Teachers first, scientists second

That is one of the disquieting results of a new survey, Enablers of doubt, by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer. The two Penn State professors interviewed a total of 35 students on 4 Pennsylvania campuses in 2013. All the students were training to be biology teachers; many were not comfortable with the theory of evolution, and many were “concerned about their ability to navigate controversy initiated by a student, parent, administrator, or other members of the community.” Indeed, instead of relying on their knowledge of biology, they intended to fall back on classroom-management techniques to deal with creationist students. Notably, these were not education students, but rather biology students who “take a set of required courses in educational psychology, classroom management, and methods of instruction.” Their lack of expertise in science seems not to concern them; to the contrary, they thought they would use their skills at avoiding controversy to avoid any controversies.

PT readers may remember Professors Berkman and Plutzer for their book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, which we reviewed here a few years ago. The disquieting conclusion of that book was that only about 28 % of biology teachers actually teach evolution according to recognized standards. The present study may help explain why.

The students, who attended a large research university, an institution that granted degrees at the master’s level, a Catholic college, or a historically Black university (all unnamed), were interviewed in focus groups. The interviews lasted 50-65 min and were conducted by the authors. The focus groups do not provide a statistical sample, but the authors attempted to include several different kinds of educational institution, and they consider the findings “suggestive.” Below the fold, some representative comments.

There is evidence to support evolution to the extent of how everything came from one cell. I don’t know if I believe that. As far as adaptations and adapting to your environment, you can prove that with just microbial colonies. That’s somethin’ that I can look at and see that’s true over a period of time. As far as everything coming from one cell, that’s kind of hard for me to imagine. I’m not saying it’s not true or it is true, ‘cause there is a lot of scientific support for it. It’s kind of back and forth in my mind.

–Student at “comprehensive state university”

[Student 1] Evolution . . . can work with creationism beautifully if you let it. . . . Darwin’s works don’t really contradict the Bible.
[Student 2] I went to Catholic school and um, we learned what evolution’s ideas were and what creationism was. We learned that they can go together.

–2 students at a Catholic college

I think education in general, no matter what the content, is probably about 90 percent classroom management, the style of teaching, and about 10 percent content. Largely, especially because of the fact that you have so many teachers’ manuals, and other resources, and stuff like that, you can learn content fairly easily. It takes training and skill to actually be able to teach that content.

–Student at historically Black university

Interestingly, and unlike practicing teachers whom the authors had previously surveyed, the students did not generally think that creationism or religion ought to be allowed into the classroom in fairness to an opposing point of view – but rather as a way to “connect” with students:

If you can open up a classroom discussion about what they feel and where they stand, and then looking for ways to bring those two together, those beliefs that, okay, there could be—or even just sharing the theory, I guess—I don’t even wanna say it’s a theory, but the potential of a deity or God working through evolution, something like that, I just think that would help diffuse situations. Even if don’t believe in God or believe in faith, I think it’s hard to refute the fact that that would make the teaching aspect of it better because your students won’t be as much against it.

–Student at “comprehensive state university”

I mean I would present it as this is another belief, it’s not the same thing as yours but just to be an informed person, you know like, you want to take a look at [it].

–Student from “research university”

For the last student, the authors note, “balance is achieved implicitly because evolution is just ‘another belief,’ even as she did not think she needed to present ‘both sides’ in the debate for reasons of fairness.” They add that none of the students appealed to fairness, whereas many practicing teachers do so. Nevertheless, the students “foreshadow[ed] another type of behavior we previously identified as one that dilutes evolution instruction—the instinct to downplay certain aspects of evolutionary biology to avoid controversy and confrontation.”

Many of the students reported a conflict between evolution and their religious beliefs. Perhaps oddly, the least conflicted were the students at the Catholic college, possibly because their administration sees no conflict between science and religion. Additionally, the Catholic students study theology, whereas the others do not. The authors do not mention the beliefs of the single Jewish student or the 2 “other” students.

Finally, the authors note that most of the students saw themselves as teachers, rather than scientists; few “expressed expressed a lifelong fascination with nature.” They may want to know things, rather than discover things or figure them out, like the science students. Coursework did not stress “evolution [as] a consistent theme reinforced throughout the completion of a biology course of study.” Indeed, the authors think that courses in pedagogy and the time spent practice-teaching may ultimately limit the students’ understanding of science. They recommend strengthening coursework in biology and also providing opportunities for experience in real research laboratories, but they have no illusions about how hard that will be.

The Berkman-Plutzer article is available free. It is part of a volume on “The Politics of Science,” most of which seems to require a subscription. Science magazine, however, has saved you the trouble (and the money), with an article here.