4 Surprises about Teaching Evolution in Public School
A public school teacher talks about the things that surprised him as an evolution educator in the American South, including how education has changed itself around this topic.
I’m an evolution educator. And an evangelical Christian. And I do this work in Alabama public schools. Are you surprised? Well, I am! This part of my life is certainly something I never imagined growing up as a Young Earth Creationist in Mississippi. It’s been a thrilling journey at times, sometimes tragic, and always full of wonder.
When I get the chance to describe my work to people, they’re almost always surprised. Whether they’re science teachers from public or Christian schools; scientists with or without faith commitments; or friends either in churches or not, something about my work catches most everyone off guard. And maybe the biggest surprise is the hope I feel for teaching evolution in ways that don’t throw Christian students into turmoil.
Surprise #1: Public school teachers can talk about faith issues when they teach evolution.
Think for a moment how you would answer the question, “Can public school teachers in the U.S. talk about religion in the classroom?” Most people I talk to say no. They get this question wrong! Public school teachers absolutely can talk about religion as long as they don’t advocate for or against it in general or for or against any specific faith.
This is settled education law in the U.S. It’s rooted in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Public schools often use what has been called the Lemon Test in helping to decide the boundaries for what teachers can and can’t say about religion in the classroom. This test is based on Lemon vs. Kurtzman, a 1971 case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Applied to the question above, the Lemon Test makes clear that science teachers can engage religious students’ concerns and questions about evolution as long as teachers keep the focus on learning evolution. They can’t let student concerns pull them away from their purpose of teaching accepted science.
Public schools must maintain a neutral stance toward religion, and this clearly should not be a hostile stance toward children who approach learning about evolution from the perspective of the faith they are being taught at home. Hostility does still exist in public schools, both with teachers who squelch the voices of religious students raising heartfelt question and with bias in textbooks. But many people, including science teachers, don’t know that they have clear legal standing to interact with students about faith issues as long as they keep the focus on helping students learn the science.
Surprise #2: Evolution education is changing to a gentler approach.
Would you be surprised to know there are a lot of science teachers and science educators who, like me, are working to change how American students learn evolution in public high schools and universities? There are! I saw this work get started in the 1990’s, pick up its pace in the previous decade, and begin to really blossom in the current decade.
Most people think of evolution education in public contexts as an approach requiring teachers and professors to basically say, “Check your religion at the door. In this class, we will not talk about religion. It’s just science here.” But a whole different approach is emerging in American education, and it focuses on students understanding, but not necessarily accepting or believing, evolution. This gentler approach recognizes that student concerns, fears, and objections must be addressed if they are going to work out for themselves an understanding of evolution and its interface with their individual worldviews.
Here are a few examples of this major trend in evolution education:
- The Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is leading the development of high school evolution curriculum with built-in sensitivity to the concerns of religious students.
- My book, published by Heinemann Press in 2009, guides teachers in how to implement an evolution unit in public schools where students resist learning evolution because of their faith.
- The open-source journal Evolution: Education and Outreach consistently publishes scholarly articles illustrating the need to pay attention to how complex it is for students to learn about evolution, emphasizing often the importance religious beliefs play.
- Sara Brownell, not a religious person herself, is a leading advocate among biology professors about how reducing the conflict religious students feel is a powerful way to help them learn evolution.
- My friend and colleague Amanda Glaze works in the American South, as I do, helping science teachers see how they can teach evolution without throwing religious students into turmoil.
- The Next Generation Science Standards, now guiding K-12 science education in the U.S., provide “an excellent model for approaching controversial topics including evolution” including a focus on students learning about the nature of science.
- Jamie Jensen is a biology educator at Brigham Young University whose research focuses on helping LDS students better learn evolution.
- The National Science Teachers Association will soon be publishing Making Sense of Science and Religion: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond, a book I edited with Joe Shane, Ron Hermann, and Ian Binns, which helps teachers better understand the interplay of science and religion issues in the classroom and how that applies to teaching evolution.
Surprise #3: Evolution should be the settled approach for public schools but it’s not.
How would you answer the question, “Can public schools teach Creationism or Intelligent Design?” From a legal perspective, the answer is clear cut. No doubt exists. Evolution is the only thing allowed. Creation Science and Intelligent Design have been deemed illegal by multiple court cases, with the most recent one being Kitzmiller vs. Dover.
But, things are not so clear cut with what science teacher actually do. Surveys and research consistently show that many American science teachers still think teaching Creationism or Intelligent Design is ok in a public school. In a 2004 study Randy Moore found that 27% of Minnesota science teachers thought both approaches were legal for public schools. Ron Hermann has recently repeated the Moore study with teachers across the U.S., and his pending publication shows good progress in teachers’ understandings about legal issues. But, around half of the teachers who responded still weren’t clear about the legality of teaching Creationism and Intelligent Design.
The bottom line is that many science teachers are afraid to teach evolution, especially in parts of the country like where I live. I’ve had several good, dedicated science teachers tell me basically, “I wish I could teach evolution. It’s what science says, and it’s the right thing to do. But in my community, I just can’t.” Then they go on to say that they would lose their job, they would lose their friends at church, or most painfully, their own children would be ostracized in their community. So even though evolution is legal, for various reasons many American teachers simply don’t address it.
Surprise #4: Human evolution in the classroom!
Well, this one surprised me! I spent years cautioning science teachers that they probably shouldn’t attempt to teach human evolution. I thought that would be too controversial. But some ongoing work led by Briana Pobiner of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program is pointing in the opposite direction.
They developed and field tested a curriculum for AP Biology using human examples, and the data from the project showed human examples work well for engaging high school students in learning about evolution. This curriculum is free and downloadable by anyone. Now, I’m part of a project revising the AP curriculum for use in regular high school biology, and it’s been pilot tested thus far by 13 Alabama teachers. Yes, you read that right—13 Alabama public school teachers have taught human evolution in their classrooms! And the preliminary results seem to be promising. Kids are learning evolution, and the project’s cultural and religious sensitivity teaching strategies, a revision of those developed for the AP curriculum, seem to be working well for reducing the conflict kids feel in the classroom.
Education is a changing landscape
The landscape of evolution education in America is changing. More and more science teachers and professors are recognizing how students’ concern and fears about learning evolution must be addressed. This is necessary for students to learn this essential science, but it’s also how good teachers care for their students.
Like many others involved in BioLogos, I have a deep desire that young Christians don’t feel forced to choose between science and their faith. This sense of mission led me to work with public school teachers and all of the surprises I described here. And this path I’ve taken led to hope! I see change beginning in the ways America’s schoolchildren learn evolution.
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