…. Have you ever had this happen: You are minding your own business, teaching your life science course, it’s early in the term. A student, on the way out of the room after class (never at the beginning of class, rarely during class) mentions something about “carbon dating.” This usually happens around the time of year you are doing an overview of the main points of the course, but before you’ve gotten to the “evolution module”…
The student is talking about 14C dating and how it “has problems.” But you are a life science teacher and can’t think of a single point in your class that you really touch on the 14C method. Dating in the evolution section does not involve 14C. 14C is for later time periods, more in the area of archaeology, and you know nothing about it. So you brush off the question but are left with an uneasy feeling.
Next class, probably just after class, the same student, again at a moment that gives you zero warning and usually no time to think of how to respond, mentions something about the Laws of Thermodynamics. This question you find more interesting and possibly even useful as the starting point of a “teachable moment…” The nature of life itself includes the fact that life works, in some ways, upstream against entropy. Life organizes energy, stores it, traps it, uses it. That one utterly mind-blowing aspect of life is really all you need to define life itself. If that was the only thing you used to define life, you would have very few non-life entities or events accidentally included. If you can truly understand … I mean really, really truly at a detailed level understand …. how the heck life works against the gradient of entropy, at the intracellular level, then you will understand a LOT (like, at the MA level, at least) of what is going on. To get a believable and reasonable level of understanding of this, you must get more than just basic cell function … it is not good enough to just say “The mitochondria are the tiny little powerhouses of the cell” because you have not explained how that works. You need to know about ATP and stuff. Really, you even need to know why cells use ATP as energy but none of the other obvious forms of energy that they could use … the phylogenetic effect at a very basic level indeed.
Now, the creationist reading this will say, “Aha! The teacher is annoyed at the creationist, and the great Doctor of Evolutionary Biology is disturbed that such difficult questions come from the mouth’s of babes … these simple honest questions that are in fact impossible to answer! The Evilutionists would prefer if these questions were never even asked….”
That was the “oh please, cut out the crap” buzzer going off.
This student is not an innocent child asking legitimate questions. Child? Yes. Innocent? That needs, in my opinion, to be demonstrated, but from a teacher’s perspective, OK, you can assume innocent until proven nefarious. But wait and see what happens. Yesterday it was C14, today it was Thermodynamics. Tomorrow it will be intelligent design at the cellular level, later on it will be missing transitional forms, then it will be teaching the controversy, and so on. The student might or might not tell you … perhaps as an admission, perhaps as a proud statement (“See, I researched this.”) that these questions are mostly coming from the Answers in Genesis web site.
Did this student find the web site through a private initiative, or perhaps by accident? Did a parent point this student to the web site? Did a Sunday school teacher or pastor tell the student about it? All of these things tend to happen, but the latter two are the most common. There is a pretty good chance that this student has been put up to this, but most likely willingly. Little 10th graders can be the strongest crusaders. Jeanne d’Arc was in tenth grade, if I remember correctly. So this is not going to end quietly.
The student will eventually start to bring these issues up during class, not just after class or before class. Most likely several the other students in the class will get annoyed and protest to the student directly … they are, after all, there to learn the biology for their own reasons (like getting a high school diploma or passing a test or whatever) and regardless of their own religious views, they are not interested in this disruption. Even if they did want to get a creationist or religious perspective, they probably don’t want to hear it from this kid even outside of the class. Jeanne d’Arc might have been a tenth grader, but most tenth graders, regardless of the level of their zealotry, are not Jeanne d’Arc. Their discourse does not tend to capture the audience and they are unlikely to make a credible case that they have been visited by The Virgin.
Teacher, listen to this: There is a wide range of possible responses to the situation outlined above (or some other similar situation). Only some of them are legal. Only some of them are ethical. There are things you can do that may make perfect sense but that will significantly enhance the probability of your school or district being successfully sued.
Whenever I blog about this sort of thing, I get a lot of helpful, hopeful comments from well meaning allies of education providing suggestions as to what to do. Those suggestions are diverse in nature, often humorous, sometimes very good. Commonly, we are told “Just do X” or “Just do Y” and the problem will go away quickly. But, I’m as a teacher you already know that there is not really an easy way to handle this.
When Pastor Bob arms your student with creationist claims and sends him or her into your classroom, he is creating not just a disruption or an annoyance, but a professionally dangerous situation for you. Most likely he knows this and is doing this to generate trouble. He is, obviously, using this child as a pawn in a game that he feels he is prepared to play and maybe win. He knows he is getting points with god by doing this (as does the pawn-child) and he cares not one bit about you or your career. He sees disruption of your science class, and thus of the science education of the other students in your class, as a good thing. This may, indeed, be his primary objective other than his own salvation from sin.
