Science

The Evolution of Teaching Evolution

By Jennifer Oldham & The Hechinger Report — February 11, 2011 6 min read

Ask any high school biology instructor: Teaching kids about evolution is a science.

Students’ reactions to the theory of how life evolved on earth are as diverse as the species on this planet. Teens tense up and become confrontational, their religious beliefs cause them to reject lessons about natural selection and adaptation outright, or they simply shut down.

To help his students understand why evolution is widely accepted by scientists, Jeremy Mohn, who’s taught the controversial subject for more than a decade at Blue Valley Northwest High School near Kansas City, discusses different viewpoints, including creationism and intelligent design.

“You have to take the time to address these types of nonscientific concerns,” said Mohn, who writes about his experiences at anevolvingcreation.net. Biology teachers face different concerns than other science teachers, he said. “You don’t have people in a chemistry classroom who have been raised to believe that the periodic table comes from the devil and that if they believe in it they are going to go to hell.”

Mohn is part of an influential group of teachers and scientists pushing to dispel misconceptions about evolution—such as that humans descended from apes—and to more effectively communicate what many consider the lynchpin of biology.

They have their work cut out for them. A recent article in Science found that almost three out of four high school students will get no schooling in evolutionary biology, or a version “fraught with misinformation.”

And recent Gallup opinion polls find that eight out of 10 Americans believe God created humans in their present form or guided the process of human evolution—a figure that has changed little over the last 30 years.

Frustrated by these numbers, many biologists are opening up, says Louise Mead, education director for the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, which is headquartered at Michigan State University.

“Evolutionary biologists used to just put a hand up whenever people brought up the evolution controversy,” she said. “But there’s been a realization that we have to address the misconceptions. There has been a renewed focus on how we teach evolution and renewed outreach.”

Mead and other advocates for revamping evolution education conduct sold-out workshops for teachers where they strategize how to address questions about the controversial topic.

“Teachers mostly want to increase their knowledge, which increases their confidence to teach evolution,” said Judy Scotchmoor, assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and contributor to its popular web portal “Understanding Evolution.”

The site is but one example of an explosion in the amount of material available to teachers that followed a 2005 federal court ruling, which found that intelligent design—the idea that life is so complex, a higher being must have created it—could not be taught as an accepted scientific theory.

Creationists continue efforts to persuade school boards to teach alternative theories to the method described by 19th-century biologist Charles Darwin, even as state science standards cover evolution more extensively than they did 10 years ago, according to an August 2009 review conducted by Mead and Anton Mates.

But although the treatment of biological evolution has improved, Mead and Mates found, only seven states and the District of Columbia provide a “comprehensive treatment of human evolution” in their science standards.

And scholars agree that much of the wealth of information on evolution—including major textbooks used in school districts nationwide—is riddled with inaccuracies that perpetuate stereotypes, such as that animals change purposefully over time.

With these challenges firmly in mind, scientists and teachers are pushing to make evolution the backbone of biology lesson-plans from kindergarten through high school.

Their first order of business: Convincing administrators that evolution isn’t too complex to be introduced in elementary school in hopes that starting early will build a foundation for more students to grasp difficult concepts in middle and high school.

“A lot of people think kids are not capable of sophisticated thinking about complicated science concepts,” said Nancy Songer, a professor of science education and learning technologies at the University of Michigan. “But all our research indicates this is simply not true.”

Teachers Not Pushing Evolution?

One of the biggest challenges to improving evolution education may just be the teachers themselves.

A recent survey of 926 public high school biology teachers has revealed that nearly three out of four are not aggressively endorsing evolution.

According to the survey, only about 28 percent of biology teachers are strong advocates for evolution and “consistently implement the major recommendations and conclusions of the National Research Council.”

Thirteen percent are just the opposite, and explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design.

Most teachers, called the “cautious 60 percent,” told interviewers that they are “neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives.”

SOURCE: The Hechinger Report

Songer designed BioKIDS, an evolution curriculum tested by educators in 22 Detroit public schools. Teachers credit the program with renewing their students’ interest in science, as well as improving their scores on Michigan’s standardized science tests.

Instead of requiring kids to memorize facts in a textbook, the program moves them outside, where they chart the lifecycles and food chains of local wildlife. They use this information to build scientific explanations by making claims, giving their reasoning and presenting their evidence.

Using the BioKIDS curriculum, Detroit middle-school teacher Connie Atkisson’s sixth-graders placed playing cards with pictures of local animals according to their physical characteristics on a big piece of butcher paper to create a “wall of life.”

Watching local animals and insects evolve outside the classroom also left a deeper impact on her students than looking at pictures in a textbook. For example, on a field trip to an oil field, of all places, her kids were astounded when they saw a colorful damselfly plying the breezes. They previously experimented with the insect back at school in its nymph stage, concluding it was a “boring black bug.”

“They were so engaged,” said Atkisson. “They took the information and said ‘we are little scientists, this is what scientists do.’”

Other pioneering efforts to teach evolution to elementary students—such as a fourth-grade curriculum, Evolution Readiness, created by the Concord Consortium in Massachusetts—attempt to build scientific-reasoning skills through technology.

The project—being tested in four schools in three districts in Massachusetts, Missouri and Texas—uses computers to show students that evolution is a process through which systems change from one thing to another and get better along the way, said Paul Horwitz, a senior scientist at the consortium.

In one experiment, fourth-graders click on a virtual greenhouse where they’re asked to find the light conditions under which different types of plants thrive. Through these activities, students learn several tenets of evolution, including selectivity, inheritance and variation, Horwitz said.

And the curriculum’s hands-on nature helps kids both remember what they’ve learned and perform better on tests designed specifically to monitor whether they can explain why changes occurred, Horwitz said.

Horwitz and Songer found their curricula required more up-front training for educators—particularly elementary-school teachers who may not have backgrounds in science—and created thorny classroom-management issues.

“One of the teachers told us she went home and cried the first year,” Horwitz recalled.

And although they’re pleased with the success of their experiments, they concede that expanding the programs is a tall order.

“We’ve been asked to scale all our programs to all elementary and middle schools in Detroit and we’re trying to figure out if that’s even possible,” Songer said. “We’re not publishers and professional-development people—we’re not in the business of scaling this to a state or full large district.”

Related Tags:

The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as The Evolution of Teaching Evolution

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Science Opinion The Three Most Effective Instructional Strategies for Science—According to Teachers
Three science educators share their favorite instructional strategies, including incorporating a sense of play in their classes.
9 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Science Make Science Education Better, More Equitable, Says National Panel
States must take steps to ensure that all students get a fair shot at learning science, says the National Academies of Science report.
3 min read
Illustration of father and child working on computer.
Getty
Science Q&A Many Schools Don't Teach About the Science of Vaccines. Here's Why They Should
Schools play an important role in confronting misinformation and mistrust in vaccines by helping students understand how they work.
7 min read
Ainslee Bolejack, freshman at Shawnee Heights High School in Tecumseh, Kansas, prepares to receive her first COVID-19 vaccine on May 17, 2021, at Topeka High. Unified School District 501 held a clinic at all their high schools welcoming students now 12-years-old and up to receive their vaccination.
Freshman Ainslee Bolejack prepares to receive her first COVID-19 vaccine on May 17, 2021, at Topeka High School in Kansas. Unified School District 501 held a clinic at all its high schools for students 12 and older to receive their vaccinations.
Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
Science Letter to the Editor Science-Score Declines Have Impact Well Beyond the Classroom
Science understanding is valuable not only for careers in STEM but also for students' critical thinking and analytical skills.
1 min read