What do Biology teachers teach our children? This has been an ongoing subject of discussion by my Scibling PZ Meyers for years. I would like to add a comment, based on a paper in this week’s Science.
A study just published in Science indicates that while creationism may have been defeated in the courtroom, it is still a matter of contention in the classroom. The authors refer to a portion of biology teachers as the “cautious 60%”:
majority of teachers, the “cautious 60%,” who are neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives?
According to the Science paper:
Creationism has lost every major U.S. federal court case for the past 40 years, and state curricular standards have improved (2). But considerable research suggests that supporters of evolution, scientific methods, and reason itself are losing battles in America’s classrooms, where instruction in evolutionary biology “has been absent, cursory, or fraught with misinformation”
The data reveal a pervasive reluctance of teachers to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology.
Why would biology teachers be reluctant to teach something scientific?
The authors explain:
The data further expose a cycle of ignorance in which community antievolution attitudes are perpetuated by teaching that reinforces local community sentiment.
in the 15% most socially conservative school districts, nearly 4 in 10 teachers personally do not accept human evolution (compared with 11% in the least conservative districts) and, consequently, devote only minimal time to evolutionary biology in their classes
We estimate that 28% of all biology teachers consistently implement the major recommendations and conclusions of the National Research Council
I wonder about the other 72% of biology teachers? What is it that they are teaching our children?
The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or “teaching the controversy” all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.
What do they recommend?
Outreach efforts primarily benefit teachers who want to be helped, so expanding the corps of science teachers who want to be helped is critical. Thus, focusing on the preservice stage may be “the most effective way for scientists to help to improve the understanding of evolution” [p. 332 (12)]. Better-trained teachers will be able to more effectively take advantage of details in their textbooks and supplementary material published by the National Academy of Sciences and to put aside fear of reactions and pressures from members of their communities. It would also make them more critical advocates for high-quality standards and textbooks. Combined with continued successes in courtrooms and the halls of state government, this approach offers our best chance of increasing the science literacy of future generations.
Bottom line: The most effective teachers engage their students by sharing their passion for the subject and including the most current information in their field. Let us not mix science with other subjects such as religion that warrant separate attention. Of course, it is far easier said than done.