How do you teach evolution?

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I was just turned on to this recent issue of the McGill Journal of Education which has the theme of teaching evolution. It's a must-read for science educators, with articles by UM's own Randy Moore, Robert Pennock, Branch of the NCSE, and Eugenie Scott, and it's all good. I have to call particular attention the article by Massimo Pigliucci, "The evolution-creation wars: why teaching more science just is not enough", mainly because, as I was reading it, I was finding it a little freaky, like he's been reading my mind, or maybe I've been subconsciously catching Pigliucci's psychic emanations. I think I just need to tell everyone to do exactly what this guy says.

Continue reading "How do you teach evolution?" (on Pharyngula)

33 Comments

A fascinating read. Pigliucci’s list of recommendations is certainly ambitious. I can personally related to his description of teaching science as piling one disconnected fact to be memorized on top of another during a breakneck effort to treat all of science superficially.

I liked this one quote a lot:

Neurobiologist V. S. Ramachandran (1998) has suggested, in his delightful Phantoms in the Brain, that one’s views on the world or on a particular topic depend on a balance between the respective inputs of the two hemispheres. The right one plays the part of the devil’s advocate, always feeding information that may at times be in dissonance with the currently held model. The left hemisphere filters this information in one of three ways: (1) it uses the information to reinforce the currently held model; (2) if the information does not quite fit the prevailing model, it can alter it slightly to accommodate it; or (3) it can temporarily just ignore any information that does not fit.

Sobering to recognize that he is describing ALL of us here.

As you’ve summarized the article here, it seems like none of these really have anything to do with evolution or even biology itself. This just seems to be a list of recommendations for better teaching in general.

Of course, if the idea is that the answer to “how to teach evolution better?” is just “improve teaching itself”, then there’s probably a lot of value in that…

This is one of the most disappointing articles I have seen in a long time. It seems full of standard ed school cliches about what makes good teaching.

That’s not to say that some of the suggestions, taken in small doses aren’t workable, but I think the whole constructivist approach to teaching is so much whistling in the wind.

I didn’t see anything of any real practical use about teaching evolution here.

Actually, in my experience (admittedly not as a biology teacher) authors and publishing companies go to great lengths to make textbooks student friendly, give them clear learning objectives, focus on themes and concepts, incorporate critical thinking exercises-and from what I have seen of standard science texts, they do these things as well.

Its psychologically gratifying to inveigh against “rote memorization” and “the tyranny of the lecture” and that “students construct their own learning”, but in the end, a lot of this doesn’t really mean very much.

Its all very good to inveigh about how we should reward and evaluate good teaching, but in the end, this practically comes down to student popularity ratings (otherwise known as teaching evaluations) or having some ed school bureaucrat start reviewing college professor’s lesson plans and incorporation of pedagogical “theory”.

And its also popular to wring hands and bemoan the overemphasis on research at major research universities-until one experiences universities where research is viewed as secondary and not up to snuff with the ed school “theorists”.

So what we seem to have here is a swearing contest, with Pigliucci saying science is taught as a disparate conglomeration of factoids with at best lip services paid to science as a method and why scientific statements are inherently tentative, and with Chip Poirot saying Pigliucci is echoing education-blather that was wrong when it was fresh, and that textbooks and courses in science in fact DO foment critical thinking about overall themes and ideas. And the pudding itself seems ambiguous: a few students grasp the nature of science and get good at it, and most memorize stuff just enough to pass tests and then forget it (which is easy, since it wasn’t tied to any conceptual model in their minds, despite what may have been presented).

But I gotta admit, the Poirot view is a LOT easier to implement: just decree that education is just ducky, we’re doing everything right, textbooks are focused properly, researchers teach a whole lot better than addlebrained “education theorists” would have you believe, god’s in his heaven and all’s fine in the schools.

Now, according to Chip, the correct way to teach evolution, which pretty clearly is NOT being done given the rising tide of creationism, is to…uh, well, gee, he doesn’t say right out; we’re left with the uneasy feeling that what we’re doing doesn’t work, and what Pigliucci suggests won’t work either.

