I write a lot here about critical thinking in evolution education. Now, I want to address teaching the controversy from a pedagogical viewpoint. That is, I’m not going to touch on the scientific controversy over biological evolution. What I want to address is why one should teach evolution, or any subject, through critical thinking and not dogmatically.
I’m a debate coach. I began competing in 2005 and have been involved in the competitive forensics world ever since. When I first read it, Discovery Institute’s Science Education Policy got my attention. It notes, in part:
Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in curriculum. 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. [Emphasis added.]
What, regardless of your viewpoint on evolution, does this style of teaching have to offer? What are the bonuses that such an approach brings with it?
Three Significant Benefits
First, the practice of critical analysis is just plain more interesting. Contrasting opposing viewpoints engages people, whether young or old. Defending a certain position in front of others develops curiosity. To stimulate the mind, there is nothing quite like researching an issue, knowing you know it, and being ready to explain it to others.
Second, critical thinking enables students to learn more. Debaters can easily spend an hour or two a day researching a topic. Compare this to your average university course — would a student spend that kind of time studying apart from completing required homework?
One year, my debate topic centered on the Fourth Amendment. Now, I generally would have no inclination to spend hours and hours reading decisions from circuit courts and the Supreme Court — but I was excited about it because of debate.
Third, exposing an issue to critical scrutiny brings in elements of persuasion and public speaking. Even if we’re talking about a classroom setting rather than a debate round, students will be interested in raising questions and defending positions. Analysis allows students to have an opportunity to try to persuade others and to raise issues in front of a group. Not unlike in school sports, a healthy instinct for competition comes in. Learning through passive memorization and regurgitation has nothing to compare to that.
William Butler Yeats noted, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Yes, filling a pail or lighting a fire: when it comes to evolution and many other subjects, that’s exactly the choice educators face.