It is very common, across the U.S., for science teachers to dread the “evolution” unit that they teach during life science class. As they approach the day, and start to prepare the students for what is coming, they begin to hear the sarcastic remarks from the creationist students. When the day to engage the evolution unit arrives, students may show up in the classroom with handouts from anti-science sites like Answers in Genesis, to give to their friends. They may carry a bible to the lab station and read it instead of doing the work. If there is a parent conference night around that time, the teacher may be verbally abused by some of the parents for not including “alternative theories” in the classroom.
There IS a conspiracy …
If you analyze the language that is bandied about by the creationist children and parents, it is clear that they are all on the same page. They are getting their information from their local creationist group, or their pastor, or particular internet sites. If fighting evolutionary biology in schools was ever determined by the courts to be a political act (which it is) there are probably a lot of churches that would have their IRS tax status yanked!
One way to combat this is to be intellectually honest about the role of evolution in biology. These days, evolution tends to be compressed into a single textbook unit, and not discussed very much elsewhere in that text (this depends on the book). My suspicion is that by placing all of the discussion of evolutionary biology into one unit, it makes it easier for teachers to skip that chapter, or gloss it, or at least, deal with it as a very bad thing that is happening to them, work out some strategies to minimize the pain, and then move on.
In other words, when it comes to teaching evolutionary biology in the public school classroom, the creationists have won the battle: They’ve forced evolution into a corner, surrounded it, eviscerated, driven it into the swamp.
Since evolutionary biology actually relates to every other element of the life sciences, this is a terrible shame. Bowdlerizing every other part of the curriculum of any mention of evolution takes the life out of the life sciences. Details are taught without reference to ultimate explanation. The thread that would tie together a pedagogy to make it truly comprehensible and, in fact, awesome, is yanked out of the fabric of biology. Opportunities to skillfully explain, truly understand, fully appreciate the details of how life works are hidden from the students because evolution is forced into the closet of some specific chapter in the textbook, some specific week during the semester, some specific set of readings and maybe, but probably not even, a single experiment on the lab bench.
This would be like forcing the laws of motion into a single, oft skipped and always shortchanged lesson in an intro physics class, and otherwise never mentioning them. Or forcing the rules of grammar into one poorly attended exercise and a quick, optional quiz in 7th grade English. Or like addressing the role of faith in religion only in the April Fools day sermon, and avoiding the topic for the rest of the year, in a Christian church.
The same techniques of organizing an army of parents and children against the teachers is being seen, increasingly, in the area of Earth Sciences as well.
In Utah, but surely not only in Utah, public school science teachers are coming under fire, in some cases by the same folks who fought to keep evolution from the science curriculum, for showing Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, without presenting “both sides” of the “debate,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune. (For English class, read the Tribune report below with a skeptical eye: What questions did the reporter fail to ask?)
It is hard for teachers to know what to do under these circumstances. There are insufficient resources. I’ll tell you a story that I’ve told before but you may not remember. I once helped teach a particular class on “Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom” with Randy Moore and Mark Decker. (It was really their class, I just helped out with certain units). This was for teachers, as part of the now defunct Science Centrum teacher’s academy created and made wonderful by my good friend Rusty Low.
Over the next couple of years, two unrelated things happened to me. One, was that I would run into Mark in a lecture hall every week or so, because he taught a big intro class that ended just before the big intro class I taught started. So we would chat briefly now and then. The other was that I ran into and started to get to know a really fantastic biology teacher named Amanda. Amanda told me about the trouble she had in her classroom, with students pushing creationism, with sometimes lukewarm support from colleagues or administrators, and so on.
So one day, when I ran into Mark Decker in the lecture hall, I told him that I had a friend who was a biology teacher and was having the usual problems, and could not find the support she needed to understand the problem better and address the issue in a satisfactory way. Mark said he knew of a teacher who had a lot of excellent ideas and insights, with whom he had corresponded by email a year or so earlier, and that he would send me something from this correspondence that would be helpful.
A day or two later, I received an email from Mark. Attached was an insightful and useful email from this teacher. But, the teacher Mark had corresponded with was, it turns out, my Amanda.
(Eventually, Amanda and I got married and lived happily ever after.)
So what is a teacher to do?
I have three recommendations, and here they are in increasing order of difficulty.