Given the number of creationists around here and elsewhere who consistently claim that creationism is scientific and science is religious, *something* isn’t being taught successfully. Maybe Pigliucci’s notions are too hazy or sound good in principle but tend to fail in the implementation. But when only a small percentage of educated adults can come within a timezone or two of describing what evolution IS, what we’re taching now isn’t very educating.

I am curious as to how those who teach evolution professionally treat the topic of creationism in the classroom? Do you ignore it completely? Do you mention it? If so, how much time do you devote to it? Do you ridicule it or simply use it as an example of bad science, pseudoscience or nonscience?

I simply acknowledge the so-called controversy and promise my students that they will not be graded based on their personal beliefs. I remind them that I did not ask them if they believed in the Law of Independent Assortment and I tell them that I will not ask them if they believe in the theory of evolution on the exam. I know that might seem like a cop-out, but it does seem to relax some students. If I can at least get them to listen to some evidence, I feel like I have a chance of educating them.

Somewhat off-topic (and possibly mentioned by someone earlier, in which case4e my apologies) —

The 2007 Oct 8 issue of The Nation contains an relevant and nicely done review of books relevant the Panda’s Thumb: written by Jan Hacking, the review considers books by Philip Kitcher, Michael Lienesch, Michael Behe, Ronald Numbers and H.L. Mencken. Laketos is quoted. A sample of Hacking’s review:

Degenerate programs paint themselves into smaller and smaller corners, skirting problems they’d prefer not to face. They seldom or never have a new, positive explanation of anything. In short, they teach us nothing.

Pages 25–30.

David Stanton:

I’m a geologist rather than a biologist (at a community college), so I don’t teach evolution per se. But I do teach about geologic time, which has obvious relevance to creationist claims. My approach to teaching the topic is two-fold: At the beginning of the semester, we discuss the Scientific Method, what Science is, and define such terms as hypothesis, theory, law, and fact. When we reach Geologic Time, I take a historical view, starting with Xenophanes about 2500 years ago, moving forward through time historical figure by historical figure, showing the principles and concepts suggested by each of these figures. I include early naturalists such as Herodotus, geologists such as James Hutton, Charles Lyell, and William Smith, physicists such as William Thomson and Ernest Rutherford, … and Archbishop James Ussher.

I point out that although current science acknowledges that Ussher’s conclusions are incompatible with the evidence (I say flat out that he was “wrong”), it is also true that Ussher was using the best available evidence at the time and that he was doing (for the 1600s) excellent scholarship. I point out that science advances when ideas are proven incorrect, point out that it is also true that Hutton and Thomson were also conclusively shown to be incorrect in some of what they said, and that it is unjustified to treat any of these figures with derision.

The net result of this is that in the past year, I’ve had a couple of creationist or creationist-leaning students (one of whom had actually met Kent Ham) tell me that they were, at least, more open to the idea that their creationist ideas needed to be re-evaluated.

By spending a minimal amount of time discussing Ussher (~5 minutes or less out of 2 full lectures), the controversy is defused without pulling any punches.

I can’t say that this will continue to hold true in the future, and I have certainly had my share of hard-core creationists as well, but treating the subject in this way works for me.

Flint,

You raise some valid points. It is indeed simplistic and shortsighted to just declare we are doing everything right, when in reality, we probably are not. I’m not against education theory in its entirety-what I’d like to do is start by separating out what is really valid educational theory (in the conventional scientific sense of the term), from what is simply “theory” (in the speculative sense of the term). There’s a lot of “theory” out there and it gets hammered on as dogma.

Mostly, what I am opposed to is the view that at the college level, or even the K-12 level the problem with students not learning is a problem of educational technique.

I don’t think we are going to solve the problem of students not learning evolution and people not believing in evolution with more educational “theory”. It’s a much deeper problem than that.

Somebody above asked how people who teach evolution approach it. I have taught several classes with short units on biological evolution. It’s not my area and I mostly cover it in broad generality as a prelude to discussions of social evolution. I’ve gone back and forth on discussing ID/Creation Science and trying to explain what is wrong with Creation Science. I even designed a seminar loosely structured around the topic.

