ERIC/CSMEE

Teaching Evolution in School Science Classes

by: David L. Haury

March 1996 (Updated June 2003)

ERIC
Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education
DIGEST

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. T. Dobzhansky

What seemed like a provocative statement twenty years ago has become firmly established as a unifying idea in biology education. Speaking at a convention of the National Association of Biology Teachers, Dobzhansky (1973)pointed out the remarkable diversity of life and the striking unity of life, both made more intelligible by the theory of evolution. He went on to say:

Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts-some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.

Evolution was also identified as the unifying theme of biology by the American Society of Zoologists (Moore, 1984); the Society's project to improve teaching at the college level first focused on evolutionary biology.

More recently, the National Research Council (NRC) (1996) identified evolution as a major unifying idea in science that transcends disciplinary boundaries; a powerful idea to be used across all grade levels to guide instruction and align the curriculum. Biological evolution was also listed as one of the six content areas in the life sciences that are important for all high school students to study. Following are the concepts and principles associated with this content standard (p. 185):

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1993) also identified the evolution of life as one of six major areas of study in the life sciences. In addition to the guidelines provided by the NRC standards (1996), the AAAS emphasized genetics and molecular biology, and has suggested that students also know that:

Barriers to Meeting the Standards

A review of the literature on teaching and learning evolution (Demastes, Trowbridge, & Cummins, 1992) revealed several barriers, including certain intuitive ideas held by students, teleological and anthropomorphic thinking, and the influence of strongly held beliefs. These and other barriers have been discussed more fully at an evolution education research conference (Good and others, 1992), and in a special issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (Volume 31, Issue 5, May 1994).

Whether one surveys school students, college students, teachers, or school administrators, findings reveal many misunderstandings regarding evolution, and substantial acceptance of pseudoscientific ideas (Brumby, 1984; Demastes, Settlage, & Good, 1995; Greene, 1990; Lord & Marino, 1993). In developing a teaching module on evolution, Bishop and Anderson (1986) identified several critical barriers that hinder student understanding, including:

  • Failure to make a distinction between the separate processes responsible for (a) the appearance of traits in a population and (b) the survival of such traits in the population over time.
  • Failure to recognize that natural selection is dependent on differences (in genetic traits and in breeding success) among individuals of a population.
  • Misinterpreting the nature of evolutionary change in populations, believing that all individuals change slowly over time. (pp. 1-3)
  • Instructional Strategies

    Scharmann (1993) has provided some general guidelines for designing lessons based on a conceptual change approach to instruction. It seems particularly crucial that teachers find ways to enrich the teaching of evolution given both the conceptual difficulty students have and the limited attention given to evolution in textbooks (Rosenthal, 1985; Glenn, 1990; Skoog, 1979).

    Hilbish and Goodwin (1994) have pointed out that the standard approaches to teaching natural selection through artificial examples and computer simulations show what could happen, not what is happening. They propose the use of real examples of natural selection in action, and they have described activities using the familiar dandelion. McComas (1991) also emphasized the importance of direct inquiry and has provided an annotated list of activities from non-textbook sources.

    For teaching about human evolution, Offner (1994a, 1994b) has described activities using maps of human chromosomes to illustrate mechanisms of evolutionary change. Gipps (1991) described using casts of anthropoid skulls, and Riss (1993) suggested a related activity using photocopies of skulls.

    The "Creationist" Resistance

    Perhaps most unsettling is the finding that a substantial proportion of high school biology teachers hold pseudoscientific beliefs, with nearly 40% thinking "there are sufficient problems with the theory of evolution to cast doubts on its validity" (Eve & Dunn, 1990). Those holding such views seem particularly vulnerable to the influence of various groups wishing to reduce attention to evolution in science classes. The teaching of evolution has been a source of controversy in American schools throughout the century (Larson, 1985; Nelkin, 1982), and advocates of evolution have continued to offer rebuttals to creationist claims (Berra, 1990; Ruse, 1982). In the early 1980s, the controversy led to a conference to clarify issues (Zetterberg, 1983). Though many scientific, religious, and educational organizations explicitly support the teaching of evolution (McCollister, 1989), many individuals also endorse the importance of upholding the integrity of science while also acknowledging the validity of deeply held religious beliefs (Hanson, 1986). Educators wanting more information supportive of evolution education from a Christian perspective may be interested in a resource packet, "Creationism, the church, and the public schools," available from the United Church of Christ Resources, Inc. (call 1-800-537-3394), or a booklet by the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) entitled, "Teaching science in a climate of controversy." The ASA is an organization of Christians with academic degrees in science that takes no official position, but supports the teaching of evolution as science. Contact the ASA at P.O. Box 668, Ipswich, MA 01938-0668 (Call (508) 356-5656; E-mail: asa@newl.com)

    References

    American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Berra, T. M. (1990). Evolution and the myth of creationism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Bishop, B. A., & Anderson, C. W. (1986). Evolution by natural selection: A teaching module. (Occasional Paper No. 91). East Lansing: The Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University. [ED 272 383]

    Bishop, B. A., & Anderson, C. W. (1990). Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(5), 415-427.

