Evolution Education On the Rise

A new study shows that teaching evolution is becoming more common in high school (Plutzer et al., 2020; commentary: Reid, 2020). High school biology teachers are spending more time teaching evolution and less time teaching special creationism as an alternative compared to 12 years ago. Teachers reported spending 50% more time on evolution (including human evolution) and 50% less time on special creationism as an alternative to evolution. This is good news for science educators, because low rates of evolution understanding and high rates of evolution rejection have been resistant to change over the years. In fact, despite ongoing research for three decades aimed at improving evolution education, low rates of evolution acceptance have remained relatively unchanged for all three of these decades. Science educators hope that this new study showing that students are receiving more evolution instruction in high school may help to encourage teachers in working to reverse these low acceptance rates of evolution in the years to come. Perhaps we will start to see an increase in those who recognize the importance of evolution in both educators and students.

What is causing the increase in evolution teaching?

In the study, researchers highlighted that the states which have adopted Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are also those in which teachers are spending more time teaching evolution. They found that among the states in which NGSS standards were not adopted, teachers were spending an average of 9.6 hours teaching evolutionary processes, but in states where NGSS standard were adopted, the teachers were spending an average of 12.2 hours teaching evolutionary processes. This is significant because it means that putting these standards in place may help to increase the teaching and learning of evolution. However, the authors were not able to determine the cause of increased time teaching evolution nor did they measure whether student outcomes, such as acceptance of evolution, changed in response to increased time teaching evolution. There are other research breakthroughs in evolution education that may have also influenced the way teachers are discussing evolution in their classes that are important to emphasize and continue practicing that have been shown to impact acceptance of evolution.

In the last decade, there have been several movements towards discussing the compatibility between religion and evolution to help teachers and students of faith become more comfortable teaching and learning evolution. Francis Collins founded this very organization, BioLogos, with the intention of promoting harmony between evangelical Christianity and evolution. The American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) started the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) project to build bridges between religious and scientific communities, including about evolution. Dr. Briana Pobiner from the Smithsonian Institute released the Cultural and Religious Sensitivity (CRS) Teaching Strategies Resource for high school instructors. Her resource includes a suite of instructional modules for high school teachers to become more culturally sensitive to students’ religious beliefs while teaching evolution.

a man giving a lecture to people at desks

As a biology education researcher, I also created a new instructional framework called “Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education (ReCCEE)” which has encouraged secular instructors to highlight the potential compatibility between religion and evolution with the goal of decreasing students’ perceived conflict between their religious beliefs and evolution (Barnes et al., 2020; Barnes & Brownell, 2017, 2018; Truong et al., 2018). These projects and resources have been widely shared and highlighted in many academic journals, at academic conferences, and even in several popular science magazines. Skeptic Magazine, a popular magazine for the secular community, highlighted this work on addressing religious beliefs while teaching evolution. It is likely that these conversations surrounding compatibility of religion and evolution have impacted teachers’ willingness to teach evolution.

Continuing to highlight compatibility between religion and evolution will continue to increase the teaching of evolution

The public often perceives high conflict between religion and evolution (especially among Christians) and this has arguably been the biggest hurdle to increasing recognition of evolution as a well-supported theory in the United States. Past research shows that a major reason teachers avoided evolution in the past was the perceived conflict between religion and evolution (Griffith & Brem, 2004). Changes in how evolution is being taught over the last decade have made teachers more comfortable teaching evolution to their students, because they no longer feel that evolution must contradict their religious beliefs or the beliefs of their students. Approaching evolution education in this reconciliatory way should be recognized as a key component in this shift so that these instructional practices continue in the future.

Take home

High school teachers are teaching evolution more and this is partly due to the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that give teachers a clear expectation that they teach evolution. However, it is important also to consider the changes in how evolution is being taught and how this has influenced whether evolution gets taught. With the increase in strategies available to high school instructors to decrease perceived conflict between religion and evolution, it is likely that this has reduced teacher stress around teaching evolution and increased their ability to focus more on evolution in their classes. My hope is that all these new resources and efforts will continue to turn the tide for evolution education so that students can have access to the best scientifically-sound education available to them, regardless of their religious beliefs.

M. Elizabeth Barnes
About the Author

M. Elizabeth Barnes

M. Elizabeth Barnes, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Biology Education at Middle Tennessee State University. Her lab studies social perceptions of science and how to communicate socioscientific topics more effectively to students and the public.
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