attitudes towards teaching evolution in the (US) classroom

A little while back I wrote a post on the fact that so-called ‘intelligent design’ is simply creationism by another name, a name intended to obscure the link & to get around the US prohibition on teaching religion in science classes. When this was posted on the NZ Sciblogs site, one commenter said, Firstly, there is nothing to fear, even if it is true. Students can think for themselves, can’t they? I was reminded of this when readinga new article in Science magazine’s Education forum: Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom (Berkman & Plutzer, 2011).

The ‘courtroom’ in the article’s title refers to the Kitzmiller vs Dover case, which followed the decision of the Dover (Pennsylvania) School Board to include materials on ‘intelligent design’ in science classes, and which saw that decision overturned on the grounds that it was effectively requiring teachers to present creationist materials & views in class. This was one more negative outcome for creationism, in a losing streak which has seen attempts to bring creationism into science classrooms thrown out in federal courts for the last 40 years. However, Berkman & Plutzer warn that science may not be winning where it counts most – in the classroom. Collecting data in a US-wide survey of high schoool biology teachers, they found

a pervasive reluctance of teachers to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology.

Can it really be that bad? Well, yes. In the most conservative school districts, around 40% of biology teachers didn’t accept human evolution (c.f. 11% in the least conservative districts), with the outcome that they spend very little time teaching evolutionary biology. On a more hopeful note, the authors estimate that 28% of all high school bio teachers consistently teach evolution using curriculum guidelines recommended by the National Research Council. But another 13% "explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least 1 hour of class time presenting it in a positive light" (Berkman & Pluzter, 2011).

That’s about 40% of bio teachers – what about the other 60%? The ones the authors describe as the "’cautious 60%’ who are neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of non-scientific alternatives’? It turns out that these teachers report wanting to avoid stirring up controversy, & also that in many cases they haven’t studied evolutionary biology themselves & so aren’t confident that they can properly answer questions about it in class. Berkman & Plutzer found that in this group there were 3 common strategies for avoiding controversy: a) teaching evolution with reference only to molecular biology, which is an incredibly narrowly-focused approach that avoids dealing with the question of speciation; b) telling students they need to know about evolution for state exams, without aiming for a deeper understanding; & c) going for false ‘balance’ by presenting material from all sides, & letting their students decide what to accept. Which is what my commenter was suggesting; after all, we’re supposed to be encouraging students to think for themselves, aren’t we? What can be wrong with that?

The issue with this is as relevant to science education in New Zealand as it is to the context described by Berkman & Plutzer, and it hinges on the nature and quantity of information that students could be presented with. As Berkman & Plutzer say, is your average teenager really going to read, & assess, the literally thousands of peer-reviewed scholarly articles on the subject of evolutionary biology? And such an approach could run counter to the 2007 NZ science curriculum, because leaving it to students to decide what ‘counts’ & what doesn’t carries with it the message that "well-established concepts like common ancestry can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions" (Berkman & Plutzer, 2011). Those 3 approaches for treading softly around particular sensitivities are actually going to work against attempts to teach the nature of science. They

undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well-established by the combination of peer review and replication… [and] fail to explain the nature of scientific enquiry.

And no, I don’t think we can sit on our laurels in this area, here in New Zealand. Yes, we have a national curriculum that expects that evolutionary concepts will be introduced to students when they first start primary school. (Having said that, private schools can and do opt out.) But this requires that teachers – at all levels – have the training, resources, & support to teach this material well, to use the opportunity to help students engage with the nature of science, & to handle the inevitable questions when they arise.

And I do hope that we have moved on a bit from 2005, when a Ministry of Education spokesperson told a Herald reporter – talking specifically about evolution – that a "full exploration of these theories should include a consideration of challenges that have been made to them," and that "challenges to accepted scientific understandings should be considered in science lessons." 

The problem here, of course, is that a true ‘science controversy’ has science on both sides.

Berkman MB, & Plutzer E (2011). Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6016), 404-405 PMID: 21273472

(Those interested can find supporting on-line material here, including the questionnaire used by the authors.)

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