Teaching Evolution: A brief look at how to teach the multiple stories of evolution

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Elly Leman

Evo-Lit, WebPaper #1

Due February 11th, 2011


Teaching Evolution: A brief look at how to teach the multiple stories of evolution


There are many stories of evolution, with infinite possibilities of adaptation to different uses and situations. So how are teachers, school districts and our government expected to approach this complex subject and teach it to our children? With multiple stories of evolution, how can we assess which is most useful for grade school students, or even high school students? Where does one stand after complex debate over the story of evolution in college where are former assumptions and knowledge can be broken down? According to state regulations set forward by such acts as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which mandate that states be able to “review science standards,” there must be an acceptable way to teach evolution. (Parker) However, this may not be the most beneficial approach to teaching evolution, after all how do you pick just one of the many stories of evolution, and how do you give one preference or agency over the others?


This mandate under NCLB allows schools who may not accept or favor a “scientific” approach (here I designate a “scientific approach” as one that does not include any mention of creationism but rather relies on data on genetics, and possibly Darwin’s theories of adaptation and natural selection) are able to include alternative teachings on evolutionary theory. For example, according to an article in the Education section of USA Today online, “In Ohio, the state school board passed a measure that encourages the teaching of evolution and ‘intelligent design,’ a hypothesis that says life is so complex that some intelligent force was responsible.” (Parker) This is just one example of the conflict over the teaching of evolution. The irony here is that while the states are given the power to decide how to teach these theories, standardized tests which help to decide students acceptance into colleges and universities favor the “scientific approach” and may be likely to have questions concerning Darwin, genetics and the basic aspects of evolution such as natural selection.


It is difficult to say which approach to evolutionary teaching is most effective. There are many inherent faults in our public school system which would not allow for entirely individualized, creative approaches to evolutionary theory development. It would be ideal if students could decide for themselves which theory works best for them. However, it is extremely difficult to distinguish evolutionary theory, as Darwin approached it, from creationism without relying on the split between the two stories and discounting one or the other. It is useful to think of evolutionary theory as an alternative to the story of creationism that most people are familiar with by the time they reach higher level science courses. This offers students a new way to approach the concepts of free will vs. chance, which is a question that is truly at the heart of most evolutionary debate.


In recent years, many schools have been pushing to teach Darwin’s theories as just that, theories, not fact. (Parker) By pushing students to question rather than accept immediately his ideas of evolution and natural selection, they are exposing children to all of their options, allowing them to make a decision for themselves. This is a highly sympathetic view for many Americans, as it is an example of the freedom that we so desire in this country, whether the mandating of a curriculum by a school system or state government can truly be designated as “freedom” is still up for debate. While this approach, as discussed earlier, would be an ideal, there is still the issue of the distinction of one particular approach in such situations as standardized tests.


There are so many questions that arise when thinking about which pieces of the many stories of evolution to pull out and combine in order to teach our students. The term “natural selection” implies that there is a selector with a plan, who determines which species, and subsequently which traits, are able to carry on through the reproduction of offspring. However, there is no selector in this model, so it is inherently incorrect in its terminology and implications. Natural selection itself may lead to students’ search for a higher being in order to find this “selector” with a plan. It is doubtable that this would ever be the goal of advocates for Darwin’s theories and genetics.


Another question which would need to be addressed when deciding on evolutionary theory teaching methods is how to approach the idea of “progress” or a movement towards perfection that is inherent in Darwin’s theories. While life in general has made progress, coming so far from the single celled organisms which once population Earth, it is misleading to assume that life, and human beings as a species, are heading towards a distant but determined state of perfection. Perfection can only be perceived as relative when you break down the implications of evolution. There is no “perfect state” for every single environment and situation and time on Earth. It is not farfetched to say however that this would be an extremely difficult concept to teach to middle school students. So do you just throw this idea out the window, or hope that through a basic approach to education on evolution they may have the knowledge to one day get into a school like Bryn Mawr or Haverford and hash out the imperfections and implications of our readily accepted theory of evolution?


In conclusion, a quote by Jack Krebs, a teacher and vice principal of Kansas Citizens for Science explains the approach that many educational institutions, particularly those which concentrate on the sciences, "Part of the job of the public school system is to make professional judgments about what children ought to learn. It doesn't make any sense to give equal time to all these other ideas that are vastly unsupported. It's misleading to kids." (Parker) This implies that there should be a decision to pick one of the many stories of evolution, and teach this to students. This approach may look something like this, as listed under the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) website as an official position statement:

Science curricula, state science standards, and teachers should emphasize evolution in a manner commensurate with its importance as a unifying concept in science and its overall explanatory power. Science teachers should not advocate any religious interpretations of nature and should be nonjudgmental about the personal beliefs of students. Policy makers and administrators should not mandate policies requiring the teaching of ‘creation science’ or related concepts, such as so-called ‘intelligent design,’ ‘abrupt appearance,’ and ‘arguments against evolution.’ Administrators also should support teachers against pressure to promote nonscientific views or to diminish or eliminate the study of evolution. (NSTA website)

This may be the most appropriate approach to take, as it hopes to not advocate for religious interpretations which would go against the supposed “separation of church and state” which our country attempts to regulate, but still requires that teachers should be “nonjudgmental” of other views among their students. This still seems like a bit of a reach for an ideal, and still does not say exactly what this “unifying concept” of evolution is to be taught as, but it is a start to say that “Evolution in the broadest sense can be defined as the idea that the universe has a history: that change through time has taken place.” (NSTA website) This could allow for student interpretation while still pushing for a “scientific approach” and may be the best method.





Parker, Laura. "School Science Debate Has Evolved." USA Today Online - Education. USA Today, 

29 Nov. 2004. Web. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2004-11-28-schools-evolution_x.htm>.

"Teaching of Evolution in Schools - NSTA Position Statements." National Science Teachers 

Association - Science & Education Resource. NSTA, 2011. Web. <http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/evolution.aspx>.



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