    Brumby, M. N. (1984). Misconceptions about the concept of natural selection by medical biology students. Science Education, 68, 493-503.

    Demastes, S. S., Trowbridge, J. E., & Cummins, C. L. (1992). Information from science education literature on the teaching and learning of evolution. In R. G. Good, J. E. Trowbridge, S. S. Demastes, J. H. Wandersee, M. S. Hafner, & C. L. Cummins (Eds.). Proceedings of the 1992 Evolution Education Research Conference, (pp.42-71). Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University.

    Demastes, S. S., Settlage, J., & Good, R. (1995). Students' conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution: Cases of replication and comparison. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(5), 535-550.

    Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The American Biology Teacher, 35(3), 125-129.

    Eve, R., & Dunn, D. (1990). Psychic powers, astrology, & creationism in the classroom? The American Biology Teacher, 52(1), 10-21.

    Gipps, J. (1991). Skulls and human evolution: the use of casts of anthropoid skulls in teaching concepts of human evolution. Journal of Biological Education, 25, 283-290.

    Glenn, W. (1990). Treatment of selected concepts of organic evolution and the history of life on earth in three series of high school earth science textbooks. Science Education, 74(1), 37-52.

    Good, R. G., Trowbridge, J. E., Demastes, S. S., Wandersee, J. H., Hafner, M. S., & Cummins, C. L. (1992). Proceedings of the 1992 Evolution Education Research Conference. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.

    Greene, E. D., Jr. (1990). The logic of university students' misunderstanding of natural selection. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27, 875-885.

    Hanson, R. W. (Ed.). (1986). Science and creation: Geological, theological, and educational perspectives. New York: Macmillan.

    Hilbish, T. J., & Goodwin, M. (1994). A simple demonstration of natural selection in the wild using the common dandelion. The American Biology Teacher, 56(5), 286-290.

    Larson, D. J. (1985). Trial and error: The American controversy over creation and evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Lord, T., & Marino, S. (1993). How university students view the theory of evolution. The American Biology Teacher, 52(1), 353-357.

    McCollister, B. (Ed.). (1989). Voices for evolution. Berkeley, CA: The National Center for Science Education, Inc.

    McComas, W. F. (1991). Resources for teaching evolutionary biology labs. The American Biology Teacher, 53(4), 205-209.

    Moore, J. A. (1984). Science as a way of knowing-evolutionary biology. American Zoologist, 24(2), 467-534.

    National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

    Nelkin, D. (1982). The creation controversy: Science or scripture in the schools. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Offner, S. (1994a). Using chromosomes to teach evolution I. Conserved genes & gene families. The American Biology Teacher, 56(2), 86-93.

    Offner, S. (1994b). Using chromosomes to teach evolution II. Chromosomal rearrangements in speciation events. The American Biology Teacher, 56(2), 79-85.

    Riss, P. H. (1993). A ration explanation for evolution. Science Scope, 16 (4), 36-44.

    Rosenthal, D. B. (1985). Evolution in high school biology textbooks: 1963-1983. Science Education, 69(5), 637-648.

    Ruse, M. (1982). Darwinism defended: A guide to the evolution controversies. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

    Scharmann, L. C. (1993). Teaching evolution: Designing successful instruction. The American Biology Teacher, 55(8), 481-486.

    Skoog, G. (1979). Topic of evolution in secondary school biology textbooks. Science Education, 63(5) 621-640.

    Zetterberg, J. P. (Ed.). (1983). Evolution versus creationism: The public education controversy. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

    Where to Go for Help

    Information Centers

    Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC). The ERIC database includes bibliographic information for approximately 800 items on the teaching and learning of evolution, from journal articles about classroom activities to research findings about student conceptions. Search the database using descriptors such as: evolution, biology, science education, science activities, science instruction, science curriculum, scientific concepts, genetics, misconceptions, creationism, and controversial issues course content For more information, contact ERIC/CSMEE, (800) 276-0462 or (614) 292-6717; Fax: (614) 292-0263; E-mail: ericse@osu.edu.

    National Center for Science Education (NCSE). The NCSE sponsors several activities to support the teaching of evolution. The organization publishes a quarterly newsletter for members, and a semi-annual journal, Creation/Evolution. NCSE also distributes many books and sponsors many seminars and workshops. For more information, contact NCSE, P.O. Box 9477, Berkeley, CA 94709. Telephone: (800) 290-6006 or (510) 526-1674; Fax: (510) 526-1675; E-mail: ncse@crl.com.

    Internet Resources

    Harvard's Evolution Virtual Library

    http://mcb.harvard.edu/BioLinks.html

    This World Wide Web server provides an extensive collection of Internet links to organizations, publications, academic programs, museums, collections, and exhibits. This is a good place to start a search for current information relating to evolution.

    The Talk.Origins Archive

    http://www.talkorigins.org/origins/faqs-evolution.html

    This home page presents files from a UserNet group, talk.origins. Though strongly oriented toward issues relating to evolution and creation, this site presents some very readable essays on evolutionary theory, findings, and methods.


    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    David L. Haury is Director of ERIC/CSMEE and Associate Professor of Science Education at The Ohio State University.

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