In my anthro course I also discuss the difference between mythological/emic explanations people have of themselves and the etic explanations scientists may offer, and why etic explanations can be threateing to people’s sense of self and culture. I also explain why I think that when there is a genuine conflict and the etic explanation is well grounded, we should accept that explanation.

There is tremendous resistance to learning evolution. A lot of my colleagues feel they need to soft peddle it. I do of course try to be respectful to my students. But I am opposed to soft pedaling basic and well accepted valid scientific theory. IMO, biological evolution is an important aspect for understanding cultural evolution. One thing I do not do is tell students “its just a theory” -or if I do, I explain the difference between theory and “theory”.

Flint,

You raise some valid points. It is indeed simplistic and shortsighted to just declare we are doing everything right, when in reality, we probably are not. I’m not against education theory in its entirety-what I’d like to do is start by separating out what is really valid educational theory (in the conventional scientific sense of the term), from what is simply “theory” (in the speculative sense of the term). There’s a lot of “theory” out there and it gets hammered on as dogma.

Mostly, what I am opposed to is the view that at the college level, or even the K-12 level the problem with students not learning is a problem of educational technique.

I don’t think we are going to solve the problem of students not learning evolution and people not believing in evolution with more educational “theory”. It’s a much deeper problem than that.

Somebody above asked how people who teach evolution approach it. I have taught several classes with short units on biological evolution. It’s not my area and I mostly cover it in broad generality as a prelude to discussions of social evolution. I’ve gone back and forth on discussing ID/Creation Science and trying to explain what is wrong with Creation Science. I even designed a seminar loosely structured around the topic.

In my anthro course I also discuss the difference between mythological/emic explanations people have of themselves and the etic explanations scientists may offer, and why etic explanations can be threateing to people’s sense of self and culture. I also explain why I think that when there is a genuine conflict and the etic explanation is well grounded, we should accept that explanation.

There is tremendous resistance to learning evolution. A lot of my colleagues feel they need to soft peddle it. I do of course try to be respectful to my students. But I am opposed to soft pedaling basic and well accepted valid scientific theory. IMO, biological evolution is an important aspect for understanding cultural evolution. One thing I do not do is tell students “its just a theory” -or if I do, I explain the difference between theory and “theory”.

Gvl and Chip,

Thanks for the responses. It seems that your students are in very good hands. The most important thing, no matter what your solution, is to put a lot of thought into the decision as to how to present creationism (or how not to). No one approach will be optimal for every student. However, I find that it is always best to be respectful but not shy away from the truth.

I have no wish to insert myself into an expert discussion on education. (Which I have only experienced from one side and only have a general will to support.) And I think Flint makes good points.

But assuming I understand this correctly it doesn’t ring true to me:

Given the number of creationists around here and elsewhere who consistently claim that creationism is scientific and science is religious, *something* isn’t being taught successfully.

There are many signs that todays science education may not be sufficiently penetrating into the body of society or students. But I think the above have a simpler explanation.

‘Scientific’ creationism as it was originally conceived seems to have worked as an apologetic clearing house for religiously troubling facts, as much as I understand its history and use. But it has also become, as IDC especially, a facade in the form of a mirror reflection of the public expression of science, to hide religious ideas and strategies behind.

I don’t think it is much of a stretch to assume that participating individuals learns from the public strategy and fellow members to take the characteristics, claims and arguments of science in the public sphere and more or less mindlessly mirror them, working both as a dogmatic support and a deflection defense. My totally unsupported impression is that the use of the strategy as a pure defense mechanism increases when the going gets tough, relative rate of increase then basically uncorrelated with educational success.

But if the argument was that education undermines the usefulness and use of these kneejerk defenses, I must agree on both counts.

GvlGeologist, FCD

Do you point to the students what many creationists have said many times, meanigly, that no one is “neutral” on the analysis of past events? One’s personal bias will invariably play a role when making interpretations of the past.

