Amanda L. Townley: Evolution Education and Science Literacy in the South
Amanda L. Townley draws on her experience as a former middle school and high school teacher and work as a professor in science education to raise the next generation of educators.
Dr. Amanda L. Townley (formerly Glaze) is an Associate Professor of Middle Grades & Secondary Science Education at Georgia Southern University. She is passionate about evolution education and science literacy in the Southern US, where she grew up. She hopes to make evolution less taboo and scary for the next generation of students and educators.
Can you share a little about your Christian testimony?
I grew up in a family deeply rooted in ministry from rural Northeast Alabama. My father’s family came from the United Methodist tradition, and my mother’s family was Southern Baptist going back a number of generations. I was raised in both traditions, but around the age of eight, I became primarily Southern Baptist and espoused a literalist reading of scripture, including the creation account.
Growing up, I was heavily involved in church; whenever the church doors were open, I was there. However, during my later high school years I began to lose my faith and grew disconnected from the church proper. For years I studied world religions and dug deeper into the history of Christianity. Eventually, I was able to recover the faith that I had lost, but it was only after I replaced the naive and borrowed faith of my childhood with a more personal relationship with Christ for myself. I started to seek answers to my own questions, which helped me better situate my beliefs and develop a more profound relationship with God.
Navigating these challenges has provided somewhat of a framework and context for the work that I do currently. Interestingly enough, my work is my testimony. I didn’t realize this until my grandmother, who once was terrified that I would go to Hell for studying evolution, learned about my research, and told me this. She said that my work is helping people of faith navigate their fear of science and helping people of science understand faith and belief in ways that allow both to coexist instead of being at odds. Despite her sharing a letter of concern for my soul at one point early in my studies, prior to her passing in 2015 she had come to love our chats about evolution, science, and faith. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
…my work is my testimony. I didn’t realize this until my grandmother, who once was terrified that I would go to Hell for studying evolution, learned about my research, and told me this. She said that my work is helping people of faith navigate their fear of science and helping people of science understand faith and belief in ways that allow both to coexist instead of being at odds.
What role did faith have in your journey into science? Did you ever feel that there was tension or conflict?
My faith has had a huge role in my journey in the sciences, but not in a way that many would expect. Growing up, my family and community had a worldview deeply rooted in faith, including my teachers. It wasn’t until I encountered evolution, not necessarily being taught, but negatively disregarded in my high school biology class, that I realized there was “conflict” between my religious upbringing and science. The nature of the topic as taboo in the region and culture in which I grew up meant that I had to really dig for answers and seek out understanding on my own, which was very alienating.
It took years of searching, studying different religions and learning more science before I was able to reconcile this conflict and find harmony. It actually helped to talk about my upbringing and experience of conflict with others, and find safe spaces to open up. When I started sharing my experiences with others, I was surprised to meet a lot of people who had similar experiences. The more we talked, the larger our network grew. As a result of those early conversations and connections, I am now able to study these interactions as a part of my research and work to help others navigate their journeys as well.
Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash
Your research centers on the intersection of science and society, specifically evolution education and science literacy. Can you share with us some of your work and findings?
One of the most important findings from my work and that of others in my field is that we make a lot of assumptions about others when it comes to what, why, and how they learn. A lack of acceptance of something does not mean ignorance, which is how the evolution/religion conversation has been approached for generations.
Our worldview is a part of our identity, so when we have experiences that don’t align with that, we have conflict that we have to figure out how (and whether) to navigate. This is true of all human beings, whether they are children, adults, students, or faculty. The ability to help people navigate these conflicts and figure out how to build scientific worldviews regardless of other worldview elements is something that is very important. It is also something that you cannot do without first taking a step back and genuinely trying to understand the nature of the perceived conflict and the reasoning behind the dissonance.
Traditionally we approach things from the viewpoint that the more evidence we throw at people, the better they will understand, and the more likely they will change their worldview. The reality is that it is much less about sharing facts and more about shared understanding, openness, and humility. We need to create a safe space to ask questions and extend an invitation to people to take an active role in exploring faith and science for themselves.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming conflict, but there are conversations that can be had that create a safe space, if you will, for people to do both in a way that makes it less adversarial. A huge part of that is simply stepping back and talking about what science is and what it is not, perhaps even the limitations of science. That is the nature of science, and those pieces are most often connected with misunderstandings people have, which ends up creating hard conflict between scientific understandings and beliefs.
