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Making sure kids learn about evolution

June 27, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
How do you think K-12 teachers ought to be teaching evolution?

Science standards across the country are soon likely to require that children in the primary grades have a basic understanding of evolution, which will make it harder for teachers to dodge what is still a controversial topic for many Americans for reasons of religion. For instance, an article in the summer issue of the American Educator, a quarterly journal for teachers, said that under the standards second graders will need to know that "Some kinds of plants and animals that once lived on Earth (e.g., dinosaurs) are no longer found anywhere, although others now living (e.g., lizards) resemble them in some ways." Elementary science teachers across the country have generally avoided teaching youngsters that level of detail. High school teachers will be required to make the study of evolution the centerpiece of biology instruction.

Many parents and students are expected to object if schools start teaching evolution more rigorously. More than half of Americans either don't think evolution should be taught in the schools at all or think that it ought to be taught along with creationism or intelligent design, which argues that God created the world or has guided evolution. Evangelical Christians are most likely to resist the theory of evolution; mainline Protestants and Catholics and Jews tend to accept evolution and don't see it as conflicting with their faiths.

School districts have responded to the pressure from parents. According to the article, a 2007 survey of high school biology teachers showed that only about 28 percent of the biology teachers were "clear advocates of evolutionary biology." Another 13 percent were clear advocates of creationism or intelligent design. The remainder of teachers were in the "cautious middle," teaching the concept of evolution but undermining the theory in various ways, probably because they didn't want to stir up controversy. They didn't spend as much time teaching about evolution or didn't teach the theory as rigorously. Those teachers might tell kids they need to learn about evolution to pass a state test but they don't have to believe in it or tell the kids to make up their own minds about whether evolution or creationism is true.

All of this is an issue because America desperately needs more home-grown scientists and we aren't turning out enough of them. Many of our scientists are coming from abroad and other countries could quickly surpass the United States in the sciences. Kids who don't learn and understand evolutionary theory will be crippled if they want to pursue a career in the sciences. There is no real controversy among scientists about evolution. The National Academy of Sciences says the evidence for evolution is "overwhelming and compelling." Scientists believe that humans did indeed evolve from apes.

So how best to ensure that kids actually get a good scientific education and that the country doesn't fall too far behind? One Arizona biology teacher quoted in the American Educator article said she is both committed to teaching evolutionary biology and is a practicing Christian. She tries to teach her students that science and religion ask different questions and don't necessary have to conflict. My own high school biology teacher was an outspoken atheist but he assigned the class to write an essay explaining both the theory of evolution and what our own churches taught about evolution. The essay also had to address how we thought schools ought to teach evolution and/or creationism. That may have been the best way to teach the concept in a conservative, religious area, though I don't think we actually spent much time on the theory of evolution. Minot State University has hosted Darwin Days, where kids learn in depth about evolution in fun, engaging ways. Area schools bus high school biology students to the university for a day to listen to speakers and view scientific presentations. I like MSU's approach and wish more high school biology students could attend Darwin Days.

However evolution is taught, it's pretty clear to me that it must be taught and taught well or kids will lose out.


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