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Evolving approach to teaching evolution, undermines scientific rigor

science-laboratory-work_w523_h725It’s a tad disturbing when science teachers don’t teach science.

Yet, according to a survey of 926 high school biology teachers, that’s exactly what’s happening. Most survey respondents admitted they’re not doing a good job teaching evolution.

The findings, published by two Penn State University professors in the January 28 issue of Science magazine, reveal that 13 percent of biology teachers admit they “explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least one hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.”

Another 60 percent of teachers skirt the controversial issue and are “neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives.”

So what should school board members make of this? Well, for one, suggest Penn State professors Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzar, if teachers give any weight to theories without a strong scientific foundation, “this approach tells students that well-established concepts can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions.”

Interestingly enough, they are less worried by hard-core creationists than by the “cautious 60 percent” who down-play instruction in evolution or try to walk the fence by telling students that, whatever they choose to believe, they need to understand evolution to pass state exams.

If these teachers “fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, they undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, the professors say, “they may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

So what’s the answer? Well, I realize many board members cringe when the issue of evolution arises. It can lead to quite a controversial debate. There are some fierce critics of teaching evolution in high school—and there are strong proponents that such instruction is necessary. Most board members would prefer the whole issue go away.

But that’s not going to happen, is it? If teachers are injecting their personal beliefs into a science lesson—and essentially teaching bad science—that’s an instructional issue a school board can’t ignore. And, if parents find out about it, they won’t let you.

Besides, it’s likely your state board of education or department of education has set out guidelines on the instruction of evolution. In fact, your school district’s science curriculum already should spell out what is to be taught.

So the real issue is to quietly find out what your teachers are teaching. Maybe you’ll be lucky—and your schools are doing just fine. If not, then maybe you need to reexamine your policy—or at least make sure teachers know district policy. You also might want to follow some of advice of Berkman and Plutzar, who suggest the nation needs “better-trained biology teachers who can confidently advocate for high standards in science education in their local communities.

If that means offering your teachers a refresher course in evolution, go for it. Teachers need confidence in their knowledge to teach evolution properly. They need confidence in what they’re expected to teach. And they need confidence that, should controversy arrive, the school board has teachers’ backs.

Of course, you can always sidestep the issue, just as some teachers do. But then, America could end up with a culture that believes the Earth is flat, men never walked on the moon, UFOs abduct people, and medical vaccines are harmful to children. After all, you can find plenty of “science” online to back up all of this.

Naomi Dillon|February 10th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Curriculum, Educational Research, Governance, Teachers|Tags: , |

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