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Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Life's Origins: What 3rd Graders Believe

Life's Origins: What 3rd Graders Believe

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At age 8 or 9, just about everyone is a creationist. That's what E. Margaret Evans discovered when she began listening to children's views on the origin of life. Evans conducted seven studies involving hundreds of children from public schools as well as fundamentalist Christian schools in two Midwestern states. At each age level, the University of Toledo researcher asked the children to tell her, "How did the very first X get here?" The "X" varied, from a squirrel to a human to an imaginary creature.

Between ages 5 and 7, she found, the children often gave a variety of answers. Some said the animals grew out of the ground or were born in a cave. Others gave the credit to God.

By 8 or 9, however, children consistently expressed creationist beliefs—regardless of the their schools' religious affiliation.

"Kids know about humans making things, and they know that humans can't make animals. So the idea that God can make animals makes sense," says Evans, an associate psychology professor at the university in Toledo, Ohio.

Between ages 10 and 12, students tended to split again on the question of biological origins. Half gave an evolutionary explanation, and half endorsed the creationist view.

The kind of response they gave was linked most closely to their parents' views on the subject, whether or not they had studied fossils in school, and whether they found the idea of biological adaptation plausible.

On that last point, Evans had also asked students whether an animal that often stretched its neck to reach leaves in tall trees would have babies with longer necks. Students with evolutionist views tended to answer yes— albeit incorrectly.The lesson for schools, Evans says, is that children have to be at least exposed to knowledge of fossils and biological adaptation if they are going to accept evolutionary theory.

But the Harvard University researcher Howard Gardner argues that such findings also point up the need for educators to uncover children's misconceptions as well. "If you didn't know all your 3rd graders were creationists," he says, "how would you begin to teach them?"

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Page 29

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