It’s shocking. Darwin died 135 years ago, with his home country largely converted to his beliefs. Why don’t students embrace the teachings of their national hero? England has largely abandoned its religious heritage, so that’s not it. Everybody knows about Darwin. Evolution should be an easy sell in the classroom. What’s the problem?
Evolution is one of the trickiest subjects to teach — and not just because some people find it controversial. The ideas are subtle and the language and concepts can be confusing; how many of us have thought that survival of the fittest was an encouragement to go to the gym. Many studies have sought to discover the reasons why evolution is so difficult for students to understand and accept, but few have attempted to find ways to improve the understanding of evolution in the classroom. [Emphasis added.]
So writes Lawrence Hurst in The Conversation, along with an associate professor and an educator. At the University of Bath, a mere 100 miles from Down House, they conducted experiments on how to “get children to understand evolution,” using secondary school students as their lab rats.
They published their results in PLOS Biology under the title, “Teaching genetics prior to teaching evolution improves evolution understanding but not acceptance.” Sarah Chaffee responded earlier in light of Discovery Institute’s education policy.
Notice, as she pointed out, the distinction between “understanding” and “acceptance.” They can’t even get to the acceptance part! They just want to get students to understand it.
But is evolution so hard to understand? It’s simple; people evolved from bacteria ancestors; no source of intelligent design was involved; everything advances by a blind process of natural selection, not that different from dog breeding. Things change over time. What’s the problem? You can explain it in a few sentences. Finches change. Peppered moths change. Your children will change, even if you don’t go to the gym, as long as you leave more offspring than the bodybuilder next door. Simple concepts. There must be an obstacle to understanding. Yes, it’s those deplorable “creationists” again. The paper identifies them:
Students’ grasp of evolution is often poor and does not always agree with the scientific understanding. Commensurately, numerous studies report low levels of understanding among first year undergraduate students. These factors likely contribute to the poor public understanding of evolution reported by many researchers, including in the UK context. This tempts the question, what are the best methods to teach evolution?
This issue here is currently much debated, particularly at the secondary school level…. This is because the theory of evolution can be a controversial issue. Strong opposition is well documented in the United States…, but there is increasing concern about the impact that religious movements or strong cultural and social traditions may have on evolution education in other countries, including Northern Ireland, Poland, Turkey, and the UK. There are also concerns that creationism has been taught in UK schools and that religious-motivated groups have attempted to influence science lessons. More generally, numerous studies have focused on impediments to understanding and acceptance of evolution. While religious orientation, prior acceptance/rejection of the theory of evolution, and views of authority figures including teachers and religious leaders are commonly cited reasons, reasoning skills are also considered to be of importance.
And so they sought ways to improve teaching methods, presuming that if students only understood evolution, they would be more likely to accept it. Their hypothesis was to teach genetics as a prerequisite to teaching evolution. “Our original idea was what psychologists called ‘priming‘ — preloading with some facts to make it easier to take in other information.” They continue:
It seemed intuitive to us that a good understanding of genetics should help understanding of evolution: DNA is the heritable material through which variation needed for evolution occurs. If you understand DNA, you can understand what mutations are. And if you understand what mutations are, you can understand that they can change frequency in populations — and bingo, evolution can happen. In its simplest, evolution is no more than mutations changing frequency. The differences between species started out as new mutations that went from being rare within one species but then became very common.
“Bingo, evolution can happen.” The metaphor is very apt. You win at bingo by unguided natural processes. The winner (the fittest) may not be the smartest; just the luckiest. It’s not like the chance component of Battleship, where you can infer from past successes where the Destroyer is likely to be. Bingo is a variant of the Lottery: you win by having the luckiest card by pure chance, and each card you get is a new start.
In short, the educators think that by understanding how Bingo works, students will accept the game. Are they missing something?
While this connection might seem self-evident, genetics and evolution are typically taught to 14 to 16-year-old secondary school students as separate topics with few links and in no particular order. Sometimes there’s a large time span between the two. Our idea was simple: teach genetics first and look at how that affects the understanding and acceptance of evolution.
Like good lab experimenters, they divided their lab rats into an experimental group and a control group.
Using questionnaires, we conducted a study of almost 2,000 students over three years. Importantly, all that was changed in our study was the order of the teaching material — exactly what was to be taught was left to the teachers. This meant our study was a realistic mimic of what would happen should any switch be made. We tested students before and after the two subjects were taught and so could examine the extent to which students improved in their understanding.
The experiment was only partially successful (according to their criteria). Yes, the more students understood microevolution by genetic mutations (the Bingo theory of evolution), the more they “understood” evolution. “We found that students who were taught genetics before evolution performed 7 percent better on knowledge-based questions about evolution than those who learned about evolution first,” they say, proud of this “strikingly large effect.” But alas, it did not help the students “accept” evolution very much. “Both before and after testing, the students with a better understanding were those with higher levels of acceptance,” they said. “However, these effects were not strong.” So they investigated why students fail to accept evolution.
We also set up a series of focus groups to find out why the understanding and acceptance of evolution are not more strongly coupled. Evidence from these suggests that what is more important for evolution acceptance is not what is taught, but who provides the endorsement. For some students, being told that key authority figures such as parents or teachers approve of scientific evidence for evolution made a big difference to their ability to accept it.
Television documentaries were commonly given as a source of reassurance about evolution, and some students felt that these, and their presenters, were important in helping them accept evolution. Perhaps more predictable, religious leaders, and their views on evolution, were also of key importance. For students from a Catholic background, being told that the Pope approves of evolution was important in helping them to approach evolution as any other science.
The challenge, in their view, becomes one of reducing the impact of authority figures who put obstacles in the way of student acceptance of evolution. Religious leaders are making “evolution” a scary idea. Avoid the E-word, they say, to soften the blow:
Perhaps helping them understand that mutations can change frequency under the banner of genetics enabled students to learn with less of a clash of ideas? We suggest a simple test: don’t teach students material labelled as evolution, teach it as “population genetics” instead — and then tell them after the fact that they have just learned about evolution.
It’s a bit like pinching and wiggling the arm before sticking the needle in, for a child afraid of needles. Before the child knows what’s going on, the needle is in. When are you going to stick me? Johnny asks. Oh, I already did; now, that didn’t hurt a bit, did it? And use less scary words: it’s not a needle; it’s a syringe. It’s not Darwinism: it’s “population genetics.” The indoctrinators conclude:
Whatever the underlying cause, the data suggest a really simple, minimally disruptive and cost-free modification to teaching practice: teach genetics first. This will at least increase evolution understanding, if not acceptance. As with many emotive subjects, it takes more than teaching the facts to shift hearts as well as minds.
Here’s a conundrum to end on: these educators, so concerned about student acceptance of evolution, do not accept evolution themselves! Think about it:
- If they really accepted evolution, they would see the origin of religion as a mark of fitness. Religious people leave more offspring, so they, by definition, are the fittest. Why fight it?
- Reason is the product of mutations. It led to shifts in population genetics — that’s all. It makes no sense, therefore, to try to use reason to teach evolution.
- Belief in evolution has no qualitative benefit over non-belief in evolution. What matters is population genetics.
The astute reader recognizes that reasoning about evolution is self-refuting (listen to Nancy Pearcey on ID the Future). Let’s teach that to the teachers. Bingo! Education happens.