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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2006
Vol. 33 No. 3

Teaching The Contexts: Why Evolution Should Be Taught As An Argument and How it Might be Done

John A. Campbell and Taz Daughtrey

      A central problem with our cultural-educational debate over evolution is its framing. All too often, this dispute is framed as a conflict in which one side seeks to defend its prerogatives against encroachments by the other side.  Science educators rightfully resist attempts by parents and school boards to introduce into the science curriculum ideas that are not scientific but which support values and perspectives held passionately in other communities.  Parents, on the other hand, have legitimate interests in knowing and to some extent controlling what and how their children are being taught.  That conflicts should occur in an education system that seeks to combine the perspectives of educators professionally trained in specialized disciplines with active parental participation and support is hardly surprising. 

      Caught in the middle are students, who deserve not only valid content but also appropriate pedagogy, and who may be torn between what is presented in the classroom and what they hear at home and in their places of worship. The broader but less visible set of stakeholders include the employers of the future – and a democratic culture which demands its citizens be well grounded in the content and processes of modern science.

      In a sense the worst outcome of our ongoing cultural dispute over evolution would be the wrong kind of victory for either side.  However desirable might be a decisive court decision favoring the perspective and values of professional educators, any legal victory sending a clear message that the substantive concerns of parents for the content and form of their children’s education were unwelcome would be unfortunate, as would a victory that compromised the integrity of science and the educational process.  Public education no doubt works best when teachers can bring to our children their best professional knowledge coupled with sensitivity to what is also happening outside the classroom.  To do this, particularly on topics that are controversial, requires teachers not only cultivate good relations with students and parents but also employ inventive pedagogical thinking.

      We are now in the eighty-second year since the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925 made opposition to evolution an embarrassing icon of the distinctiveness of American education.[i]  Indeed, subsequent self-censorship in biology textbooks across the next four decades meant that the evolutionists who thought they had won at that trial had instead lost as far as teaching Darwin’s theory in the high schools was concerned and they “did not even know they had lost.[ii] Readers of this essay are no doubt familiar with the statistics of how little has changed since the events recalled by seemingly endless replays of Inherit the Wind.  Surveys have indicated that only about a third of Americans agreed that Darwin's theory of evolution has been well supported by evidence; 45% agreed with the statement that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so;" and more than half the American public thinks that early humans lived at the time of the dinosaurs. Sadly, these numbers have been virtually unchanged across the last quarter-century that these survey questions have been asked.[iii]  A recent study published in Science magazine surveying acceptance of evolution over the past twenty years in 34 industrialized countries placed America next-to-last, just above Turkey, the only other nation in the sample with a significant population of religious fundamentalists.[iv]         Clearly court decisions, however welcome in turning back unwise local initiatives, do not address the roots of our problem. The calls of thoughtful science educators for new approaches in science education and the efforts of the National Academy of Sciences to provide resource materials for the teaching of evolution are all helpful and timely.  Probably no single approach will address all needs.  Our proposal is less a single plan developed in detail but a perspective which might inform a variety of different lesson plans and teaching strategies.

      The idea of “teaching the controversy,” while not without advocates, has met with great skepticism on the part of science educators and many thoughtful citizens.[v]  There are three central objections.

1. There is no serious controversy among professional biologists on whether evolution has occurred or of its fundamental significance as the unifying principle of modern biology.

2. The idea that one should give equal time to ideas that are not scientific out of a sense of “fairness” is not fair to serious science, is impractical in its implementation, and is without educational value.

3. While there are arguments or controversies in contemporary science, these are too specialized and arcane for high school students to understand.[vi]

      Each of these objections has merit.  One should not teach as controversial ideas that are not controversial and which, to the contrary, enjoy consensus among the widest range of professional scientists. Particularly in a science class, where there is much content for which the educational system is being increasingly held accountable, one should not give “equal time” to ideas that are not a recognized part of science just because that would be “fair” to those who reject the ideas.  Finally every teacher knows there are limits to what can be taught to beginners—or at any level--and this realization must be part of any serious educational proposal.

      On the other hand, one must meet the students where they are. If the majority of the adult population believes humans coexisted with dinosaurs, then the reality of “deep time” must be conveyed before much more can be profitably done in handling astronomical, geological, or biological timelines. If students hear harsh, although misinformed, objections to foundational concepts and techniques of science, then they must be introduced to and practice skills for examining evidences offered outside as well as within the classroom.

      Put the objections to the idea of teaching science as a set of arguments over great scientific questions as strongly as one will, the bare idea that science is based not only on facts, techniques of measurement, hypotheses and experiments but on argument is itself as uncontroversial and well confirmed an idea as one can find in science—or in educational theory.[vii]  Unacceptable versions of the proposal to teach the controversies should be rejected. Versions of the proposal that serve valid educational ends should be encouraged, tested, critiqued and improved.  Given the host of dismal statistics about our national science literacy in general, and our laughing-stock status as a nation on the issue of evolution, it is clear that some kind of reformation in science education is called for.  In that spirit we contend, with apologies to an earlier reformer in another field, “Why should the devil get all the good tunes?”[viii]

While our proposal will be detailed beyond what a high school teacher could realistically do in any one course we hope it will provide an inventional perspective from which lesson plans, smaller teaching units and new, locally appropriate, course ideas could be developed. Indeed, this approach to science education can and should be incorporated from the earliest grades and woven through the progression of age levels and subjects. Compartmentalization is arbitrary and unrealistic, both in the small – such as segmenting out a standalone evolution unit within a biology course – and in the large – such as singling any particular topic for “critical analysis” or special skepticism.

We will address our theme in three stages: 1) a rationale for an argument and context-centered approach to teaching evolution; 2) a discussion of how the context of the Origin and the text itself might foster the learning (and teaching) of Darwin’s theory; 3) a brief discussion via the work of Timothy Shanahan of how our historical, argument- and Origin-centered approach might be used to help students make the transition to the context of contemporary evolution theory.

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