Teaching Evolution in the 21st Century
Teaching evolution in school is a polarizing topic that elicits strong feelings on both sides. Here we examine these views and how we might reframe the issue to give students the freedom to make informed choices for themselves.
“If kids don’t believe in evolution, they deserve to fail!” These words, uttered by a doctoral student in science education at U.C. Berkeley, shocked me. I was a student as well in a dual master’s and credential program, and we were meeting for a class discussion group. Not wanting to upset him, I timidly pointed out, “But we’re talking about public education. We can’t make them believe anything.” He gruffly brushed this point off, clearly unconvinced, and we let the topic drop.
Flash forward a couple of years, and I was in my second year teaching biology at a public high school. I was also the faculty advisor for the school’s Christian Club. Student leaders organized the club and brought in volunteer speakers for lunch meetings in my classroom. One week, there was a guest presenter from a Christian camp. He arrived a few minutes early and greeted me. As we chatted, he shared how important it was that students learn about creationism and not evolution. I didn’t respond, afraid of offending this guest.
The students arrived, and the speaker began addressing them. Partway through his talk, he asked if he could raise the projector screen and write on the whiteboard behind it. I said that was fine as long as he left the notes I’d put up for the next class. As he started to raise the screen, I suddenly remembered the topic of the notes and watched anxiously as he faced the board and took in the title: “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.” He turned to me and said, “Well, isn’t that ironic.” When he finished speaking, he walked out without so much as looking in my direction.
These two experiences illustrate the dual tension that exists around teaching evolution. In my early twenties, I was unprepared for such strong animosity on both sides of the issue. I had already decided as a biology major in college that I personally didn’t have to choose between science and faith. There’s a lot of scientific evidence that the earth and the organisms on it have changed over time and that species have come and gone. And this in no way means that God isn’t powerful, present, and in charge of creation. But as soon as I was engaged in teaching evolution to students, I found myself right at the center of the conflict.
Based on these encounters and others, I realized quickly the unique position I was in: a biology teacher in California where evolution is part of the science education standards and also someone recognized by students as a Christian. I felt a significant responsibility to be thoughtful about how I addressed the topic with students. The approach I honed over time was to give students context for studying evolution and access to the evidence while empowering them to be independent thinkers.
I started the unit by asking students to share what came to mind when they heard the word evolution. Then, I shared Darwin’s story: how he gathered his evidence, the tension and conflict he felt about revealing his theory, and the personal struggles he and his family faced both while he worked and after his writings were published. After this, we discussed why the work was controversial at the time and how it would have felt to be a person reading Darwin’s book when it was first published given how little people understood about extinctions and the age of the earth. After this, we reviewed how theories are developed, and I reminded them that evolution, like any theory, is our best explanation so far based on evidence for the phenomena we observe. Finally, I invited students to be critical reviewers of scientific work. For our class they needed to learn the scientific evidence supporting evolution, including homology, embryological and biochemical similarities, and evidence from the fossil record and radiometric dating. Then they could decide for themselves whether they agreed with how that evidence was interpreted.
To my great surprise, in ten years of teaching biology I never had pushback from students or their parents on the topic of evolution. Outside of class, students brought questions or shared what they had learned at church, leading to good discussion about what they thought. In class, students asked questions or clarified ideas and were met with respect. I don’t know how every student felt about evolution or whether they ultimately decided the theory fit into their personal understanding of faith and God. I certainly don’t know if I found the right balance in approaching the topic. But I do know that students learned to analyze scientific evidence and were given the freedom to make informed choices about what they thought.
In my current job, I am tasked with helping teachers and schools implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which were developed to address the 21st century world. One of the things I appreciate most about NGSS is that it promotes three-dimensional learning that empowers students. They learn specific scientific content, including evolution, and at the same time they learn to recognize overarching themes in science and are given experiences thinking and acting like scientists and engineers. Many of these science and engineering practices, such as asking questions and arguing based on evidence, are important skills not just if students are going to pursue science but for them to be informed, thoughtful citizens and changemakers in the 21st century. The emphases in NGSS move us away from the extreme view voiced by my classmate that you must agree with specific pieces of information to be successful in science. They also move us away from the view shared by the camp leader that students shouldn’t be given the opportunity to learn and explore all scientific ideas and evidence. NGSS provides an excellent model for approaching controversial topics including evolution: put students in the driver’s seat for learning science and prepare them to make decisions and take action.
I wish I could now go back and redo the conversations I had with my classmate and the youth leader about evolution in education. What I didn’t have the confidence to say in my early twenties is that when we become polarized on the topic, we back students into a corner and force them to choose between science and faith. We also don’t build them up as critical thinkers and problem solvers who are capable of using evidence to make their own decisions about whether they see conflict between these topics or not. And we inevitably pit them against others in their immediate community at school, at church, or at home.
The world is rapidly changing (or should we say evolving?) around us in the 21st century. As a society, we face a host of possibilities and challenges. The church is in a similar transition, which has left many church leaders examining new approaches to engage the community and build up leaders. My great hope for the world and for the church is that there is a generation coming who has practiced thinking critically, is thoughtful in making decisions based on evidence, and is empowered to come to their own conclusions and act on them both individually and as a group. But to do this, we need to be mindful of providing these opportunities in school, at church, and at home. Certainly this is more important than the feelings on both sides about if and how evolution is taught in school. May we be unified in giving students the freedom and tools to learn, make decisions, and live into their personal faith and life direction.
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