Teachers Under Fire!!!

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i-6d830b7f85d83707170f6da2bd1804a3-teachers_under_fire.jpgIt is very common, across the U.S., for science teachers to dread the “evolution” unit that they teach during life science class.

As they approach the day, and start to prepare the students for what is coming, they begin to hear the sarcastic remarks from the creationist students. When the day to engage the evolution unit arrives, students may show up in the classroom with handouts from anti-science sites like Answers in Genesis, to give to their friends. They may carry a bible to the lab station and read it instead of doing the work. If there is a parent conference night around that time, the teacher may be verbally abused by some of the parents for not including “alternative theories” in the classroom.

There IS a conspiracy …

If you analyze the language that is bandied about by the creationist children and parents, it is clear that they are all on the same page. They are getting their information from their local creationist group, or their pastor, or particular internet sites. If fighting evolutionary biology in schools was ever determined by the courts to be a political act (which it is) there are probably a lot of churches that would have their IRS tax status yanked! (And perhaps they should!)

~ a repost ~

One way to combat this is to be intellectually honest about the role of evolution in biology. These days, evolution tends to be compressed into a single textbook unit, and not discussed very much elsewhere in that text (this depends on the book). My suspicion is that by placing all of the discussion of evolutionary biology into one unit, it makes it easier for teachers to skip that chapter, or gloss it, or at least, deal with it as a very bad thing that is happening to them, work out some strategies to minimize the pain, and then move on.

In other words, when it comes to teaching evolutionary biology in the public school classroom, the creationists have won the battle: They’ve forced evolution into a corner, surrounded it, eviscerated it, driven it into the swamp.

Since evolutionary biology actually relates to every other element of the life sciences, this is a terrible shame. Bowdlerizing every other part of the curriculum of any mention of evolution takes the life out of the life sciences. Details are taught without reference to ultimate explanation. The thread that would tie together a pedagogy to make it truly comprehensible and, in fact, awesome, is yanked out of the fabric of biology. Opportunities to skillfully explain, truly understand, fully appreciate the details of how life works are hidden from the students because evolution is forced into the closet of some specific chapter in the textbook, some specific week during the semester, some specific set of readings and maybe, but probably not even, a single experiment on the lab bench.

This would be like forcing the laws of motion into a single, oft skipped and always shortchanged lesson in an intro physics class, and otherwise never mentioning them. Or forcing the rules of grammar into one poorly attended exercise and a quick, optional quiz in 7th grade English. Or like addressing the role of faith in religion only in the April Fools day sermon, and avoiding the topic for the rest of the year, in a Christian church.

The same techniques of organizing an army of parents and children against the teachers is being seen, increasingly, in the area of Earth Sciences as well.

In Utah, but surely not only in Utah, public school science teachers are coming under fire, in some cases by the same folks who fought to keep evolution from the science curriculum, for showing Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, without presenting “both sides” of the “debate,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune. (For English class, read the Tribune report below with a skeptical eye: What questions did the reporter fail to ask?)

It is hard for teachers to know what to do under these circumstances. There are insufficient resources. I’ll tell you a story that I’ve told before but you may not remember. I once helped teach a particular class on “Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom” with Randy Moore and Mark Decker. (It was really their class, I just helped out with certain units). This was for teachers, as part of the now defunct Science Centrum teacher’s academy created and made wonderful by my good friend Rusty Low.

Over the next couple of years, two unrelated things happened to me. One, was that I would run into Mark in a lecture hall every week or so, because he taught a big intro class that ended just before the big intro class I taught started. So we would chat briefly now and then. The other was that I ran into and started to get to know a really fantastic biology teacher named Amanda. Amanda told me about the trouble she had in her classroom, with students pushing creationism, with sometimes lukewarm support from colleagues or administrators, and so on.

So one day, when I ran into Mark Decker in the lecture hall, I told him that I had a friend who was a biology teacher and was having the usual problems, and could not find the support she needed to understand the problem better and address the issue in a satisfactory way. Mark said he knew of a teacher who had a lot of excellent ideas and insights, with whom he had corresponded by email a year or so earlier, and that he would send me something from this correspondence that would be helpful.

A day or two later, I received an email from Mark. Attached was an insightful and useful email from this teacher. But the teacher Mark had corresponded with was, it turns out, my Amanda!

(Eventually, Amanda and I got married and lived happily ever after.)

So what is a teacher to do?

I have three recommendations, and here they are in increasing order of difficulty.

First, join your local, typically state-wide, pro-evolution support group, as well as the primary national group. In Minnesota, this would be the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education. In other states, it would typically be the [Name of State] something…something… ‘Science Education’ something something… Google around, you’ll find it. If you can’t find it, email me and I’ll help you find it. The national organization is the National Center for Science Education. If at all possible, ask your school administrator if your science department can join the NCSE. Your administrator will probably say no (as a matter of money, not necessarily politics) but at least you get to mention the organization and the issue to the higher-ups! If you do get to join, yourself or your school, you will receive useful and informative newsletters and stuff.

