Five Essential Practices for “Culturally Competent” Biology Instructors
All science instructors should implement some simple research-based practices that create a more culturally sensitive, inclusive classroom environment for students of faith.
On college campuses across the country, classes are starting up again, and fresh faces are filing into Biology 101 classrooms, lecture halls, and labs. If you are one of the instructors standing in front of these new faces, you probably know that a sizeable percentage1 of your students are convinced that what you will teach them about evolution is a threat to their faith. Some may even come armed with arguments they are sure will leave you flustered and confused, and they may be eagerly anticipating the opportunity to clash swords with any ambassador of that nefarious adversary known as “secular science.” Is there anything instructors can do to counteract this defensive, battle-ready posture and create an environment where mainstream science can get a fair hearing?
Many Christian science instructors are intimately acquainted with the struggle their students face, and they have been trusting their instincts and learning by trial and error what works best when it comes to addressing science and faith issues in their classrooms. A recent CBE-Life Sciences Education journal article that summarizes numerous science education studies validates the approaches many Christian instructors have already adopted.
Additionally, the authors suggest that all science instructors, no matter what their personal faith convictions, should implement some simple research-based practices that create a more culturally sensitive, inclusive classroom environment for students of faith. This can make a big difference in helping them accept evolutionary science as credible.
Their recommended practices happen to be strategies BioLogos has been actively advocating, and many BioLogos resources can equip educators to incorporate these practices into their classrooms, whether they are new to the science-faith discussion, or old pros looking for fresh material.
1. Acknowledge the conflict students feel and assure them of the potential compatibility of faith and science
The article highlights numerous studies that note the high correlation between the importance of one’s faith and rejection of evolution. When students are convinced that they must choose between their sincere beliefs and scientific fact, their understanding and overall competence in the subject matter will have little or no effect on their acceptance of evolution as credible.
So the key for instructors is not how well they present the scientific material or how unequivocally they demonstrate that creationist scientific claims are wrong. The key is presenting the potential compatibility between faith and science from the outset. When instructors acknowledge and address the importance of students’ beliefs, they show they sympathize with the conflict their students feel, and this can reduce feelings of defensiveness and alienation that predispose students to oppose what they are being taught.
Instructors who are less familiar with their Christian students’ background culture could benefit from listening to the experiences of Christian professors who regularly employ this kind of cultural sensitivity in their classrooms. One of these professors is April Cordero. Dr. Cordero understands that addressing students’ faith-driven anxieties is an important component of effective biology education.
2. Encourage students to explore their personal views on evolution and faith.
Instructors may be hesitant about bringing up faith-related topics in a science class, but research shows students benefit greatly from time and space to process challenges to their worldview. Even if there is not much time for class discussions, instructors can at least recommend books and other resources designed to help students of faith navigate their questions. Instructors can also encourage students to explore their views in community with others who share similar concerns. Students are always welcome to post discussion topics or join in conversations at the BioLogos open forum, where they will have the opportunity to interact meaningfully with others on a whole range of science-faith topics.
3. Teach about different ways of knowing and the limits of scientific knowledge
When instructors are clear about the boundaries and limits of scientific knowledge and willing to acknowledge that other ways of knowing are important in other domains, it increases trust and decreases students’ perception of conflict between science and their faith. In this excerpt from When God and Science Meet: Surprising Discoveries of Agreement, climatologist Katharine Hayhoe and science educator Douglas Hayhoe exemplify this strategy. They discuss the contributions and limits of scientific knowledge, and they illustrate situations in which science is silent but other ways of knowing that are valued in faith communities can offer important insights.
4. Present the spectrum of viewpoints on evolution among people of faith.
Students may be convinced they must choose between special creationism or atheistic evolution, so instructors should make students aware that there is a whole spectrum of beliefs on origins. Biologist and theologian Denis Lamoureux has designed a free, five session online course that describes five origins positions; young earth creationism, progressive creationism, evolutionary creationism, deistic evolution, and atheistic evolution. BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma has written a book with her husband Loren Haarsma, Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution and Intelligent Design, that explores the theological and scientific strengths and weaknesses of the various positions from the perspective of Christian scientists. If students wonder how they can possibly reconcile what the Bible says with evolutionary theory, the BioLogos website offers a wealth of articles on different ways Christians who accept mainstream science approach the biblical interpretation issues surrounding Genesis 1-2; human origins and the image of God; and the fossil record and an ancient earth.
5. Provide role models of religious leaders and biologists who accept evolution
Scientists are less religious as a group than the rest of the population, so many people assume that scientific endeavors are a secular pursuit and that scientists are opposed to Christianity and Christians. Christian biology instructors are in a unique position to counteract this perception by sharing their own experience of reconciling their faith and scientific vocation. But even instructors who do not share their students’ convictions can introduce them to scientists who do. They can model attitudes of collegiality with people of faith instead of modeling antagonism.
BioLogos routinely highlights Christians from various walks of life who have reconciled acceptance of evolution with their sincerely held beliefs. The Stories page offers reflections by a diverse group of pastors, scientists, and other scholars. Students can also find the testimonies of other students who have wrestled with faith-science questions and arrived at a place of peace with both.
So, if you have the privilege of introducing students to the wonders of biology, I invite you to check out the valuable insights in the CBE-Life Sciences article for yourself, and then come back and make use of all the resources BioLogos makes available to science instructors. And please share BioLogos with your colleagues, no matter what their faith background, because all science teachers can benefit from increasing their “cultural competence” when it comes to the faith-science discussion.
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