I think that to enhance the scientific knowledge of your students, telling them that own’s worldview *always* plays a role, specially when it comes to past events, would be great.

oh, and concerning Hutton and Lyell, do you tell your students about the beliefs of other geologists, who saw empirical evidence for catastrophism in sedimentary layers, as opposed to uniformitarianism?

I mean, keeping in your spirit of “openess”, it wouldn’t hurt their scientific knowledge.

So science education needs improving, how are you going to do it? Not to take anything away from football coaches, but a lot of high schools have their football coach (likely a phys ed major) teaching biology. How many biology majors teach biology in high schools across our nation? The most likely place to start changing things is how we educate these teachers, so how are you going to do it? Sure you have to start somewhere and anything is better than nothing, but a lot of places are going to end up with less than nothing.

We likely do have to change the way that we educate our science teachers, but I’d start earlier with the students so that by the time they get into high school they already have a firm grasp on what science is and how it works. You have to start small and simple and work your way up and get them to realize that there is a reason why they have to have a bunch of junk dropped on their heads. Science builds on what came before. It is really as simple as that. I’m all for demonstrating how this happens while you are teaching the old stuff to them.

The first thing to do is to give the students a foundation in scientific thought, and you probably can’t start too early. Get them before they forget how they learned things before they got to school. Trial and error, observation, inferences. How do you think that kids learn how to talk or quickly learn how to manipulate their parents and their environment? Kids are born scientists, we just beat it out of them early with a stupid dull education program. By the time they get to high school they just want to be told things, that is what they expect. How many university professors are tired of hearing “Is this going to be on the test?” Doesn’t this happen most when you try to give them an idea of why they have to learn the material, and why it matters?

True enough Mats, if you start from the belief in evil demons and trickster gods, and that reason and experience must be supplemented by revelation, you can always find a way to shield your revealed beliefs from disconfirmation.

What you miss is Larry Laudan’s point that what you are posing is one of the most anti-intellectual trends of the time: the view that we cannot rationally evaluate.

Even world views can be evaluated by evidence. And that is why the geologists who saw evidence of catastrophism lost the argument to Lyell.

GvlGeologist, FCD

Do you point to the students what many creationists have said many times, meanigly, that no one is “neutral” on the analysis of past events? One’s personal bias will invariably play a role when making interpretations of the past.

I think that to enhance the scientific knowledge of your students, telling them that own’s worldview *always* plays a role, specially when it comes to past events, would be great.

oh, and concerning Hutton and Lyell, do you tell your students about the beliefs of other geologists, who saw empirical evidence for catastrophism in sedimentary layers, as opposed to uniformitarianism?

I mean, keeping in your spirit of “openess”, it wouldn’t hurt their scientific knowledge.

For once, Mats raises excellent points and deserves compliments. He’s absolutly correct (as David Stanton alluded to above), the conclusions each scientist reached in the past was, and in the present continues to be, strongly influenced by their preferences and data sets. Ussher did a fine job given both the evidence and the social context of his time.

Stephen Jay Gould often emphasized the historical development of any scientific discipline, and this approach is highly effective. Gould showed on what basis past scientists built theories, and why others saw things differently, and how the juxtaposition of opposing theories always leads to fruitful avenues of research because they pinpoint differences to be checked out.

But something tells me Gould and Mats are looking at different conclusions. Gould’s point was that scientists, because they are scientists, are forever hostage to the evidence. No scientific explanation of anything, no matter how logical, socially embedded, or well evidenced at the time, can possibly escape the slings and arrows of outrageous reality indefinitely if it’s wrong.

But I suspect Mats is trying to say that empirical correctness of ANYTHING cannot possibly be determined, because it’s so deeply a matter of expectation, preference, and culture as to be divorced from reality forever. By simple observation this position fails utterly, but Mats’ entire argument is that simple observation cannot be honored - we require revelation instead. Science may be self-modifying, but it can’t be self-correcting because there IS no ‘correct’ outside the alleged word of Mats’ gods.

Viewing reality as a threat is at least honest for a change.

