Posted by: cjobrien | 9 March 2008

Teaching Kids about Darwin: The Bad News

 Greg Laden posted a wonderful article on the difficulties faced by teachers when it comes to educating children about science. Because I am constantly work with students (K to College), with teachers and conduct a significant amount of science education myself, this is an issue of great importance. The bottom line is that many teachers have poor science skills and actually hold non-science beliefs such as creationism or intelligent design that directly or indirectly get funneled into the classroom. If they do not actively proselytize their beliefs as science, they ignore or minimize proper science education on “controversial” topics such as evolution or environmentalism. However, even when teachers are well trained in science or have legitimate science backgrounds and understand the nonsense of creationism/intelligent design that is erroneously passed as appropriate science, they are often under intense pressure from the community and administrators to either “teach the controversy” about evolution or to ignore proper education in biology altogether. The result is that few students, by the time they reach college, have even the most minimal instruction in actual biological science, especially on the topic of evolution – the foundation of all biology.

I was fortunate as a high school student in Paradise, California to have had three years of often intense training in what can only be described as “evolutionary biology”. My science teacher did not merely have a “section” on evolution – evolution permeated the entire course. Biology was taught as it should be: a foundation of evolutionary theory upon which every other topic was pinned. This was even more evident in the Advanced Biology course, which largely focused on the paleontological record of life. That he was able to maintain such an outstanding program in science in a community that prided itself on having more churches per capita than any other place in northern California is a testament to his individual courage, tenacity and downright obstinacy when dealing with local creationists who wanted him to adjust or eliminate subject matter so that it fit more with their biblical views. When local preachers would ask to come talk to the biology class about creationism he was known to respond: “Fine, but only if you allow me to come talk to your congregation about evolution”. No preacher possessed sufficient courage of their own convictions to take him up on his offer.

Unfortunately, I have yet to encounter a biology teacher of his caliber and resolve to teach proper science. As Greg Laden suggests, many (I would argue most) simply bypass or minimize the evolution section – I doubt there are very many who teach it throughout the year as the underlying concept in biology. And I know of many who maintain creationist beliefs themselves and yet erroneously claim to be teaching science.

I can only reiterate the advice Greg offers and suggest that those of you who attempt to teach science are not without help. Organizations such as the National Center for Science Education as well as many publications are available to help teachers counter the pressure to avoid good science education in favor of sustaining religious mythology. More importantly, teachers should be able to call on science professionals in their local communities to help battle those that want non-science being taught. Here in California we have the California Science Teachers Association with wonderful resources to help the science teachers here in the Golden State.

And of course, Northstate Science is always here to help Lassen County science teachers.

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