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Picture This: What Teaching the Controversy over Evolution Looks Like in the Classroom

group of students takes the test in class

According to Nature and Scientific American, “[S]tudents gain a much deeper understanding of science when they actively grapple with questions than when they passively listen to answers.” In Nature, Jay Labov, a senior education advisor for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, described active engagement as “learning content not as something you memorize and regurgitate, but as raw material for making connections, drawing inferences, creating new information — learning how to learn.”

Discovery Institute advocates “teaching the controversy” over evolution. But in practice what should that look like?

In general terms, as I wrote to a parent recently, we recommend that students learn more about evolution, not less, and critically evaluate both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory.

Our Science Education Policy states:

Instead of mandating intelligent design, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.

Discovery Institute believes that a curriculum that aims to provide students with an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories (rather than teaching an alternative theory, such as intelligent design) represents a common ground approach that all reasonable citizens can agree on.

We would normally recommend that teachers cover this material in whatever grade the curriculum covers evolution. Typically, the most extended discussions of neo-Darwinism come in high school biology courses. From our Educators’ Briefing Packet:

Suggested Plan for Teaching Unit on Neo-Darwinian Evolution

Objectivity also means that students must be allowed to form and express their own opinions. An objective unit covering neo-Darwinian evolution might look something like this:

  • First, cover the required curriculum by teaching the material in the textbook. Ensure that students understand the scientific arguments for neo-Darwinian evolution. (1-2 weeks)

  • Next, spend a few days discussing scientific criticisms of neo-Darwinian evolution. The DVD Investigating Evolution, the DVD Icons of Evolution, and the Icons of Evolution Study Guide are potential resources. Encourage students to think critically. (2-3 days)

  • Finally, consider allowing students to spend a couple days wrestling with the data and forming their own opinions. This could include in-class debates, or an assignment where students write a position statement on neo-Darwinian evolution. In these exercises, students may defend whatever position they wish, but must justify it using only scientific evidence and scientific arguments. (1-2 days)

Most public school curricula stop after step 1, missing out on the benefits from steps 2 and 3.

Some might claim those extra steps would take too much time. But teaching the modern neo-Darwinian theory of evolution in an objective fashion need not take any more time than the 2-3 weeks typically spent on an evolution unit.

More importantly, any extra time taken to teach this topic objectively is not wasted — it will help students better understand the evidence, better appreciate scientific reasoning, and fulfill standards requiring critical thinking and use of the inquiry method. Finally, this approach will be welcomed by students who find this topic engages their interest in science.

There are several areas in which teachers can engage students with this fascinating scientific controversy.

First, one may cover the primary mechanism of evolution — natural selection acting on random mutations. Does the evidence demonstrate that this mechanism is able to account for the complexity of life? Most biology textbooks claim that it does, but many scientists disagree. Over 950 PhD scientists have signed a Dissent from Darwinism list agreeing they are “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” Common textbook examples of natural selection like the changes within the Galápagos finches or the peppered moth, or antibiotic resistance, demonstrate only small-scale evolution. They do not show how new species emerge.

Second, a teacher may discuss the concept of universal common ancestry — helping students to analyze whether vertebrate embryos are or are not similar in their earliest stages, whether the fossil record shows intermediate links, and whether DNA evidence points to a grand “tree of life.”

Third, a teacher could address chemical evolution. A teacher could ask the question, “Has science come up with a plausible explanation for the origin of the first life?” While few textbooks will admit that no such answer exists, leading biologists like Eugene Koonin have stated, among other things, that “the origin of life field is a failure — we still do not have even a plausible coherent model, let alone a validated scenario, for the emergence of life on Earth.”

An instructor using the 2014 Miller-Levine biology textbook would cover the Galápagos finches as evidence for natural selection. After completing the unit on evolution, she could show the class the section of the DVD Investigating Evolution on the Galápagos finches, presenting a different view. Finally, students could be asked to form their own opinions on the Galápagos finches and their significance for natural selection.

As our factsheet “Tips for Teaching Evolution Objectively” notes:

Teachers who personally support the standard neo-Darwinian view should not refuse to cover scientific criticisms of that position. In fact, what the teacher personally thinks doesn’t matter. If taught properly, students may not even know exactly where the teacher stands on this topic.

Nothing above references intelligent design or creationism. This is purely a discussion of the theory of evolution — its scientific strengths, presented in mainstream textbooks, and objections raised in recent scientific research.

This kind of objective science instruction paves the way for high-level learning. And it’s time for a change. Carl Wieman, a physicist at Stanford who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in his field, began advocating for science education reform after interacting with newly graduated scientists who “had done really well as undergraduates, but couldn’t do research.” Today, along with prominent journals such as Nature, Scientific American, and Science, he promotes active engagement in the classroom.

Nature concludes its keynote editorial, “But change is essential…. In an era when more of us now work with our heads, rather than our hands, the world can no longer afford to support poor learning systems that allow too few people to achieve their goals.”

These advocates of critical thinking in science education are right. Unfortunately, most of them probably don’t apply their advice to the teaching of Darwinian evolution. They should reconsider.

Image credit: © yanlev / Dollar Photo Club.

Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.