Virtually all of the 17th century paleontologists, and many of the 18th century paleontologists, were catastrophists, such as Baron George Cuvier and Joachim Barrande. As such, Catastrophism does deserve, and receives mention in the appropriate geology and paleontology texts.

However, if you are insinuating that Catastrophism should be taught as an alternate theory, do realize that Catastrophism is a defunct and disproven theory because the crux of the theory, that God successively created then destroyed all of the various fossil communities discovered and observed wholecloth and on an individual basis, violates Occam’s Razor on two accounts, in that it a) made a direct appeal to the supernatural, and b) supernatural disasters could not account for why some communities shared identical and or similar species.

Mats wrote:

“I think that to enhance the scientific knowledge of your students, telling them that own’s worldview *always* plays a role, specially when it comes to past events, would be great.”

I absolutely agree. In fact, one of the most important reasons to teach about the history of science is to show exactly how cultural biases hinder scentific research. The entire history of science can be seen as one long effort to free ourselves from all of the biases, preconceptions and human fralilites that prevent us from seeing reality objectively. Pointing out the progress that has been made, especially in the last four hundred years, is very important. As a wise man once said, those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

The lesson we learn from the history of science is that the evidence is always more important than any religious belief, emotional need, career advancement or desire for fame and fortune. The evidence is the only thing that really matters. When one ignores or denies the evidence, disaster always follows.

Now our dear friend Mats would have you believe that science is a religion and that all scientists are blinded to the truth by their prior committment to their world view. Well Mats, the history of science once again puts the lie to your personal biases. We were trapped in the dark ages for hundreds of years because religious convictions were proclaimed to be more important than the evidence. Well now real scientists have started to learn the lessons of history. Just ask yourself, in our recent discussions of whale evolution, bird evolution and eye evolution, who presented evidence and who refused to look at the evidence? Who kept up a continuous stream of unsupported assertations regarding the integrity of others and who pointed to the evidence from embryology, palentology and genetics? Who provided all of the scientific references and who refused to read them? Who do you really think has learned the lesson that the history of science has to teach us? And by the way, it doesn’t even matter if you are convinced by the evidence or not. Your ignorance of the evidence is all the evidence that is required in order to determine who is committed to their world view and who is really doing science.

You know I wondered if Mats would have the audacity to show up on a thread about teaching evolution. Thank goodness the only place he will ever get a chance to teach any science is in sunday school.

.…do you tell your students about the beliefs of other geologists, who saw empirical evidence for catastrophism in sedimentary layers, as opposed to uniformitarianism?

But without the uniformitarianism many (YEC) IDers argue against, ID’s already-anemic argument logically fails. ID claims that “unguided” and “impersonal” natural processes are demonstrably insufficient to bring about “macroevolution,” therefore the origins of (some of)* the biological diversity we see must have been caused by the intervention by an intellligent designer. But if one allows that physical laws might have operated differently in the past, other unguided explanations become possible (e.g., unguided evolution once operated in the universe, but physical laws have changed such that this is no longer observed).

In choosing to base the ID argument on this dichotomy, ID assumes the onus of demonstrating there are no possible alternative explanations besides ID and “unguided” evolution. All one needs is a single possible explanation besides the two they claim are on the table, and the ID argument becomes useless. Of course, most science-minded people who aren’t trying to misuse science as an apologetic for their weak theologies already know the dichotomy is false without having to make unevidenced appeals to catastrophism.

Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to focus on discovering direct evidence for the ID conjecture, and on cohering this evidence into a logically sound hypothesis, than basing one’s “science” on false dichotomies, arguments from ignorance, and a stubborn refusal to perform scientific research (or even discuss what research might potentially be performed)?

—-

*Depending which IDer you ask, and when.

David Stanton Wrote:

Thank goodness the only place he will ever get a chance to teach any science is in sunday school.

No. It’s absolutely terrible that anyone would bear false witness in Sunday School. But alas, that freedom must be allowed in a free country. The only “thank goodness” I give is to those Sunday Schools that refuse to bear false witness despite the freedom to do so.

I’ve taught a lot of high school and college level biology, plus some philosophy of science.

