talking about ‘the controversy’ in the classroom

I spent this morning over at the School of Education, talking with trainee secondary teachers and their lecturer about the curriculum & achievement standards & teaching evolution. Over lunch a couple of the staff continued with this, talking particularly about the fact that, whether we like it or not, the issue of evolution is seen as controversial by many students.

We agreed that the first part of any response was to point out that this is not in any sense a scientific controversy: the great majority of practising biologists view evolution as both fact and theory, and it underpins our understanding of the modern biological sciences. Instead, the controversy is more of a social one (though I’m not sure that ‘social’ is quite the right word…), & one which is promoted for all sorts of reasons. One of those reasons has to do with people feeling that evolutionary biology constitutes something of a threat, an assault, on their personal religious beliefs.

Regardless of this, from time to time teachers do have to deal with this issue in their classrooms. My Education colleagues said, well, how do you deal with it? Good question. I talk about the development of evolutionary thought with my first-year students, & I know that every year there are likely to be some who don’t accept the idea of evolution. In lectures, time for debate is rather limited – but there’s plenty of time in labs & tutorials & at times we’ve had some very interesting discussions on the subject. So this is my approach – and yes, I know that some will say this is ‘accommodationist’ &/or smacks of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. So I’ve said it first 🙂 But this works for me – & judging by their comments, it works for my students as well. Once we’ve got some common ground, then we can go on to look what’s science & what’s not. But we need that common ground first.

I start off by saying, in this lecture I’m going to be talking about the theory (& the fact) of evolution. The first thing we need to be clear on is what this word theory means. The US National Science Teachers Association says it very clearly:

To scientists, a theory is a coherent explanation for a large number of facts and observations about the natural world. A theory is: internally consistent & compatible with the evidence; firmly grounded in & based upon evidence; tested against a wide range of phenomena; demonstrably effective in problem-solving. For example: theory of gravity, theory of general & universal relativity, theory of evolution.

Then I say, OK, this is just an intro to the topic – we’ll explore it more fully in tutorials, & that’s probably a better place to get into a debate or a discussion of what constitutes a scientific explanation for life’s diversity & why some explanations aren’t scientific. (& we offer a whole second-year paper on the subject.) I do recognise that some of you probably don’t accept the concept of evolution, perhaps because of your personal faith. But this is biology class, & even if you don’t accept the idea of evolution, if you’re going to go on & study biology you have to understand evolution. Because the modern theory of evolution (we’ve moved on since Darwin’s day) underpins all of modern biology.

And I also say, you might like to think about it like this. Science can tell you an awful lot about how the world works. Your belief system (whether you have a religious or an atheist perspective) can tell you how to live in that world, & may impact on how you choose to use or to apply what science tells you. The two need not be in conflict. After which we get to the lecture itself, which looks at the development of evolutionary thought & uses this as a way to show the nature of science itself.

As I said, this works for me – & it seems to work for my students. Certainly I’ve had people say to me (after that particular lecture) how much they appreciate that approach, because it doesn’t threaten their faith & makes them more comfortable delving into evolutionary biology – & more willing to do so.

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