Drs Myers and Decker: Advice on Teaching Evolution

i-68efa548cdb44e33126c5936c96fe3ed-evolution_2008.jpgContinuing with our discussion of the Evolution 2008 conference … many things have been going on and I have more to report than time to report it. But I will get to all of it, I assure you. Tonight, I just want to cover part of today’s Education Symposium (moderated by your’s truly) … not all of it at once, thought, as it is kind of complex.

If you happen to work for the University of Minnesota or know anyone who does, best to not read this or let anyone know about it. This is a little to heavy to be spoken of openly. (Since there are only 11 of you who read my blog, I think we’ll be safe.)

I want to comment briefly on two of the talks, one by PZ Myers and one by Mark Decker. The other talks in the symposium were excellent, but I want to address them separately.

First, to dispel rumors that PZ Myers passed out on he lawn in the middle of the campus; This is simply not true. It is true that he had slept only four hours over the previous two and a half days, and had just flown in that morning from Vegas, but he did not pass out on the lawn. In fact, we were able to wire him up quite nicely. Here are before and after photos of a little treatment we applied to get him through the afternoon (This is me on the right and our techie in the middle, in the first photo).




~ a repost ~


Wow, two heads!!!!

Oh, and I’ve got a shot of Mark Decker too:


Hate to put things in your head, but can you hear the music from Jesus Christ Superstar?

“Jesus Christ … Di-no-saur… Do you think you’re what they say you are …..”

OK, back to the point.

Decker went before Myers and gave an excellent Socratean presentation that utterly shocked the part of the audience that received his message. I am reluctant to actually report the details of what he said because it is about a conversation very much in process, but I can give you he gist.

Imagine this scenario. You are teaching introductory evolutionary biology in college. A student in the class approaches you and says:

“Professor … look, I’m a creationist. I don’t believe this evolution stuff because it is opposed to my religion. ”

Now, two thoughts occur to you. Two alternative responses, two alternative strategies. Here they are:

Plan A:

Tell the student… “OK, that’s fine, I totally understand and that’s your thing. But, this is a class on science. You know, a large number of scientists are actually religious. But science is about natural explanations or descriptions, not religious or supernatural explanations for things. So, when a scientist is working on her or his research, it is imperative to suspend religious ‘belief’ and act like an agnostic, at least for the time being. You need to do that in my class to really get the material. That is what I’m asking you to do.”

Plan B:

Do not attempt to tell the student that s/he needs to make any adjustment at all. You would be wrong to state or imply that the student should not give a religious belief priority or primacy over the material in the course. Do not ask the student to suspend a religious perspective while addressing the material (readings labs, etc.) in the course.

Mark did the following: He took this question to a high authority at the University of Minnesota, and he also asked the members of the audience what they thought. At this biology conference.

What do you think people said? I will not repeat it here but you are more than welcome to say what YOU would do!!!

PZ Myer’s talk was equally radical. I’m not going to describe this in any detail, because I have a feeling that he will do so by an by on his blog. What I will tell you is this: PZ has redesigned the introductory biology course at his school in a very interesting way. When it comes to evolution, he teaches the controversy.

PZ is in part leveraging the fact that the students all know his views because of his reputation and his well known blog. So this puts any creationoids on the defensive, so he starts off by getting them to relax in various way. The course starts with logic and philosophy, and spends a pretty large amount of time on this (including critical thinking, etc.) Maybe two weeks or so. Then he embraces a discussion of “the controversies” and has the students argue the various positions. (He did not give details here on the pedagogy.)

In this way he positions himself as moderator rather than proponent of one position or another, and the students learn.

I think it is a fantastic way to teach a college course. However, I must say that I was shocked at the fact that this critical question was NOT asked of PZ at the end of his talk: “How is this supposed to work in High School?”

In a high school setting, there can be problems with “Teaching the Controversy” in this way or in any other way. For one thing, there is actually more required content in a high school class than in a college class, for various reasons, so spending a total of 25 percent of the class on “thinking” is not possible (though may be it should be). (PZ did acknowledge this problem.) In addition, if you have relatively immature HS students debating sensitive topics, things can go badly. “So what?” you say…

Well, if things go badly in a high school class now and then, it may be no big deal in many cases. But if things go badly in a part of the class that is foundational to the rest of the class, as in this case, than one is in trouble. High school teachers tend to be conservative for a reason.