While it is true that almost no teachers are prepared through formal training to handle this sort of situation without risking career or the school’s legal budget, or losing control of the class, or losing the pawn-child, most teachers can avoid trouble by keeping a few guidelines in mind.
You can’t talk about religion in your science classroom. This means you can’t have a conversation about creationism in your classroom. You may have to pull the student aside and indicate that this discussion will not happen. The student will object, indicating that “intelligent design” is not creationism. You must very firmly indicate to the student that according to the current, standing law, intelligent design IS creationism, and creationism IS religion, and religion cannot be discussed in any way whatsoever in a science classroom without risk of breaking the law. It may be necessary to indicate to the student that continued attempts to bring this conversation into the classroom have to be seen as a disciplinary problem.
Let’s talk about that angle for a moment. Have you ever had a student who will not stop talking about sex or related anatomy whenever an opportunity arises in class… blurting things out and disrupting class? Think about that scenario for a moment. The student is not special ed or special needs. The student is a junior in high school. He blurts out a profanity and/or sexual or anatomical reference four or five times per class, giggles with his buddies, attempts to recruit those around him into this shenanigans even if you keep moving him, etc. This is a disciplinary issue, and you have ways of addressing it as a teacher. This is why archetects, when designing schools, but the hallways right outside the classrooms, for you to have little conversations with your student. And, somewhere down the hallway is a principal or dean to which you can send him when the conversations have been tried but have not worked.
A student who has been informed that there will be no discussion of creationist claims from AIG (Answers in Genesis) or anywhere else in the classroom, that ID is creationism, etc. but continues to do so is no different than the student who can’t stop with the dick jokes. As a teacher, and as a particular teacher in a particular classroom, you can’t be told by me or anyone else how to deal with this, but you must deal with it properly. But most likely there will be a conversation after or before class, in the hallway, or in an admin’s office.
And if anyone in the admin, your department head or any colleagues tell you to lighten up, that the students can express their religious views in class because of the first amendment, etc. etc., then you are on the next level of difficulties, beyond what we can do here in this one blog post. Seek outside help. Drop me a line. Contact NCSE. Get a lawyer. If this happens, your administrators have just done a bit of violation of professional practice and probably law on their own, and they need some seroius education on the matter. It is not possible for you, as the teacher, to do that without risking your job.
I want to end with a very specific idea that I’ve seen suggested many times among teachers, and it is something that you CAN NOT do. You can’t do this. There are books out there, such as and especially Ken Miller’s “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution” that deal with the religion/science interface in the area of evolution. I have seen it suggested that teachers can recommend a book like this to students or parents. You can not do this. Miller’s book is about reconciling religion … and a particular subset of religion, a particular area of Christianity … with science. As a science teacher, in the context of a science classroom, if you recommend this book, you would be promoting religion in general, and a specific religion in particular. It may sound like a good idea, and it may seem perfectly sensible and innocent. And maybe you should read the book yourself. But you may well be violating the Establishment Clause to recommend it to a student in your science classroom. To my knowledge, this exact scenario has not been tested in the courts, but I don’t think you want to be the teacher on the witness stand when it is.
The truth is that the legal protections supporting the teaching of real evolutionary biology in the classroom do not arise because real evolutionary biology is … ah … real, and creationism is not. The importance and veracity of the science itself is only part of the argument, even though it should be, and I think could be, the only argument. We don’t have slack-jawed yokels sneaking onto the school board so that they can force Language Arts teachers to tell the students that “i aint got no George Strait tunes, you gotta brang soma his CD’s over, ye’hear?” or to insist that the shop teacher tell the students “you know, these safety devices … especially the ones on electric saws … really are a pain in the ass, so the first thing we do every semester is learn how to disable the safety devices” and so on. Those are arguments about quality, and you can make arguments about quality all you want regarding life sciences in the classroom and no one will care even a little. Creationism is not allowed in the classroom because it is religion, not because it is stoopid. Which is a great convenience for you as a life science teacher, but rather shameful, at the broader social and political level, when you think about it.
At the beginning of every school year, I try to post new and “the best of” blog posts specifically written for teachers. If you want to see this year’s “back to school special” posts in a list, click here. I’ll be posting these items through the month of September. There will likely be one or two items new every day.
Please feel free to send a link to all your teacher friends so they know about it!!!! And, if there is something you’d like to see discussed, let me know.