solutions to the problem.

A few words about problems of the commonly suggested solutions to the problem…

Generally, it is recommended to keep religion out of the science classroom. Clearly (to me anyway), the classroom is no place for proselytizing. But if we keep all discussion of religion out of the science classroom, then it seems likely that the science knowledge will be kept in a (metaphorical) little box inside students’ brains that’s used for school and not accessed for understanding the world outside of school. Part of this suggested solution is grounded in misconceptions of the nature of our constitutional democracy. A misconception is that we can’t talk about or teach about religion in a public school classroom. The reality is that we can teach about religion but we can’t advocate one religion, or the existence or non-existence of a god or gods within that classroom.

Am I playing into the hands of the Discovery Institute by saying we should “Teach the controversy?” Well, yes. And decidedly NO. There is no scientific controversy related to the fact that biological evolution has occurred and that it’s taken an awfully long time. The Discovery Institute doesn’t like that position.
We do want to do is engage students conceptions that are relevant to what we’re teaching. If we fail to do that, then many students will almost certainly not understand evolution in a meaningful way (even if they do well on the test).

Many worry that if we talk about this in the science classroom, we affirm it. If we talk about the way students make sense of the world, even when the ways they makes sense of the world are not scientifically accurate is that the same as affirming those conceptions? See the Learning Links page of this site for links to research on how people learn. That research clearly indicates that failing to engage initial conceptions greatly reduces the likelihood of meaningful learning.

The National Research Council’s Committee on How People Learn have issued a series of book length reports on how people learn (linked on the Learning Links page). All of the reports pay close attention to three key findings from the related research. The first of those findings is:

Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.

(Consider the other key findings from the HPL framework related to teaching evolution, too.)

I think that fundamental to being effective here is to figure out how to engage those conceptions and hold them up to scrutiny without being insulting. Perhaps that begins by recognizing that many student conceptions that we typically think of as misconceptions are grounded in some kind of good, basic reasoning.

It’s not at all intuitive, for example, that the seasons are caused by the way in which the Earth’s axis at any point its orbit is parallel to the axis at any other point in the orbit and that this parallelism makes it so the altitude of the sun changes in the sky over the course of a year. Our daily observations might lead us to conclude that we’re getting closer to and further from the heat source and that’s what makes the temperature change. Likewise, our daily observations don’t typically give us insights into descent with modification or the age of the Earth. Is it somehow different when student conceptions are connected to religion? Yes, clearly it is different, but the difference doesn’t override the basic cognitive science. The difference is grounded in culture. As teachers, we must understand our cultural context…

Is the common idea among scientists and science educators to keep discussion of creationism and ID out of the science classroom another example of how people put things in those little metaphorical boxes in their brains separate from other contradictory ideas? 

Evolution as a gateway drug to atheism?

The next (and next to last) point I will make here is the conception (that may or may not be a misconception) that some fundamentalist Christians seem to see evolution as something like a gateway drug for atheism. For some, it may be, but, as marijuana may lead to stronger stuff, it seems to do so only for a minority of smokers. Most of the “evolutionists” that I know personally are still religious.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that I am not religious, but evolution didn’t have anything to do with it.

What we’re doing now doesn’t work, for the most part.

Sticky stuff… but what we do now clearly doesn’t work. Whether Americans accept or reject evolution by natural selection as the way life came to be in its present form, they tend not to understand the key principles. Some will note that there are a lot of biology teachers out there who simply don’t teach evolution. That’s clearly a problem, but the reality is that most of them do teach evolution. For a variety of reasons (some of which are described above) most Americans don’t accept or understand evolution. That begs us to do things differently.

What do you think we should do?

13 thoughts on “Some brief thoughts on teaching evolution and associated Earth systems concepts

  1. Thank you so much for contributing to the blogswarm. Fascinating angle and one that is really needed.

    A very large part of the American Christian psyche is pure, simple anti-intellectualism. “The Bible tells me so” is easier to swallow than science, which tends to make many feel inadequate intellectually. Fear of the unknown, and fear of not understanding and not knowing something “for certain,” which of course science is always having to admit, leads to silly conclusions, sadly, in the name of God, who after all, is Mind itself. Thanks again.

  2. I am a retired biology/earth science teacher who was the only science teacher in the middle or high school to teach evolution or population related topics. Most of the others were opposed to teaching these topics because of their religions. One colleague didn’t teach it because he did not want to deal with open the hostility of parents and students.

    I worked to get these concepts formally included in the HS curriculum in Biology and environmental science to no avail. I was transferred to the middle school where I taught earth science.

    At last, the state developed standards that included these concepts and they were included in the curriculum. In spite of this, some of the HS biology teachers expressed their personal religious beliefs when evolutionary concepts were mentioned.

    This is a very well respected, public school district and these are all nice people who do well on standardized tests and are successful in their lives.

    I taught evolution while I was there, but I think no one teaches it now.

  3. Have you read “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennison? He has some excellent points on this very topic.

    The basic point of the book is that we, as a society, are engaged in a cultural conflict between science and religion, brought about by the fundamentalist Christians.

    Dr. Dennison’s treatment is balanced and fair, and his proposed solution is to turn the tools of science to the study of religion, including sociology and phsycology.

    It is an excellent read.

    Also, have you seen the website about The Flying Spaghetti Monster? It was a letter sent to he Kansas State school board back when they were considering teaching Intelligent Design. Google it, it is really funny.

  4. I have been reading the Blog Against Theocracy posts and articles all day. There are a number of incredible articles out there. How ever much I’d love to post a thoughtful response to this one in particular, I’ll just have to say “Good job!!” for now, and come back to this wonderful piece when I have time to give it the serious consideration it deserves. I’ll be back, and thank you.

  5. Smart people rule!

    When people say that god talks to them, do you think that they hear a voice in their heads? I’m serious. I always assumed that when people said that they “talked to the Lord” or “the Lord spoke to them” I thought they were talking about some metaphorical thing–they saw/heard something that they took for a sign. But lately the possiblity has been raised that they might not be metaphoring, to coin a slightly stupid word, but that they have been hearing completely convincing voices. What’s your take?


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  7. Thanks for the interesting responses. Answering questions:
    — I’ve seen Dennison speak (and liked it) but have not read his books. I’ll add it to my to do list.
    — I have read about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Great stuff. See it here:
    — Jim’s post makes me sad, though it doesn’t surprise me. It does make me glad to be a New Yorker. I do think that the majority of NY State teachers do give some real attention to evolution as it’s been part of the statewide end of course Regents exam for literally generations. It almost goes without saying that it doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but it does get attention. I lived in Michigan for seven years and knew several bio teachers (nice, smart hard working teachers in “good” schools) who didn’t teach evolution. It’s also a minor part of the Earth science curriculum here and gets a question or two most years (that translates to 1 or 2 percent of the grade).
    — I think when most people say that God speaks to them it’s metaphorical but there are some where it is something else. I tried writing in this response an elaboration on that, but I can see myself coming across in ways I don’t intend without being very careful, and I’m too tired for that.

    My first blogswarm… Interesting stuff. Thanks for reading.

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  10. Given that there are debates even within the field of evolution on how evolution has moved along, wouldn’t it be more sensible (and perhaps a bit disarming?) to move to the more fundamental principles behind evolution?

    Why not focus in a bit? Talk about how natural selection works, and why. Talk about “the fittest” in terms of context, rather than some kind of abstract superiority.

    As a former JW who was stridently against “evolution” I still found the actual mechanisms compelling, and fascinating too. That’s what will engage the interest, stimulate the learning, and lessen the baggage.

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