EvoLit Web Paper 1: How Should We Teach Evolution?

tangerines's picture

The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories

Professor Dalke


Webpaper #1

“How Should We Teach Evolution?”

Evolution is a hot topic. In the public forum, the legitimacy of evolution is debated by scientists and religious groups. In schools the decision on how to explain (or perhaps dismiss) evolution when designing biology curricula becomes a political one, and there is no definite answer on what constitutes the “correct” way to teach evolution. On one end of the table are scientists who claim that evolution is the final word on biological development, without acknowledging that the theory of evolution is itself constantly evolving; on the other are those who view God and creationism as the only explanation for biological change and diversity. The gray area between evolutionary scientists and creationists is uncomfortable, but without a dialogue between the two camps, no consensus on education can be reached. But the question remains: should evolution be taught in schools.

No conversation about evolution can begin without defining the major terms used. The Oxford English Dictionary defines biological evolution as The transformation of animals, plants, and other living organisms into different forms by the accumulation of changes over successive generations; the transmutation of species … the origination or transformation of an organism, organ, physiological process, biological molecule, etc., by such a series of changes.” For the purposes of this paper, I will use this definition of evolution. The lists two meanings for “creationism,” and the second is the one which I will use here: “The belief that mankind and all kinds of living organism, or, more widely, the earth and the physical universe generally, originated in specific acts of divine creation … rather than by natural processes as described by science, in particular evolution.” A huge problem with the current public discourse on evolution is the various meanings assigned to the terms “evolution” and “creationism.” A lack of common understanding means that no discussion about evolution will make any traction. I hope to use these stated definitions to lend clarity to my discussion.

The issue of semantics highlighted above makes clear the necessity of a shared frame of reference. Similarly, it is important that whatever story is ultimately deemed the “right” one, or most worthy of promotion, this story must be taught uniformly. Education is defined as, The systematic instruction, schooling or training given to the young in preparation for the work of life” by the OED. Its main purpose is to prepare students for later life, whatever that entails, which requires that students receive similar bases of information with which they may explore their interests. The goal of most schools is to provide students with a standard basis of knowledge that is on par with that received by other students across the country – hence standardized tests such as the GED, SAT, and ACT.

However, as important as it is for students to have a shared frame of reference, there must also be room for individual thought and personal preference and belief. Evolution is an accepted scientific theory, and people are free to interact with or interpret that theory according to their own belief systems. Yet this freedom creates a conflict: Despite the separation of church and state, as recently as 2009 there were court cases over the permissibility of teaching creationism in public schools. Replacing evolution with creationism in public classrooms has been found in numerous instances to be unconstitutional (NCSE). There remains a great debate about what children ought to learn. Clearly, a new plan is required.

In several of our class discussions, Professor Grobstein has stated that science is not about truth, and that evolution is simply “a bloody good story.” With this perspective, it seems limiting and unfair to restrict educators to a single “story” of biological development, whether that story features God, Darwin, or something else altogether. If the true goal of education is to prepare students for their future lives, then in an ideal world, schools would teach give students an introduction to each “story” of biological development. This would not only help students to learn critical thinking skills, it would also allow room for students to develop individual beliefs.

To this end, I propose that evolution should be taught in schools, but it should be taught in a completely new way. Because evolution is usually taught as part of an overarching biology curriculum, there are certain limitations on the feasible scope of discussion. Another consideration is that in many public schools, “teaching to the test” is a prevailing method of instruction (Carnegie Foundation). Therefore, my recommendations are somewhat idealistic unless one opts to homeschool or attend a private school. However, I suggest that a more effective way for educators to present evolution to students is by presenting the theory as it is currently understood along with its social connotations, the history of evolutionary theory, and alternative perspectives on biological development.

There is no “right” story of evolution. There are only different perspectives. An ideal education would provide students with a number of viewpoints. This would equip them to think critically about the world and develop their own opinions, rather than merely accepting what they were taught as unchanging fact. Evolution is a fascinating subject because it is itself constantly evolving and is in many ways open to interpretation. To teach it as a static theory would be to limit students' understanding of a complex biological field.



Works Cited

Carnegie Foundation. "Teaching to the Test." Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Web. 10 Feb. 2011. <http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/perspectives/teaching-test>.

NCSE. "Creationism and the Law." National Center for Science Education - Defending the Teaching of Evolution in Public Schools. National Center for Science Education, 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 10 Feb. 2011. <http://ncse.com/creationism/legal/creationism-law>.


Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 10 Feb. 2011. <http://www.oed.com/>.



Anne Dalke's picture

"A Bloody Good Story"

Yours is one of a number of papers written by members of our class on the question of teaching evolution; you might enjoy reading, for instance, The Evolution of Education, Educating Evolutionarily,  and Evolution in the Classroom --all of which seem to agree with you that evolution itself is "constantly evolving" and "open to interpretation," and so should not be taught as a static theory. You go further than your classmates, though, in arguing that it should be taught as one of many stories, one of several "alternative perspectives on biological development."

In light of all you have to say about the need to present various viewpoints, I'm puzzled by the way you frame your paper. You begin w/ definitions, drawn from the O.E.D., of your three central terms: biological evolution,  creationism, and education. But each of those definitions--which you use "foundationally" as the ground for your argument--is of course itself "only one story." Words can be defined differently; you yourself select one of two definitions for "creationism"; what's the rationale for that selection?

Given the tack you take, later in the paper, about the necessity for teaching multiple stories, rather than "unchanging fact," as a goad to getting students to "think critically," I'm confused by your initial embrace of a definition of education as the inculcation of "common understanding," of "teaching uniformly," as "systematic instruction" into "similar bases of information" and "a standard basis of knowledge." Does your definition of what education is work with your description of what teaching evolution should be? I can't quite work my way across the gap between the two.

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