Design Teaching

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 29 2011

How Do I Teach Evolution, Respectfully and Uncompromisingly?

I’m planning my unit on biology right now and I’m going to unabashedly teach evolution. The unit sequence begins with the essential questions of “What gives rise to the great diversity of life on this planet?” and “Where do humans come from?”* I will then ask my students to make predictions about what evidence would exist if creation were true, if evolution were true. By the end of the unit, students should have a solid understanding of the evolutionary process and the evidence for it. They’ll research an animal (or plant), its evolutionary history, what adaptations make that organism fit to survive and reproduce in its environment, and then predict how a population of that organism will evolve when placed in a new environment (meanwhile learning about biomes and ecosystems all the way).**

I will bring in elements of history and English by having my students read about the Scopes Monkey Trial as well. I think it’s incredibly important for them to know the context of the current evolution vs. creation “debate” and why evolution is not “just a theory” in the popular, not scientific, meaning of the word “theory.”***

What, if any backlash, will I get from the community? How can I plan to be uncompromising in terms of presenting scientific fact and at the same time be respectful of all the diverse and beautiful faith systems? I want to be sure to be sensitive at the same time push my students to think critically, question, and yes, at times, be uncomfortable.****

Also, if you’d actually like to take part in this process of unit planning, including creating the rubric for the project, or if you have these resources, please let me know! You can leave a comment here, find me on twitter, or email me.

Thank you in advance for your input!

*Essential questions adapted from the book Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne.

**Extension activities will include cross-disciplinary applications of the evolutionary process, specifically natural selection. For example, the process of brainstorming is all about getting ideas out in the open so that the best will survive, and computer scientists can generate random designs that are then tested for usefulness. Thanks to JDW for the latter idea!

***If you would like to debate the veracity of the evolutionary theory, please add your comments to this thread instead: I would like to keep the discussion of whether or not evolution is true and the discussion on how to teach evolution separate for clarity’s sake. Thanks!

****To put this post into its context, a 2006 poll revealed that “nearly one in eight American high school biology teachers admits to presenting creation or intelligent design as a valid scientific alternative to Darwinism” and “nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that if evolution is taught in the science classroom, creationism should be as well”. Meanwhile only forty percent of Americans judge the statement, “Humans descend from a primate lineage that split off from our common ancestor with the chimpanzee roughly seven million years ago” to be true. (All quotes from Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne.

Originally posted on How Do I Teach Evolution, Respectfully and Uncompromisingly? on Science Never Sucks, a blog.

6 Responses

  1. I teach this subject coming from the Social Studies side of things, not Science, so I don’t know if this will be helpful or not. Part of my background is in Anthropology, so you can imagine that I’m not too keen on the whole ‘intelligent design/creationism’ thing. With that said, when my class got to our section on Darwin last year, I taught natural selection and adaptation. We had an interesting discussion in class and I made it clear that we would need to keep comments evidenced based, just as we did for any other history discussion. When we hit snags on understanding the idea of natural selection, I used human-driven un-natural selection as an example, specifically using the relatively (within evolutionary scales) recent changes to zea maize (corn), bovine, and other domesticated plants and animals.

    I stated that I understood that some of my students may have issues with the concepts associated with the theory of evolution and that I was willing to entertain discussion on other points of view, just as I always was in my class. I never mentioned creationism or ID by name. We talked about the idea that extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence. We talked about missing links and recent scientific findings in paleontology and genetics that supported the ideas of natural selection. We talked about the difference between beliefs and scientific theories. It gave us a chance to review the Enlightenment ideals and the Scientific Method. We reviewed the ideas surrounding the concept of stories cultures created that helped them understand their relationship to the things around them and that how, over time, those stories changed as more facts about the natural world where discovered. I also made sure to remind them that the very nature of “doing history” was taking the information available to us about the past and constructing the best supportable opinion we could with the full knowledge that we could be wrong.

    I then stepped back and waited for the backlash. I didn’t get any phone calls. No parent visits. Nothing. We had a good discussion. I don’t know what kind of culture you have in your school, so I don’t know what you may face as you move forward. I’ll keep good thoughts for you and hope for the best.

    Again, I’m not a science guy, but I would be very interested in seeing what you come up with for this and how it goes for you. I’m just about to head to Houston for Institute and would love a chance to sit and visit on how things went for you. I figure us radicals need to stick together. I’ll even buy the first round… :-)

    • debryc

      Thank you for the insights and welcome to Houston! I’d love to sit down with you. And, this unit is not for another two months, so you’ll see the whole process of planning this unfolding, never fear. I’ll be in touch.

  2. parus

    Honestly, I’ve never had a problem with it, despite having some very fundamentalist students. I just go for it and stick to the facts. Any rumbles about something going against their religion and I just tell them they’re not required to believe this themselves, but they are required to be able to explain why mainstream scientists believe this. Same goes for concepts in space science, geology, etc. that contradict young Earth creationism. I don’t believe in “teaching the controversy,” at least not in science class.

    • debryc

      See, I’m not satisfied with the separation between science and religion in terms of telling the students that they can choose what to “believe” in, because I’m a science teacher, not to teach facts, but to teach critical thinking, and this unit is designed so that students will discover for themselves the overwhelming evidence for evolution. And, if my students are ever challenged on the issue of evolution, they should be able to articulate why evolution is backed up by evidence whereas creationism is not.

      • parus

        I see that point of view, but I personally am not going to go head-to-head with what a kid’s mom (or grandma, or dad, or whoever) says is the truth. That’s a losing scenario no matter how one plays it, IMO. All I can do is give kids the solid facts, and develop their critical faculties, and hope they internalize the right notions as a result. Also creationism gets zero time in my science class because it’s not science. I’m not opening that door.

  3. danielleinthed

    Just be careful not to make students feel “stupid” for believing in creationism. I am a Christian, and Philosophy was my minor in college (this department is overwhelmingly filled with atheists). Please try to foster robust discussion about evolution without belittling kids’ beliefs if and when they choose to voice their objections. Most of my professors and peers were very respectful, but I got the occasional “The concept of God/Intelligent Design is silly” response. It would be best if you kept the conversation on evolutionary theory and minimized any jabs at religion (not that you would take these jabs, but I’m just saying that you should be careful, as you may have biases that might come out subconsciously in the classroom). With that said, you also have the right to promptly end the discussion if the student is an argumentative, bratty, disruptive pupil. Regardless of the evidence provided by evolution, students have a right to reject it on religious grounds, but you also have a right to teach it, and to teach it without fear of vilification. Again, just be sure that if creation comes up in class, be tactful with the way you address it. Best of luck to you.

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