ResearchBlogging.orgSecond, read and learn. For example, the McGill Journal of Education published a special issue last year addressing several aspects of evolution vs. creationism in the classroom. In one of the papers in this special issue, Genie Scott of the NCSE asks “What’s wrong with the ‘teach the controversy’ slogan?

Teachers are often exhorted by creationists to “teach the controversy.” Although such encouragement sounds on the surface like a proposal for critical thinking instruction, the history of the creationist movement in North America belies this claim. Rather than teach students to analyze and evaluate actual scientific controversies, the intent of “teach the controversy” exhortations is to have teachers instruct students that evolution is weak or unsubstantiated science that students should not take seriously. Such instruction in alleged “evidence against evolution,” or “critical analysis of evolution” would seriously mis-educate students, and should be resisted by teachers and administrators.

The entire McGill Journal of Education issue is available on line, here. By reading and internalizing this material, and simply knowing more about both the controversy and the way it is addressed from different angles, you will be more prepared to speak with confidence to students, teachers, and colleagues.

Third, adjust your attitude. Internalize, embrace, love, adopt, become one with the idea that you are doing the right thing, that science is important, that life science is important, and that evolution’s role in the life sciences is not confined to a subfield, but rather, is fundamental. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” (Theodosius Dobzhansky) Keep that line in mind, make it your mantra.

Project Your Attitude
That sounds easy to do, but it is not. There is, however, a technique that may help. I call it “projection of the rational mind.” (If you come up with a better term for this, let me know.)

Here is how it works. When you are having trouble with a student who is passing out bibles in your biology class, or constantly raising inane questions cribbed form the Answers in Genesis web site, or whatever, part of you may want to bring this disciplinary problem up with a school administrator. If you had a boy who was constantly and inappropriately hitting on the girls, or a student who always refused to stop talking on her cell phone during class, etc., you would likely bring this to an administrator at some point.

But with this evolution issue, you are afraid that the administrator may actually be a creationist. With about a third of life science teachers being creationists, and roughly half of the general public being creationists, what are the chances that a school administrator is a creationist? Very high!

Teaching creationism and/or not teaching evolution in the life science classroom violates (depending on circumstances) a number of laws, rules, and regulations. You can’t hit a student, you can’t send a student home straight from the classroom no matter how much you want to, you can’t tell all the students to become scientologists, and so on. There are all kinds of things you must do, or must not do, in the classroom as a teacher or as a student. The role of the administrator is to support the teachers in making sure what is supposed to happen does, and what is not supposed to happen doesn’t. That is his or her job.

Therefore, you as the teacher must assume that the administrator understands this and agrees with it, regardless of his or her personal position. A (very) small percentage of school administrators (or fellow teachers) are pedophiles, kleptomaniacs, or serial killers. You don’t factor this possibility in when deciding whether or not to discuss a disciplinary or pedagogical issue with them. You discuss the issue with the administrator or colleague with the assumption that none of these things apply. You take your own professionally honed point of view and assume that certain basics are shared between you and your colleagues and bosses.

This is the attitude: I am a science teacher, and I am committed to the teaching of excellent science in my classroom. Having read a fair amount about the evolution/creationism controversy, I am aware of the nature of the laws and regulations, and I know what I need to be doing. This administrator may not know as much as I do about the issue, but s/he is fully supportive of my efforts and wants to understand my needs, and it is her/his job to help me out.

The idea that your colleague or administrator is a creationist hoping to derail the teaching of evolution in the classroom is unthinkable, even if it is true. If you see evidence to suggest this, you must assume that the evidence is misleading. Move ever forward with the assumption that the person you are communicating with is rational, reasonable, committed and dedicated, reasonably well informed and on the same side as you.

Require that your colleague be explicit about any way in which this is not true before you even consider the possibility. And, if that happens, take notes!

In the most extreme cases, this will not work. In the most extreme cases, you need to contact the people at the state and national level, in those organizations you joined as part of Step 1, above. Explain the situation and they will help you.

Good luck.

Related posts

Scott, E.c. (2007). WHAT\’S WRONG WITH THE \”TEACH THE CONTROVERSY\” SLOGAN?. McGill Journal of Education, 42(2), 307-315.

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18 thoughts on “Teachers Under Fire!!!

  1. Thanks for reposting this, Greg.

    I’m not currently a teacher, but once taught horticulture in a rural high school. The word evolution was touchy, but at the time I let it drop.

