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Classroom Clashes (Pt. 1): Teaching evolution


Editor's note: In a two-part series, AAAS talks with middle and high school teachers across the country to find out what it's like to be on the front lines of two often-controversial science topics — evolution and climate change — and how they deal with the push back. Part I features tales about teaching evolution and Part II, stories from climate science teachers.

Before she started the DVD to introduce the sun and stars section to her eighth grade Earth Science class, Janie Miller* gave a brief preamble, explaining that the origin of the universe film titled Space (a.k.a. Final Frontiers a.k.a. Hyperspace), they were about to watch was just a jumpstart for discussion. Halfway through, she noticed a girl crying.

"The girl was so upset — she was sitting in the dark bawling," says Mickie Pemberton, the assistant principal at McKnight Middle School in Renton, Washington, a diverse suburb 12 miles from downtown Seattle. "She said she couldn't watch the video anymore — that it went against everything she believed."

This emotional scene is among those that occur far too often in classrooms across the U.S. Evolution debates have simmered since Darwin's time, and even now, many states and school districts have varied ideas on how evolution should be presented. In addition, parents or communities with a range of views can make it difficult for science teachers to do their jobs. The controversy has made evolution a hot-button topic that's either lightly touched on or avoided altogether. Oftentimes, that means students don't get the scientific education they need to become well-rounded citizens.

"Teaching biology without evolution is like teaching American history without the Civil War," says Jeremy Mohn of Overland Park, Kansas, who's taught high school biology for 12 years.

Still, many teachers have found ways to get science through to students without the drama.

Emotion over evolution

It turned out that the trigger that upset the McKnight Middle School student was narrator and actor Sam Neill's off-hand musings about where Earth's molecules came from, mentioning the possibility of aliens, according to Pemberton.

"He made a silly comment," she says, that hit a real nerve. "That one stupid throwaway line was the one thing that [the student] caught onto."

Miller, who declined to be interviewed or have her real name published, was so flustered that she didn't show the DVD for the rest of the day because she felt responsible for putting the student in that emotional state, explains Pemberton, who worked to support Miller as an educator and believed that overall the DVD had good science on the theories of the universe.

Pemberton says that Miller prefaced the video well, but doesn't think the girl listened. When the student's mother came to the school, they discussed the video and the family's faith beliefs.

"This is one of the first times that these kids are challenged to hear things differently than what they grew up with," says Pemberton, who was rattled herself in a similar situation back in Kansas, when she was a classroom teacher. "I remember doubting myself and it really rocked me to my core," she says, remembering times when she would teach curriculum content and face a 14-year-old saying 'you can't teach me that.' 

"Kids can be pretty aggressive with how they push back, and that was what was shocking," Pemberton says. "I didn't have the confidence of 10 years of teaching — I didn't want to make people uncomfortable." Her mentor, Harry McDonald, a biology teacher for 32 years and now president of Kansas Citizens For Science and based in Olathe, Kansas, helped her through it.

"All science wants to know is how the universe works," McDonald says.

As Pemberton grew in her knowledge of the strength of evolution, she developed confidence to respond to challenges and debates as micro- and macro-evolution came alive to her.

"If a student said 'I learned the literal translation of Bible,' I would say 'that's okay and you're okay to believe that, but my job is to teach you the science which is not negotiable and is not opinion,'" says Pemberton, who would talk about the difference between faith and science. "I could speak to them and not diminish what they were bringing to the table."

Growing differences

"The science of evolution underpins all of modern biology and is supported by tens of thousands of scientific studies in fields that include cosmology, geology, paleontology, genetics and other biological sciences," wrote AAAS CEO Alan Leshner in a March letter to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. The letter was a plea to support the teaching of evolution and climate science, but soon after, Tennessee became the second state after Louisiana to pass a law allowing teachers to present the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of both evolution and climate science.

Each year, many states revisit the teaching of evolution. In the 1970s, nearly two dozen states considered teaching both creation science and evolution in classrooms; Arkansas and Louisiana passed the resolution. So contentious is the issue that citizens groups and national non-profits have cropped up on both sides, some fighting all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that creation science was considered religion and so it couldn't be taught in public schools, according to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

The Texas Board of Education has been battling over evolution language in textbooks and the issue seemed to be settled last summer, but now new science textbooks will be adapted in 2013. Others states, such as New Hampshire, have considered bills that require schools to teach evolution as just a theory.

"The unfortunate part of the controversy is that clearly creationists are believers in God, so therefore if it's just a simple dichotomy, evolutionists must be non-believers or atheists," Mohn says. "That makes a lot of people draw the conclusion that if you're a believer in God, you can't be an evolutionist and vice versa."

The concern of most science teachers is that many proposed bills weaken the quality of a student's education. Spend time with McDonald, and he'll recount Kansas' Evolution Wars of the late 1990s like a true veteran, telling battle stories of attending heated hearings. During that time, the Kansas Board of Education voted to cut macroevolution from the revised standards; that decision was later reversed.

Some of the controversy may settle next year, after new national science standards for grades K-12, based on the National Research Council (NRC) framework for K—12 Science Education are completed at the end of this year. The new standards make evolution one of the 'disciplinary core ideas' in the life science discipline. States can choose to adopt the standards or not, according to Steve Newton at NCSE.

Moving forward

Raphael Rabinowitz was teaching about the characteristics of living and non-living things like viruses when emotions began to flare in his classroom. "The second I dropped the word 'evolve,' mayhem followed," he remembers. The science teacher at Youth Connection Leadership Academy, an alternative high school in the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, couldn't stop the lesson from escalating into a full-blown argument. We can't be descended from monkeys, his students said, their defensive voices rising in frustration as Rabinowitz tried to explain about shared common ancestry.

"They would either clam up and say 'forget about it,' or try to argue with me," Rabinowitz says. "It was emotionally charged and caused me to reassess whether I was going to bridge this topic."

Next year will be different, he says. The teacher plans to review different religious and scientific perspectives — ancient and modern — with the class so students can make an informed decision about what they believe.

Working to create a safe space for learning has worked for some teachers.

"I gave them the dignity to listen and learn with how I prefaced it," Pemberton says of her classroom days. "I didn't make it contentious; I made it as safe as possible."

In Kansas, Mohn has an approach that he believes helps alleviate tension. "It's important to focus on why is evolution controversial," says Mohn. "We take a day and step back from the science and talk about ... the sources of conflict."

On that day, Mohn points to the creation evolution continuum, a sliding scale that lays out a wide range of viewpoints from the most extreme creation views and the most extreme evolution views. Mohn discusses each one with his class, pointing out that teachers can talk about religious viewpoints in a neutral way.

"Through this discussion students identify where they fall on the continuum," says Mohn, who says he's become comfortable discussing evolution and how it fits together with ecological processes.

After that day's discussion, Mohn turns the class focus to the scientific understanding of evolution.

McDonald advises teachers to start the year off with a short section on the nature of science. "Once I started to do this, I had fewer challenges in my classroom," he says.

But even after careful discussions and prefaces, Mohn, Pemberton, and others have still seen students write on exams 'this is what the text book says ... but this is what I believe...'

Evolution science doesn't mean that God doesn't exist, McDonald explains, it just means that science can't establish it. "If kids understand that from the beginning, then if ... students feel their religious beliefs are being challenged, I remind them that we're talking about the natural order," he says. "They feel a lot less threatened."

*Name has been changed at source's request.

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