I always get a little annoyed when people say we should all de-emphasize the lecture and promote student discussion instead. First of all, from a student’s standpoint, it is extremely difficult to discuss something you don’t understand, and so the “discusssions” often end up being a lot of awkward pauses and blank stares. Second, from a teacher’s standpoint, discussion without a clear understanding of the topic can end up just reinforcing their misconceptions and spinning off into confusing tangents. As a result, the teacher ends up struggling to clean up the conceptual mess.

I get better results when I teach the material (i.e. explaining the material in a clear, systematic way) and allow for lots and lots of questions both during and after. I go through the stuff multiple times from differnt perpectives, and I consider the common misconceptions and show why they are wrong (this can include creationism and ID, but also genetic determinism, pure adaptationism, inappropriate teleology, etc). Hands-on activities are a great support, but if the students don’t really understand the concepts, the hands-on time is wasted.

So for me, I try to be a good, engaging explainer, and I try to remember where students tend to go off track so that I can corrall them back into the correct understanding.

On the other hand, if a particular teacher is not that clear or engaging as a lecturer, then alternate strategies may be called for. Recognize your strengths and play to those!!!

Doggone it, I’m late returning to the discussion:

Mats, In fact, I do point out to my students that the best data is objective rather than subjective and to try to avoid bringing in their own preconceptions.

I don’t lie to my students and say, ‘One’s personal bias will invariably play a role when making interpretations of the past”, because the history of science is replete with scientists’ discoveries completely changing the previous worldview, of the discoverers and of the other scientists in the community. Darwin did not set out to upset the creationists’ applecart. Neither did Hutton. They merely collected data and realized that it was more easily and consistently explained without recourse to a literal interpretation of Genesis. They both formulated hypotheses that, in the light of more than 220 years (Hutton) and 140 years (Darwin) still explain the evidence better than the literal Genesis, and in fact have revised them based on accumulated additional evidence and elaborations during that time.

Do you think that the scientific “revolutionaries” captured other scientists and tortured them to make them recant the idea of Catastrophism? Did they fight wars to kill off the scientists that didn’t agree with them? Sounds more like what many religious and political groups have done. Science advances by convincing other scientists.

You are correct in one point. The scientific world before Hutton was pretty much entirely Catastrophist. The change occurred because honest scientists realized that this idea was wrong. The same thing happens whenever a scientific revolution happens. It happened after Pasteur. It happened after the development of Plate Tectonics. It happened with the discovery of the Iridium layer at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary. And it happened after Darwin developed his hypothesis of Natural Selection. Sure there are always a few scientists that resist in the light of new evidence or interpretations (for a variety of reasons - their life’s work being overturned, religious biases, or personal issues, for example). These individuals are useful because they force scientists to examine the new interpretations as carefully as possible. But scientific revolutions succeed because scientists are looking for the best explanations of the real world, and most are happy to adapt to a new, better explanation.

To suggest that the entire scientific community is deluded, or worse, conspiring to keep the “true” explanation from the public, does a disservice to thousands of sincere scientists, atheist and religious alike, who strive to understand the world better. It is dishonest at best, and psychotic at worst, to suggest that the vast body of scientists around the world are that incompetent.

Frank J,

Agreed. Unfortunately sunday school teachers will probably get to them before we do. That is causing a significant problem in the teaching of evolution.

I think it might be helpful to teach the difference between what are essentially trust and no-trust structures.

In principal science is a no-trust structure. It relies on the idea that what you are taught are things you can replicate and verify for yourself. In physics and chemistry this is readily apparent, but in areas such as evolution where the verify and replicate process is so much harder it is often confused with a trust based structure.

Creationism is clearly a trust based structure. The accuracy of what is taught is assumed based on the trust in the teller. This does not mean trust in God directly, rather trust in the people who demand that Creationism equates to trust in God. This also explains why Creationism is so fragile to the idea that a trusted source (such as a teacher) presents an alternative. It is also apparent in the nature of the argument as it is more important for a Creationist to attack and discredit individuals than it is to pay attention to the ideas themselves.