    As a mom now, I find evolution comes up frequently with my 7 year old. It’s easy to incorporate it into most things we talk about. The idea of change over time is so easy to apply to anything. Just this morning, she asked about the creation of a word and I mentioned that language evolves, much like life evolves. The word and the idea of evolution are a part of my child’s natural education. Where I was told “God made it that way” or “That’s just the way it is”, my child hears “It evolved that way” or “Let’s see if we can learn why it is that way”. It’s a more challenging way to explain the world, but much more accurate. Simply making the concept of evolution no big deal should be a goal of every teacher. I think once the term becomes part of regular conversation, the big “Evolution” may not be such a big deal.

    At dinner recently with my fundie sister and her teenagers (and my moderate mother), my niece mentioned that she was studying taxonomy and plants. I mentioned that taxonomy was exciting because it can illustrate the evolutionary relationships of the plants. I made the comment matter of factly and the only comment elicited was from my other niece asking when she’d learn about evolution.

    Sadly, both these girls are learning all they know about evolution from a creationist standpoint–they take home-school classes at their church. I did get an elbow jab from my mother when I told my niece I could recommend some great books about evolution. I haven’t been asked for those titles yet. My mom doesn’t think I should rock the boat, but that’s another story…

    Oh, I loved the story about Amanda, too.

  2. Churches get tax exemption for why? If they want to qualify for this privilege shouldn’t they be teaching “alternate theories” to their usual nonsense in their churches? I say give atheists equal pulpit time or pay up.
    Churches get involved in politics all the time, when have they ever gotten their exemptions yanked? Separation between church and state is a great principle. Too bad it isn’t enforced.

  3. I’ve already described this in another topic, but I have a different way of expressing this idea. I would recommend that a teacher confronted by creationist students, parents, or administrators recite this little speech:

    Jesus Christ commanded us to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” For two thousand years theologians have told us that this is a clear dictum to keep the secular separate from the spiritual. Science is the secular pursuit of truth; religion is the spiritual pursuit of truth. Mixing science with religion would be a very un-Christian thing to do, don’t you agree?

    After a short pause, they’ll attempt to deny this interpretation of the Bible; when they do, cut them short with the statement, “Perhaps you should brush up on your theology.”

    That shuts ’em up good. They go away grumbling, but they go away.

  4. If you state correctly, “teaching evolutionary biology in the public school classroom, the creationists have won the battle”, then this planet has a lot of grief awaiting it. How can simple problems like potable water, clean air, rich soils, and healthy spirits become a reality for all Earth’s inhabitants without solid understanding of principles of science? I just do not believe creationists teach the basic, fundamental information needed to solve complex problems or resolve interpersonal conflicts.

  5. There’s a crucial point that everybody involved in the science-vs-religion war needs to understand: science and religion spring from two completely orthogonal modes of thinking. The first mode of thinking is the sequential-logical mode of thinking derived from linguistic thinking and refined into formal logical reasoning. That’s the style of thinking that science is founded on. Religion, however, springs from a completely different modality of thinking: the social reasoning module. Those two mental modules are very ancient, being at least a million years old, and they have almost no intersection. Yet all humans use both mental modules every day. The challenge then becomes, when push comes to shove, which module will you place greater emphasis on? Science people put more emphasis on logical thinking (and tend to be socially inept). Religion people put more emphasis on social reasoning. Thus, when a scientist and a creationist argue, they’re talking right past each other. The two are relying on completely independent cognitive processes, which is why they can never resolve their dispute. It is pointless to argue rationally with a creationist, because they don’t use rationalism, they use rationalization. They only way you can possibly have any influence on their thinking is to present arguments based on their own way of thinking — which is why I like to use the “render unto Caesar” argument. It actually makes some headway with them.

  6. Just came over here, after googling the blog mentioned in my AiG newsletter today. Yep, I’m a dreaded Creationist. The whole “render unto Caesar” thing from the commenter above is dead-on. If you send your kids to a government institution to be educated, truly, you have given up your right to give your children a Creationist education. The government, science, etc. etc, none of those things have anything to do with God anymore. Previously, a century or two ago, almost everyone accepted the fact that God was the Creator of the universe, but as people decided to improve their lives and gain greater freedom from the things that held them back from worldly happiness, that fact went by the wayside.

    My children are homeschooled. They know about the Theory of Evolution, and know about Creationism. We talk, freely, about both subjects, and I tell them what I believe. They make their own choices about what they think is the Truth. They both believe, at this point in their lives, that God created the Universe. My oldest, the 9 year old, is still unsure if he believes the Earth is Old or Young – although my husband and I believe it is Young, only about 6,000-8,000 years old. I think my son is confused, because we do teach them about evolution, so he hears conflicting information. But, again, I want him to choose the right thing. And if he was in a government funded school, he would only be taught the Theory of Evolution, he would have to answer all questions based on that belief only, even if he learned something different at home or at church, or risk getting an answer wrong and failing a test/class/whatnot. We don’t tell him an answer is wrong or right – we show him the facts in the Bible, and the facts in the science books we read, and discuss all the options. I want my children to be certain of what they believe, and not just believe something because a school or textbook taught it to them.

