Academic journal article Science Educator

Preparing Biology Teachers to Teach Evolution in a Project-Based Approach

Academic journal article Science Educator

Preparing Biology Teachers to Teach Evolution in a Project-Based Approach

Article excerpt


This study investigates a project-based learning (PBL) approach to teaching evolution to inform efforts in teacher preparation. Data analysis of a secondary biology educator teaching evolution through a PBL approach illuminated: (1) active student voice, which allowed students to reflect on their positioning on evolution and consider multiple perspectives; (2) premature evaluative thinking actually inhibited the students' cognitive engagement with the theory; (3) discussing evolution as a false dichotomy in science, rather than a social controversy; and (4) collaborative relationships in the PBL enhanced procedural types of cognitive engagement. Implications for preparing future science teachers to structure PBL in order to foster more cognitive engagement with socially controversial topics are discussed.

Keywords: evolution, PBL, teacher preparation, secondary education


The teaching and learning of evolution in science has grown with curriculum development of related teaching materials and inclusion in state science standards (Scott & Branch, 2006). Recent education reform efforts in teacher preparation have attempted to foster the implementation of these resources by preparing educators to teach socially controversial topics, such as evolutionary theory, through the use of projectbased learning (PBL) instruction (Rivet & Krajcik, 2008). In the PBL approach, teachers act as facilitators to student learning. Students have access to technology in the classroom that allows them to explore and guide their learning, organize their work, and manage their time. Self-direction and reflection are key contributors to the process of PBL. Additionally, the benefits of using a PBL approach include deeper cognitive engagement of the subject matter, increased self-direction and motivation, and improved problem-solving abilities (Blumenfeld, Soloway, Marx, Krajcik, Guuzdial, & Palincsar, 1991; Rivet & Krajcik, 2008; Moje, Collazo, Carillo, & Marx, 2001). Active social learning of evolution is crucial to student cognitive engagement of and with the theory (McComas, 1998); cooperative interaction is at the foundation of the PBL strategy.

By structuring cognitively complex tasks, such as those afforded by PBL, a classroom teacher can provide opportunities for solving authentic problems while simultaneously enhancing student engagement (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). Cognitive engagement, defined as drawing on ideas of investment and willingness to exert the effort to investigate an issue, is enhanced when students actively discuss ideas, debate points of view, and critique each other's work (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). A cognitively engaged student is one who not only attends to the built-in procedures of instruction but also interacts with the content of the lesson in a deep and thoughtful manner (McLaughlin, et al., 2005). By understanding when and in what ways students monitor their own learning, manage tasks, connect new ideas with previous ideas, and ask authentic questions, a teacher can better develop lessons that engage learners with evolutionary theory.

Therefore, monitoring a teacher's implementation of PBL as a pedagogical tool for teaching about evolution, and perhaps other controversial topics in science, as well as the resulting effects on students' levels of cognitive engagement allows us to explore our own efforts in preparing teachers to effectively teach science. As teacher educators working with a large number of pre-service secondary teachers, we believe supporting them with learning how to increase students' cognitive engagement with evolution is critical. Doing this requires educating pre-service teachers about how to present curriculum in ways that not only teach the underlying principles of evolutionary theory, but also invite students to participate in a larger sociocultural conversation on the topic.

The purpose of this study was to develop a descriptive and interpretive account of the experience of being a new biology teacher who is seeking to cognitively engage students with evolution through a PBL approach and use that understanding to improve our practices in teacher preparation. …

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