Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Use of Critical Thinking Skills for Teaching Evolution in an Introductory Historical Geology Course

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Use of Critical Thinking Skills for Teaching Evolution in an Introductory Historical Geology Course

Article excerpt


Teaching students to think critically remains a significant goal of science education. In my recent introductory Historical Geology class, I used the evolution-creation controversy as a means to introduce students to the scientific method by having them write a paper that summarized the arguments used by those who took a viewpoint opposite to their own. The original plan was to have a second paper in which students attempt to refute all the arguments in their first paper (and hence argue for their original view), but the quality of papers was so variable that the design was modified so that students were then asked what they learned through the exercise.

The results indicate that most students learned about the controversy and focused their views on where they stood. Only four of sixteen students did not change their views, although those students who were more extreme in their views were less likely to change their views significantly. Almost all students explicitly stated that they valued the learning experience and being forced to critically evaluate their own views, even if it was a painful exercise.

Keywords: Education-Undergraduate, Historical Geology, Evolution


Since the Kansas Board of Education ruled in 1999 to adapt public school standards that removed key aspects of evolutionary theory, the `big bang' theory and the geologic time scale from Kansas schools, the role of learning about the history of the planet and evolution in the classroom has been again in the spotlight. Because the theory of evolution and the notion of geologic time remain at the core of both the geological and the biological sciences, it is imperative that students develop a basic understanding of these concepts and how they are derived (for example, Wells, 1989; Kelley, et al., 1999; Wise, 2001; Zen, 2001).

Recent work has suggested that education in the natural sciences still tends to focus on memory-intensive instruction (NSF Advisory Committee, 1996, a technique that can lead to 'descriptive thinking (Lawson, 1995), or simply making and listing observations. An alternative vision for science education, and the one applied in this study, includes the observation that 'students need to be taught how to engage effectively in this knowledge construction process - that is, they need to be taught to think critically' (King, 1994; see also Mayborn and Lesher, 2000; cf. Sullenger et al., 2000).

In teaching a 100-level Historical Geology course in Spring 2001, I attempted to design a learning experience that explicitly linked learning about evolution with methods and principles of modern science. The purpose of this paper is to discuss these attempts to integrate discovery of evolutionary and geologic concepts with critical thinking skills. The general idea was to have students critically evaluate both sides of the evolution-creation issue (a 'hot' topic) (Mayborn and Lesher, 2000; Scott, 2000) and to recognize that the general approach of many creationists is not consistent with accepted scientific methods (cf. Wells, 1989). In practice, this approach was only partly successful. This paper discusses the basic methods, illustrates student's writing and insights, highlights some of the implications of the project, and presents suggestions on how the exercise might be improved. Sixteen students of the class agreed to have their results incorporated into this study and have results published.


This project had the goal of educating introductory-level students about evolution, its scientific basis, and the means by which it is studied (Rudolph and Stewart, 1998). The original plan was to have two position papers written by each student, and through writing these two papers, ten by each students would be forced to critically evaluate the evolution-creation controversy and their opinion on the topic. As these papers were being written, the class proceeded and we discussed basic concepts, logic, reasoning, and terminology of evolution (microevolution, macroevolution, 'missing time,' distribution of organisms and fossils, biostratigraphy), geologic time (relative ages, absolute ages), and stratigraphy (superposition, cross-cutting relationships, unconformities). …

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