School & District Management

Efforts to Improve Evolution Teaching Bearing Fruit

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 16, 2010 6 min read
Holden Nilson engages in a computer-based lesson on evolution in his 4th grade class at Elizabeth G. Lyons Elementary School in Randolph, Mass.
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When a federal court in 2005 rejected an attempt by the Dover, Pa., school board to introduce intelligent design as an alternative to evolution to explain the development of life on Earth, it sparked a renaissance in involvement among scientists in K-12 science instruction.

Now, some of those teaching programs, studies, and research centers are starting to bear fruit.

The National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and other groups have increased research investment on identifying essential concepts for teaching evolution, including creating the Evolution Education Research Centre, a partnership of Harvard, McGill, and Chapman universities, and launching the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the subject, Journal of Evolution: Education and Outreach.

Though only one of a long series of skirmishes in a conflict that goes back almost as far as public education in America, the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial, which took place five years ago this month, engaged the professional science community because it put on trial for the first time the scientific validity of intelligent design. The concept posits that the development of humans and other living things was designed by an unnamed guiding force, rather than being the result of natural selection based on random variations.

The school board in Dover argued that there were weaknesses in the theory of evolution, and that students should be exposed to the idea of intelligent design. Judge John E. Jones III of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania flatly rejected that argument, noting that evolution is one of the most strongly supported theories in all of science, backed by broad evidence from across the field. By contrast, he concluded that “the overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID [intelligent design] is a religious view, a mere relabeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory,” in his 139-page finding of fact.

See Also

From the Archives: View an interactive timeline of historical highlights in the debate over teaching evolution.

The district chose not to appeal the ruling, limiting its legal jurisdiction. But, along with the rejection of efforts in Arkansas and Georgia to undermine evolution’s validity through disclaimer labels on textbooks and fights over state science standards in Kansas around the same time, the ruling ignited an unprecedented push by scientists and education researchers to become more directly involved in integrating evolution concepts in science classes.

“What it has done is made it clearer to the scientific community that they have to come out and make a stand; they can’t wait in the wings and hope it all blows over,” said E. Margaret Evans, an assistant research scientist in education at the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Classroom Model

One of the instructional-improvement projects is Evolution Readiness, a program devised by a team of researchers from the Concord, Mass.-based Concord Consortium and Boston College. It pairs computer modeling of natural selection with classroom activities and readings on evolution concepts. In the process of developing the program, the researchers have crafted the first evolution-content assessment for elementary students, based on 11 standards-based learning goals for Massachusetts, according to Camelia Rosca, a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Testing Evaluation and Education Policy at Boston College.

At Elizabeth G. Lyons Elementary School in Randolph, Mass., one of a handful of states where the program is being tested, 4th graders have finished a unit on plant adaptation, in which they watched the changes to a water-sensitive-plant population as the amount of water available was altered. The class is now extending the computer model to include rabbits and will soon add hawks to illustrate a basic food chain, said lead researcher Paul Horwitz, a senior scientist at Concord.

“We thought deeply about how to teach concepts to kids this young,” Mr. Horwitz said. “I didn’t want children to ‘believe’ in science; I wanted them to understand it as an explanation for the natural world.”

Brandon Ho, a 4th grader at Elizabeth G. Lyons Elementary School in Randolph, Mass., responds to a computer-based teaching program on evolution that was created by the Concord Consortium. The program is among several projects scientists have launched in recent years that are aimed at improving students' understanding of that topic.

In addition to using the computer program, the children study a 25-foot-long timeline of species development, play games about food webs, and experiment with Fast Plants®, which germinate and flower within a month.

Now in the last year of a three-year study sponsored by the NSF, the project’s initial results with 200 students and 10 teachers in Massachusetts; San Juan, Texas; and North Kansas City, Mo., suggest that students who participate in the program show significantly better understanding than those in a control group of evolution concepts, such as the idea that changes in the environment will prompt changes in a population over time.

The team submitted a proposal for the next phase of the study, dealing with professional development, after finding the students of teachers in Texas and Missouri—where preprogram teacher training lasted longer—performed better than those of teachers in Massachusetts, who had just three days of summer training and 30 hours online.

Teacher Understanding

The findings echo the sense of researchers and evolution experts generally that teacher education and training, rather than school board policy or state standards, will be the key to better teaching of evolution in science courses.

“There are people who are actively trying to undermine [evolution], but a big part of the challenge is we teach the way we were taught,” said Joshua Rosenau, the programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif. “In college and teacher-training programs, it’s important that evolution be taught not just in science education but in basic biology courses that all teachers are required to take.”

In their 2010 book Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, Pennsylvania State University political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer report finding in a 2007 survey that, among a nationally representative sample of 926 high school biology teachers, only 35 percent spent 16 or more hours teaching human and general evolution during the course of the school year. Seventeen percent never covered human evolution at all. Moreover, teachers’ instruction strongly correlated to their own understanding of evolution concepts as well as their belief in creationism or intelligent design as a reasonable alternative to evolution.

Such beliefs lead to an “avoidance and a kind of distancing of the teachers themselves from the material, as in, ‘We have to cover this because the standards require it,’” Mr. Berkman said.

And a teacher’s enthusiasm—or lack of it—can make a big difference in how well students learn, said Francis Q. Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “Because evolution is such a major tenet in science, it’s really not something that can be danced around,” he said.

Teacher education also has opened up as a new front in the battle over evolution in the classroom, according to Mr. Eberle. The Institute for Creation Research, which promotes creation-based science teaching, recently moved from California to Texas to fight for state accreditation to establish a master’s degree program in science education. Also, Louisiana has passed an “academic freedom” law protecting teachers who supplement their standard science textbooks with other materials; a state committee explicitly rejected a move to bar creationist or intelligent design materials from those supplements.

“If you take this term of ‘academic freedom’ more broadly, does it mean a teacher can teach anything?” Mr. Eberle asked. “It’s been narrowly applied to evolution, and I think it’s another term to accomplish the same goal” to undermine the scientific validity of evolution.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Evolution Projects Yield Results


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