I think it might help if there where labs on evolution. Its more complicated to arrange than a physics or chemistry lab but should not be completely impractical. Its to easy to forget that evolution is more than an interpretation of past evidence, but is also something we can replicate repeatedly in a laboratory.

Chip Poirot raised some valid concerns about the whole theater in which education takes place. There are many good institutions doing terrific work in education, but there are also many with entrenched bureaucracies and attitudes that prevent effective delivery of knowledge.

Whether it is in high schools or in colleges and universities, the administration plays a role in what is allowed and what is not allowed. If school administrators and deans are terrified of losing revenue when unprepared students and their parents start complaining about what is being taught, this can put tremendous restrictions on what an instructor can do. The result of this kind of kowtowing to unprepared students is to dumb down the curriculum until everyone can get through without learning anything new. You can have techno phobic and ill-prepared engineering students who can’t do basic algebra in a third semester calculus class, yet they can complain loudly and have administrators pressure department heads and instructors to water down the material. I have seen this happen even in supposedly accredited engineering programs. You know when this is happening when the histogram of the grades is nearly a uniform distribution covering the entire spectrum from 110 percent down to 20 percent. What is keeping such a large number of unprepared students in the pipeline at this point? Why are there not good remedial programs in place instead of phony consolation credits for poor students?

You can have parents complaining to school boards about evolution being taught in biology courses with the result that principals and teachers come under pressure to soft-pedal or eliminate the offending material.

It seems to me that there is a lot more work to improving education than simply improving its delivery in the classroom. Many administrators are themselves extremely ignorant of what is required in a science-based education, and they simply resort to silly manipulative procedures to take the heat off themselves. Many don’t have the courage to support a good curriculum and back good teachers. That’s why many of the best teachers leave the profession, whether in high school or in colleges and universities. It is also the reason many researchers in the universities don’t like the classroom atmosphere.

And it is simply not true that researchers are lousy teachers. Many of the best instructors I have seen over the years have been the researchers who have seen data first hand and have a deep appreciation of its implications. These are people who can explain the relationship of data (and how it is obtained) to the picture we have of the universe in a way many students can identify with because the students can almost see themselves being able to do this.

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I teach evolution in the context of the first semester of a two-semester introductory course for natural science majors at Iowa State University. This course is organized rather differently than many college-level introductory courses in that we begin with organismal diversity (2/3 of the first semester) followed by an introduction to genetics and evolution (1/6 of the first semester) and an introduction to ecology (1/6 of the first semester). In my experience, I have found six factors to be important/useful in teaching evolution:

1. In the first week of the semester I deal with the difference between the “street definition” of the word “theory” and how the word “theory” is used in science.

2. I then spend a little time discussing the principles of radiometric dating so that I can emphasize to the students that these values are not “just wild guesses”.

3. As a Biology Program, we choose to address organismal diversity first for several reasons, but one of those reasons is that most first-year college students have very little comprehension of the overwhelming biological diversity that the theory of evolution seeks to explain. Understanding that biological diversity is MUCH greater than they previously recognized helps them understand the magnitude of the problem, though this understanding does not, of course, preclude them from believing that a supernatural being went *poof *and all species instantly came into being. While presenting biological diversity, I consciously avoid using the word evolution, talking instead about the “history” of groups of organisms on Earth, or two groups of organisms being “closely related”.

4. After the organismal diversity section, but before discussing evolution, I lead the students through an activity designed to bring to their attention the importance of applying “methodological naturalism” (although I don’t explicitly use that terminology) in everyday life. The example I use centers on a malfunctioning automobile. While one’s mechanic can’t rule out (or in) intervention by a supernatural being as being the cause of the problem, this is not an explanation that one is likely to be willing to pay significant money for. I conclude with the fact that science seeks natural, not supernatural, explanations.

5. I then address the fact that not all science is “experimental”. While hypothesis testing using experiments is a very important component of many scientific investigations, it is not (as many of my students think) the ONLY way that science is done. Careful observation of the natural world (“descriptive science”, “discovery science”) is also very important. This type of science is particularly important in some aspects of the evidence supporting the theory of evolution (e.g., the fossil record) that are not amenable to experimentation.