    I do have to say, though, that I find it quite funny that evolutionist teachers are scared of sharing Creationism with students. It’s a Theory, just like Evolution. Yes, I know, the scientific community doesn’t think it is a Theory – it is Fact, pure and simple, in their eyes. But, truthfully, it can’t be proven without a shadow of a doubt – it is just something to believe in, just like Creationism is something to believe in. If an Evolutionist is adament that what they believe is the truth, then there should be no fear of discussing both subjects in a classroom setting, and letting the students decide what is right and what is wrong. Our goal is not to teach students everything they have to know before they graduate from school, but to show them how to learn and how to think freely for themselves. By protecting them from the Theory of Creationism, a teacher is just as wrong as a fundamentalist who refuses to teach the Theory of Evolution.

  7. Laura:

    I would love to have a mature discussion. However, the first challenge here will be your lack of comprehension of science, and even the basic definitions of words like theory. You have confused theory and hypothesis. Please look them up in a scientific context.

    I have no problem with teaching alternate theories as long as there is evidence for them. Christianity is not the only religion with beliefs about the formation of the universe. There are not two sides here, there are many.

    This is not the forum for a deep debate, so I will ask you two questions.

    1: what is your single best piece of evidence for Creation?
    2. What is, in your opinion, the part of evolutionary theory that is least supported?

  8. Laura–

    If you are really serious about teaching your children both evolution and creationism, you should read “The Greatest Show on Earth,” by Richard Dawkins. Although, as I’m sure you know, Dawkins is an atheist, he scrupulously avoids discussing his beliefs about religion in this particular book. Instead he discusses the evidence for evolution at a very basic, accessible level. For instance, Dawkins explains the work of Richard Lenski, who has experimentally proved evolution in the laboratory. (This is one of the reasons scientists call evolution a fact.)

    Another source you might use to answer specific questions is Talkorigins on the Web. (I hope someone here with fewer computer glitches than I have will provide a link.)

    If you are using sources such as the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis, or the Institute for Creation Research, you should know that they have repeatedly used very dishonest tactics. These notably include “quotemining” or the quoting of legitimate scientists to make it appear they said something they never did.

    They also repeat statements that they have been repeatedly told are not true. For instance, you may have heard from these sources that evolution is “just a theory” because “evolutionists” can’t prove how life began. In fact, the study of how life began is called abiogenesis. Evolution is only concerned with how life changed over time. If your sources conflate abiogenesis and evolution, they are guilty of deliberate dishonesty; this point has been brought home to them over and over again.

    If you want a discussion here, you might start by stating your reasons for not accepting evolution, along with your sources of information. That will give other posters something specific to respond to.

  9. I guess Laura wasn’t interested in debating evolution versus creationism, after all. Too bad.

    Laura, if you read this, I’d be really interested in why you dropped the discussion. Not to restart the debate, necessarily, but I’d really like to know where you’re coming from.

  10. hoary: Your comments are archived here, of course, and other people searching with a genuinely open mind may be enlightened.

    It appears that Laura is very, very confident about what she knows. So confident that she doesn’t need to listen to any contradictory sources, *especially* those sources that are willing to comment *directly* on her beliefs.

    Every so often, I do a sort of meta-analysis: Does one side understand what the other side claims? Does one side respond to arguments effectively?

    In the case of evolution vs. Christian creationism, I see that very, very few creationists actually understand what evolution is, or claims to be. That is a bad sign. Refuting a straw-man version of your opponent is not very impressive.

    I do this because I’m not a biologist. I can’t truly evaluate the claims. However, since the vast majority of creationists haven’t passed stage 1, understanding the claim they wish to refute, I can at least be confident that I’m working off the best information that I can: The science may be wrong, but nobody’s figured out how it’s wrong. That’s the best I can hope for.

  11. I am a teacher of ten years. I was released from my contract this past school year. When I questioned my superior, at first he told me that he did’t have to give me a explanation. I later found out that I was released to make way for people representing Teachers Across America I have produced exemplary scores for the past four years in all grades that I have taught. I bet you can imagine how I feel.

  12. I am a teacher of ten years. I was released from my contract this past school year. When I questioned my superior, at first he told me that he did’t have to give me a explanation. I later found out that I was released to make way for people representing Teachers Across America I have produced exemplary scores for the past four years in all grades that I have taught. I bet you can imagine how I feel.

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