Florida Citizens for Science presented “Overcoming roadblocks to teaching evolution” during the Florida Association of Science Teachers annual conference. Three FCS board members traveled to Orlando for the Saturday talk, finding an enthused and engaged audience. Some of the folks who listened to our talk commented that they were glad they stuck around to see us. Our talk had drawn the short straw; we were scheduled for the last block of sessions on the last day of the conference. Nonetheless, the audience didn’t just passively listen to our talk, but actively participate, sharing experiences and offering their own advice.
I kicked off the subject with a short introduction that tried to hammer home the importance of developing strategies to handle possible conflict in the classroom when it comes to teaching evolution. I read the many newspaper headlines that had appeared in just the one week the FAST conference was in session. I explained that the stories could have, and probably should have, focused on the new draft of the state’s science standards. But the reporters and editors instead chose to write almost exclusively about evolution’s inclusion in the standards. I also mentioned that the Orlando Sentinel stories allowed reader comments, and one story had well over 400 comments, and another was over 100. My point was that there is obviously high and passionate interest in the subject. It can’t be ignored.
Jonathan Smith then took approximately 20 minutes giving a slide show presentation that started off with an image of Charles Darwin on paper currency in England (the 20 pound note, I believe). He then shared a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office in UK: “The government is clear that creationism and ID are not to be any part of the science National Curriculum, programmes of study and can not be taught in science.” He contrasted this with a quote from Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education in the US: “I’m glad that creationism is dealt with on a state level rather than on a national level, happily that way I don’t have to deal with it. It’s a trick subject.”
Smith then briefly talked about a long list of court cases involving evolution. He pointed out that all of the cases were sparked by people holding a very narrow religious ideology. He went on to say that these people use religion to attack science and try to frame this as religion versus anti-religion. This is a false framing, though. As a matter of fact, in many cases it becomes religion versus religion, as many people with religious faith have no problem with evolution. Smith cited the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sundays as examples of religion accepting the findings of science.
Smith then moved on to talking about the individual classroom. How do we redirect discussion from God vs. Darwin to an interesting exploration of science and evolution? One of the most useful tools is having an established curriculum (such as the state’s science standards) that a teacher can lean on during time of conflict. An angry parent or student can be deflected from the teacher or classroom when told that the teacher must teach what is in the curriculum.
Smith advised that we must take care not to alienate students, but we do need to address a student’s misconceptions as best as we can. One thing some teachers have been known to do is state in no uncertain terms: “This is a science class. In this class we will study what the consensus of scientists accept. Evolution is the unifying theory firmly interwoven with all aspects of biology. Period.” However, not everyone agrees with using such a brusque manner.
Another way to handle the situation is to engage the students in thinking and questioning. Show them the changes in Darwins’ Finches’ beaks. Show them the differences and similarities in various skulls representing the various stages of human development. Ask the students questions. Give the kids credit for being smart and allow them to sort their own way through the evidence. With proper teacher guidance, the students can reason their way to sound answers.
We don’t ask any students to “believe” evolution, Smith said. We are asking students to understand evolution. Keep in mind that firmly entrenched misconceptions may take quite a while to uproot, and it might not get done in one school year.
Sometimes, teachers will experience direct confrontation in the classroom. In any circumstance, it’s important to not overreact. A student may ask to be excused from the class during instruction on evolution (“well, then the student will be missing the majority of my classes,” might be a response to get a clear point across), or bring a Bible to class as a sign of protest (nothing wrong with that, but the student might need to be told that the answers to Friday’s quiz won’t be in there), or be armed with the Discovery Institutes’s “10 questions to ask your biology teacher” (ask the student to fully explain the question he or she asks since most are just reading off a piece of paper and don’t understand what they’re asking, or ask the student to do his or her own research and report back the findings to the class).
Smith wrapped us his talk by letting everyone present know that FCS is here to support anyone who needs us, and that the National Science Teachers Association and the National Center for Science Education are available as well.
Following Smith, Mary Bahr talked for a few minutes about some specific activities that students can do in the classroom to help put the issue of evolution into perspective. She suggested that teachers visit the website of Nature of Science Institute for wonderful lesson ideas concerning the nature of science. (Other useful links can be found on the FCS links page.) Giving students a firm grounding in what science is and isn’t can go a long way toward heading off any future problems when evolution comes up. Bahr got feedback from the audience, discovering that about half of those in attendance had experienced confrontations about evolution at some time in the past. One woman said that she is relatively new to teaching and attended our talk not because of evolution, but because of the Big Bang theory that caused some troubles in her classroom.
The presentation then wrapped up and several audience members stayed for a few minutes afterwards to share stories and strategies. It was obvious that no one was interested in debating evolution in the classroom or wanting to win a war of words. Instead, everyone just wanted to be able to communicate with students the wonders of science and how it works.
The presentation was a success! Many thanks to everyone who poured so much time and effort into making this a worthwhile venture.
If you are interested in FCS giving a similar presentation to your group or organization, please just send me an e-mail (email@example.com) and we’ll see what we can do.