6. After presenting the theory of evolution, and some of the evidence supporting the theory, I present a number of common “misconceptions” about evolution, with brief explanations for why they are inaccurate. These include, for example: “evolution is an explanation for the origin of life”; “if we evolved from monkeys why are there still monkeys”; “no transitional fossils have ever been found”; “intelligent design is a scientific theory”; and “if you accept evolution you must reject religion” (I refer them here to the Clergy Letter Project).

I am currently working with a graduate student who is studying the impact of this course on both the students’ understanding of the theory of evolution and their attitude toward the theory of evolution.

PS: As a long time reader, but first time poster, I also wish to express my appreciation to the Panda’s Thumb, and its many contributors, for helping keep me up-to-date on issues related to teaching evolution.

Jim,

Thanks for the response. It would appear that you have put a lot of time and thought into what you do in your classroom. You are also trying to evaluate the results of your efforts which is an excellent thing to do.

I especially like your idea about addressing common misconceptions. I use this approach in a lifelong learning course that I teach occasionally. It seems to work quite well, even if you don’t identify the source of the misconceptions or single out any particular religious belief system. Often times, this is all that is needed in order for students to realize that they have been lied to, without having to explicitly saying so.

Thanks for posting and please let us know how things go and what you learn from your experiences.

Do you point to the students what many creationists have said many times, meanigly, that no one is “neutral” on the analysis of past events? One’s personal bias will invariably play a role when making interpretations of the past.

I think that to enhance the scientific knowledge of your students, telling them that own’s worldview *always* plays a role, specially when it comes to past events, would be great.

Which is of course why science depends on having results cross checked by scientists of many different “worldviews” rather than depending on a conclusion reached from only one “worldview”.

Henry

While hypothesis testing using experiments is a very important component of many scientific investigations, it is not (as many of my students think) the ONLY way that science is done. Careful observation of the natural world (“descriptive science”, “discovery science”) is also very important.

Yeah - if experimentation were the only way to do science, where would that leave most aspects of astronomy, cosmology, astrophysics, meteorology, geology, paleontology, etc. (That list got longer than I expected when I started writing it.)

Henry

From an editor of MJE 42 No. 2…

The creationist ads, in fact all ads, have now been removed.

Cheers,

Jason

Jim Colbert,

I’m a chemist who has taught at both high school and college level. I’m not an expert on educational methods, but I think that your approach (minus college-level detail) would be excellent at the high school level. And from the way I hear nonscientists describe evolution, such as approach is far too rare. I certainly didn’t get it back in 1969-70.

Because students are exposed to so much misrepresentation, especially with the new “don’t ask, don’t tell” anti-evolution approach that is permeating the media, the first thing they need to be clear about is that, even if those “problems” with “Darwinism” were true, that would be no support whatever for the YEC scenarios that millions desperately want to believe. IOW, even if ID were entirely correct (& it’s definitely not) the best they can hope for is some sort of “prescribed evolution” (John Davison’s term). Until that point is driven home, anti-evolution activists will be getting their way.

Good points Frank. If my memory serves me correctly, when I learned basic chemistry in high school I’m pretty sure what I learned is the Bohr model-the one where electrons have well defined, precise orbitals.

I think its great if students are taught more modern and more true models, but imagine if your high school teacher spends all his or her time telling you everything that’s wrong with the Bohr model-and then you never learn the basic theory.

Since my primary job is to teach economics, I’m in an odd position. There is an awful lot of the basic textbook model that I disagree with, and many parts of the basic textbook model that are actually changing in the profession.

I don’t start telling students what I think is wrong with the textbook model untill i am sure they understand what the basic textbook model is and are able to apply at least at a basic level.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on October 20, 2007 4:23 PM.

Science v Intelligent Design: McGill Journal of Education on Evolution was the previous entry in this blog.

An Open Letter to Dr. Michael Behe is the next entry in this blog.

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