Traditionally we approach things from the viewpoint that the more evidence we throw at people, the better they will understand, and the more likely they will change their worldview. The reality is that it is much less about sharing facts and more about shared understanding, openness, and humility.
You previously worked as a biology teacher for Middle and High school. What was it like teaching evolution in the classroom in the conservative South? What challenges did you face? Moments of hope?
One thing about my own background and experiences growing up in a religious family in the South is that this allowed me to teach evolution in a way that was respectful of the beliefs and traditions of my students. I was an insider so to speak, coming from a similar background, location, and belief system as many of my students, and I was transparent about it, open, and understanding of my students who came from different backgrounds and had other worldviews. My students were not really contentious or worried when we talked about evolution.
I attribute this to the fact that I fostered a safe environment for them to express themselves and their concerns and also evolution was so interwoven in the materials we covered that it was not a shock or big deal later in the school year when we officially covered a unit on Evolution itself.
Some of my best moments in the classroom were conversations I was able to have with my students about beliefs being personal and important to them and how science fits in. The two are not opposed to each other, we just tend to fear what we don’t understand, and so we are less willing to have open conversations. It was always amazing to have students ask questions that I knew were hard for them because they trusted that I would not judge them. My most precious memories are thank you notes and kind words from students and parents for listening to them and making them feel okay with asking uncomfortable questions and learning something that seemed frightening at first.
Photo provided by Amanda L. Townley (formerly Glaze)
You’ve done some interesting work with the Smithsonian Human Origins program for evolution education geared towards K-12. We’ve previously highlighted some of this work in an interview with paleoanthropologist Rick Potts on the Language of God podcast. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?
This was an amazing experience for me to be a part of over the last five years, because it took a project that already existed and expanded the focus to include human and non-human evolution and also brought it to my home state of Alabama. The project was an effort to test, revise, and employ robust and accurate evolution instruction, while also teaching culturally relevant and responsive approaches to address conflicts in the classroom. The evolution lessons that were created are available for no charge on the Smithsonian website, as is the CRS (culturally responsive strategy) lesson approach.
The lessons focus on human and non-human evolution and are very engaging and thought-provoking for students. They are rich with data and critical thinking exercises as well and can be used in any biology course! The CRS is particularly an amazing resource that can be used in any level of K-12, but also can be adjusted for conversations with other audiences as well. The goal is to help people navigate areas of their worldview, whether religious or otherwise, in order to get past some of the barriers and misconceptions they have about evolution and science as a whole.
Research tells us that the biggest barrier is misconceptions that exist about what science does and doesn’t do, the roles and goals of scientists, and how science is a way of knowing that has specific rules, just like there are other ways of knowing. An example would be religious ways of knowing and the concepts of things like faith and the supernatural. The CRS helps to sort out these different ways of knowing, as well as modeling a variety of ways people navigate their perceived conflict with topics in science. It is a great resource to help create a safe space for discourse by specifically addressing some of the key misconceptions and concerns that people have about their faith or culture and science.
What advice would you give to science educators teaching evolution in their classrooms in how to reach students who have religious barriers to accepting evolution?
Evolution does not have to be scary for students. Teachers just have to empathize and recognize that students are coming into their classroom from a broad range of backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs about evolution and other so-called “controversial” science topics. Demystifying the word through embedded teaching (evolution as the theme of biology) and specifically teaching your students about the nature of science as a field and as a way of knowing, can diffuse concerns and contention before it ever begins.
Teachers need to know that they can set the tone for the learning environment. They can model respect for the fact that there are many ways of knowing that help us make sense of the world around us, and that the values we place on those ways of knowing are a part of our identity as human beings. Looking at learning through that lens really helps you to step back and celebrate the fact that our goal is to help everyone add to their worldview an appreciation and understanding of science that can be applied to their lives (science literacy for the win!) regardless of where they come from, their beliefs, their faith, and their culture.
Teachers need to know that they can set the tone for the learning environment. They can model respect for the fact that there are many ways of knowing that help us make sense of the world around us…
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About the authors
Amanda L. Townley
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