Teaching Students Evolution with Patience, Respect, and the Nature of Science

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The Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) has chosen February's theme as "Evolution." Darwin, born in February 1809, published On the Origin of Species, launching the theory of evolution; the foundational theory for all of biology. The National Academy of Sciences (1999) calls evolution the central unifying concept of biology. Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973) once said about evolution, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Evolution continues to be met, in the United States, with much public debate and public challenges in the education community to its veracity. These debates often end in landmark court decisions like the Scopes trial in 1925, Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968, Edwards v. Aguilar in 1987, and of course the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District in 2005. From all the public debate, one would think that the scientific community was in discord over evolution, yet under examination the scientific field has no discord. Evolution is consistently being tested and used, as all robust theories are, to develop future questions and predictions. Yet if there is no discord within the science community, why is there effort after effort to alter or challenge the teaching of evolution in schools? We have moved from creationism as science to intelligent design as science, to teach the "controversy" and now to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. Why single out evolution?

According to Berkman et al. (2008), a national survey representative of teachers concerning the teaching of evolution found that one in eight high school biology teachers still presents creationism as science, and almost one in six believes that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Teachers who hold creation science or intelligent design beliefs or teachers who have had little training in evolution spent substantially less time teaching evolution than teachers who had more training in evolution or hold evolution as a scientifically-valid theory. James Williams (2008), in The Scientist, stated that graduates in science disciplines and universities in Britain and around the world have a poor grasp of the meaning of simple scientific terminology. If the graduates of our universities and the teachers of science themselves do not understand the nature of science (NOS), then how will they be able to teach it properly and how will our students learn it properly?

So what is the solution? The answer may be contrary to what you expect. We need to teach for understanding of the NOS and address the students' long-held beliefs with patience and respect. Some in the scientific community would have you avoid addressing non-science issues in science classrooms. Michael Reiss, Past Director of Education at the Royal Society (Britain's Academy of Science) was removed from his position for suggesting such an approach, as reported by Daniel Clery (2008) in Science. After Science published "Crossing the Divide" by Jennifer Couzin (2008), concerning Stephen Godfrey's struggle becoming a scientist from a strong faith-based childhood, Craig Stevens (2008) responded that Science magazine should never print anything on the struggle with learning evolution because it gives the non-science approaches credibility. But the approach of avoidance does not work in education. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, in "Creation and Classrooms" (2008), advises that responses from the teacher with a "shut-up-and-take-it-elsewhere" approach will be perceived as a humiliating personal put-down, therefore obstructing rather than encouraging, inquiry and understanding. …