First, join your local, typically state-wide, pro-evolution support group, as well as the primary national group. In Minnesota, this would be the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education. In other states, it would typically be the [Name of State] something…something… ‘Science Education’ something something… Google around, you’ll find it. If you can’t find it, email me and I’ll help you find it. The national organization is the National Center for Science Education. If at all possible, ask your school administrator if your science department can join the NCSE. Your administrator will probably say no (as a matter of money, not necessarily politics) but at least you get to mention the organization and the issue to the higher-ups!
Second, read and learn. For example, the McGill Journal of Education published a special issue last year addressing several aspects of evolution vs. creationism in the classroom. In one of the papers in this special issue, Genie Scott of the NCSE asks “What’s wrong with the ‘teach the controversy’ slogan?
Teachers are often exhorted by creationists to “teach the controversy.” Although such encouragement sounds on the surface like a proposal for critical thinking instruction, the history of the creationist movement in North America belies this claim. Rather than teach students to analyze and evaluate actual scientific controversies, the intent of “teach the controversy” exhortations is to have teachers instruct students that evolution is weak or unsubstantiated science that students should not take seriously. Such instruction in alleged “evidence against evolution,” or “critical analysis of evolution” would seriously mis-educate students, and should be resisted by teachers and administrators.
The entire McGill Journal of Education issue is available on line, here. By reading and internalizing this material, and simply knowing more about both the controversy and the way it is addressed from different angles, you will be more prepared to speak with confidence to students, teachers, and colleagues.
Third, adjust your attitude. Internalize, embrace, love, adopt, become one with the idea that you are doing the right thing, that science is important, that life science is important, and that evolution’s role in the life sciences is not confined to a subfield, but rather, is fundamental. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” (Theodosius Dobzhansky) Keep that line in mind, make it your mantra.
Project Your Attitude
That sounds easy to do, but it is not. There is, however, a technique that may help. I call it “projection of the rational mind.” (If you come up with a better term for this, let me know.)
Here is how it works. When you are having trouble with a student who is passing out bibles in your biology class, or constantly raising inane questions cribbed form the Answers in Genesis web site, or whatever, part of you may want to bring this disciplinary problem up with a school administrator. If you had a boy who was constantly and inappropriately hitting on the girls, or a student who always refused to stop talking on her cell phone during class, etc., you would likely bring this to an administrator at some point.
But with this evolution issue, you are afraid that the administrator may actually be a creationist. With about a third of life science teachers being creationists, and roughly half of the general public being creationists, what are the chances that a school administrator is a creationist? Very high!
Teaching creationism and/or not teaching evolution in the life science classroom violates (depending on circumstances) a number of laws, rules, and regulations. You can’t hit a student, you can’t send a student home straight from the classroom no matter how much you want to, you can’t tell all the students to become scientologists, and so on. There are all kinds of things you must do, or must not do, in the classroom as a teacher or as a student. The role of the administrator is to support the teachers in making sure what is supposed to happen does, and what is not supposed to happen doesn’t. That is his or her job.
Therefore, you as the teacher have to assume that the administrator understands this and agrees with it, regardless of his or her personal position. A small percentage of school administrators (or fellow teachers) are pedophiles, kleptomaniacs, or serial killers. You don’t factor this in when deciding whether or not to discuss a disciplinary or pedagogical issue in your classroom. You discuss the issue with the administrator or colleague with the assumption that none of these things apply. You take your own professionally honed point of view and assume that certain basics are shared between you and your colleagues and bosses.
This is the attitude: I am a science teacher, and I am committed to the teaching of excellent science in my classroom. Having read a fair amount about the evolution/creationism controversy, I am aware of the nature of the laws and regulations, and I know what I need to be doing. This administrator may not know as much as I do about the issue, but s/he is fully supportive of my efforts and wants to understand my needs, and it is her/his job to help me out.
The idea that your colleague or administrator is a creationist hoping to derail the teaching of evolution in the classroom is unthinkable. If you see evidence to suggest this, you must assume that the evidence is misleading. Move ever forward with the assumption that the person you are communicating with is rational, reasonable, committed and dedicated, reasonably well informed and on the same side as you.
Require that your colleague be explicit about any way in which this is not true before you even consider the possibility.
In the most extreme cases, this will not work. In the most extreme cases, you need to contact the people at the state and national level, in those organizations you joined as part of Step 1, above. Explain the situation and they will help you.
Scott, E.c. (2007). WHAT\’S WRONG WITH THE \”TEACH THE CONTROVERSY\” SLOGAN?. McGill Journal of Education, 42(2), 307-315.