Classroom Clashes (Pt. 1): Teaching evolution
The Texas Board of Education has been battling over evolution language in textbooks and the issue seemed to be settled last summer, but now new science textbooks will be adapted in 2013. Others states, such as New Hampshire, have considered bills that require schools to teach evolution as just a theory.
“The unfortunate part of the controversy is that clearly creationists are believers in God, so therefore if it’s just a simple dichotomy, evolutionists must be non-believers or atheists,” Mohn says. “That makes a lot of people draw the conclusion that if you’re a believer in God, you can’t be an evolutionist and vice versa.”
The concern of most science teachers is that many proposed bills weaken the quality of a student’s education. Spend time with McDonald, and he’ll recount Kansas’ Evolution Wars of the late 1990s like a true veteran, telling battle stories of attending heated hearings. During that time, the Kansas Board of Education voted to cut macroevolution from the revised standards; that decision was later reversed.
Some of the controversy may settle next year, after new national science standards for grades K-12, based on the National Research Council (NRC) framework for K–12 Science Education are completed at the end of this year. The new standards make evolution one of the ‘disciplinary core ideas’ in the life science discipline. States can choose to adopt the standards or not, according to Steve Newton at NCSE.
Raphael Rabinowitz was teaching about the characteristics of living and non-living things like viruses when emotions began to flare in his classroom. “The second I dropped the word ‘evolve,’ mayhem followed,” he remembers. The science teacher at Youth Connection Leadership Academy, an alternative high school in the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, couldn’t stop the lesson from escalating into a full-blown argument. We can’t be descended from monkeys, his students said, their defensive voices rising in frustration as Rabinowitz tried to explain about shared common ancestry.
“They would either clam up and say ‘forget about it,’ or try to argue with me,” Rabinowitz says. “It was emotionally charged and caused me to reassess whether I was going to bridge this topic.”
Next year will be different, he says. The teacher plans to review different religious and scientific perspectives — ancient and modern — with the class so students can make an informed decision about what they believe.
Working to create a safe space for learning has worked for some teachers.
“I gave them the dignity to listen and learn with how I prefaced it,” Pemberton says of her classroom days. “I didn’t make it contentious; I made it as safe as possible.”
In Kansas, Mohn has an approach that he believes helps alleviate tension. “It’s important to focus on why is evolution controversial,” says Mohn. “We take a day and step back from the science and talk about … the sources of conflict.”
On that day, Mohn points to the creation evolution continuum, a sliding scale that lays out a wide range of viewpoints from the most extreme creation views and the most extreme evolution views. Mohn discusses each one with his class, pointing out that teachers can talk about religious viewpoints in a neutral way.
“Through this discussion students identify where they fall on the continuum,” says Mohn, who says he’s become comfortable discussing evolution and how it fits together with ecological processes.
After that day’s discussion, Mohn turns the class focus to the scientific understanding of evolution.
McDonald advises teachers to start the year off with a short section on the nature of science. “Once I started to do this, I had fewer challenges in my classroom,” he says.
But even after careful discussions and prefaces, Mohn, Pemberton, and others have still seen students write on exams ‘this is what the text book says … but this is what I believe...’
Evolution science doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist, McDonald explains, it just means that science can’t establish it. “If kids understand that from the beginning, then if … students feel their religious beliefs are being challenged, I remind them that we’re talking about the natural order,” he says. “They feel a lot less threatened.”
*Name has been changed at source’s request.
- Read Part 2: Classroom Clashes: Teaching climate change