Creationism and Evolution in the Classroom

A little over a year ago, there was a meeting of the Minnesota Atheists that included a one hour panel discussion of evolution, creationism, science education, and so on. The panel was moderated by Lynn Fellman, and included (in order from right to left as the audience gazed on) Randy Moore, Sehoya Cotner, Jane Phillips, Greg Laden, and PZ Myers. I thought it would be interesting to repost a description of that event for Back to School Month.

There were several ways in which this discussion was interesting, and I’ll tell you a few of them here. Presumably PZ will have something as well. (UPDATE: PZ has this.)

To begin with, this was a pretty full room (a hundred or so?) and almost everyone in this room was an atheist, agnostic, rationalist, or some such thing, so the kinds of questions one gets are different than in other contexts. This did not obviate some of the common sorts of misunderstandings about human evolution, somewhat conservative/libertarian welfare stigmata, or even the occasional notation that “well we don’t call it a soul but there is a soul.”

One of the most interesting things that came out, I thought, was when PZ Myers, preparing to follow up on a comment I made, admitted publicly (and this was recorded on audio tape and at least two video camera, and there were plenty of witnesses) that I am meaner than he is.

An important theme that came up was how we teach evolution in classrooms that include dyed in the wool creationist student. Randy talked about being very straight up with the students about the fact that this is a science class. Sehoya talked about an experiment she is doing with her students, in which she does not mention Darwin the whole time but still teaches evolution.

Jane and I are not currently teaching at this level in UG college, so we did not have as much to say, but I noted my technique of yore: I make an explicit statement on day one that creationism would not be mentioned ever in this classroom. Then, for the rest of the semester, I mention creationism, always as an aside, always snarkily, always with disdain, always with humor, so an increasingly large number of students join in with uproarious laughter at the expense of the increasingly smaller and smaller number of “out” creationist. In other words, I invoke the ugly Weapon of Mass Destruction known as peer pressure.

PZ probably has the best method, which is to teach a course in the history of scientific thought with creationism/evolution as a theme, and then eventually get to the details of the biology. Even if that does not leave as much time as one might like to do the details of the biology itself, this would be a very valuable experience for the students.

I’m teaching a more advanced evo course next year. Maybe I’ll try something like that.

I just want to mention one point that I made that I feel is very important: There is a big difference between what can and should happen in a college classroom and a high school classroom, owing to the difference in relationship between instructor and administration, instructor and student, and instructor and parents. And school boards (colleges, we don’t have ’em!). These differences need to be kept in mind when discussing strategies. For example, PZ’s strategy and my strategy would not work in a high school. For long.

At the beginning of every school year, I try to post new and “the best of” blog posts specifically written for teachers. If you want to see this year’s “back to school special” posts in a list, click here. I’ll be posting these items through the month of September. There will likely be one or two items new every day.

Please feel free to send a link to all your teacher friends so they know about it!!!! And, if there is something you’d like to see discussed, let me know.

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4 thoughts on “Creationism and Evolution in the Classroom

  1. I remember that meeting. Parking was a bit of a pain. If I recall correctly, this focus was ultimately on college education, which is not where the real problems are. To talk with the faculty teaching some of the intro biology classes, we are already pretty well fucked. The chronic exposure of K-12 students to creationism (~25% of students in Minnesota) or avoidance of evolution as a concept is the problem.

  2. I was there!
    It was awesome.
    I admired your forthrightness. It stuck in my mind.
    “If you fuck up and teach my child creationism, I will be your worst nightmare.”

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