However, I do think this approach can (and should) be adopted for either a Social Studies class or a cross-disciplinary elective in social studies and life science. Such an effort could lead to working out the kinks and refining the approach to adapt it to the high school context, and possibly to shape it into something that could be used in the biology class.

I will try to make my next Evolution 2008 post on Dr. Tatiana’s sex advice.

More Posts on Evolution 2008

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4 thoughts on “Drs Myers and Decker: Advice on Teaching Evolution

  1. I have faced this problem in classes, and I have my own response. I ask the creationist student how Jesus responded to the man who asked whether Jews should pay Roman taxes. The answer is his famous admonishment, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” This is widely interpreted as a clear command to separate the secular from the spiritual. Science is the secular approach to truth, while religion is the spiritual approach to truth. A good Christian keeps the secular separate from the spiritual, and so that Christian does not attempt to reconcile religion with science; they are completely separate, Religion cannot contradict science and science cannot contradict religion because they are two completely different ways of knowing. Treat each one separately and render unto science the things that are science’s.

  2. Chris:

    While that sentiment is often put forth, its quickly approaching the ‘not even wrong’ stage of incorrect. Religion most certainly attempts to contradict science in many ways (and vice versa). There is no ‘spiritual’ creation of the universe. No ‘spiritual’ version of evolution. No ‘spiritual’ way of truth. There was no ‘spiritual’ Adam and Eve. There either WAS or there WASN’T, and science has answered these many questions time and time again, and not in favor of religion.

    A ‘good’ christian then, by your attempted definition, must not look too closely at science or else that ‘good’ christian cannot fail to notice that science most certainly conflicts with these so-called ‘spiritual approach to truth’.

    Sorry Chris, but that’s a load of hogwash.

  3. Chris is correct in his analysis of a reasonable Christian perspective on science, but I don’t like the approach for the classroom. A science class is no place for a theological argument on anything, and a science teacher is taking a chance citing scripture. Most arguments that start off this way and develop (many just stop in their tracks though not necessarily because of the argument, but because the student realizes they are in deep shit simply because the teacher glares at them, says something … anything …. then glares at them again) lead to bad places. The student may well come back with a counter argument from scripture (and there are myriad).

    Better to just say that this discussion has no place in science class, we’re quite busy, get with the program.

  4. I’m not exactly sure how that is a reasonable perspective even outside the classroom. How can the two approaches to knowledge be compatible when they come up with vastly differing answers to the same question? Only one is the correct answer, or at least coming closer to the truth then the other.

    Put it this way, the phrase ‘reasonable perspective’ has that all inclusive word ‘reason’. Yet any ‘spiritual’ knowledge cannot by definition be based on reason. If it could be, then it can also be approached scientifically. I’m really not trying to split hairs or play a definition game here, but how on earth can there be that claim?

    There are a couple options: A)Spiritual ‘knowledge’ un-reasoned (god created everything How? Dunno Why? Dunno)
    B)Spiritual ‘knowledge’ attempted to be reasoned (god created everything How? by X and Y and allowing Z Why? To test us to see if we’re worthy of heaven I guess)
    C) Scientific knowledge (Big Bang model How? Observation, testing, etc. Why? There is no why)

    Option A is completely useless. It observes nothing, explains nothing, affects NOTHING. Anyone attempting to claim A as fact or ‘knowledge’ has no right to claim reason played any part in it.
    Option B is testable, explainable, and falsifiable. It lives in the very heart of science. It observes, attempts to explain and uses that explanation as justification for something else. Science can, and has often, played in this field of ‘spiritual’ claim for a long time. Option B’s claim to reason are so often shown to be un-reasonable or just plain wrong that its almost as bad a A, but at least the attempt is made. (Dr. Hugh Ross, I’m looking squarely at your pack of lies as a prime example of Option B)
    Option C is science.

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