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Teaching Evolution: Devoid of Labels, Full of Inspiration

bhealy's picture

"The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered"

-Jean Piaget-


     There is an inherent belief that everything students are taught in primary and secondary schools is taught for two main reasons: that it is an important basis for all following knowledge and that it is true. For whatever reason, we seem to have lost sight of the value of learning topics or subjects for the sake of developing skills that will stay with us past our high school graduation. The topic of evolution, marred with controversy most notably in our public school system, holds an intrinsic value not just in content but also in what it teaches our students about themselves and the world around them. Is it possible for schools to separate the idea of "Truth" from the idea of evolution? What if evolution were taught without the definitive label of "truth" and instead with a focus on the individual students and the skills that come hand in hand with learning about evolution?

     In Professor Grobstein and Professor Dalke's course "The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories," we have worked hard to unpack Darwin's seminal text On the Origin of Species, with specific attention paid to its influence on today's public school system. This focus inevitably led us towards the age-old debate of evolution vs. creationism, with many students taking a side one way or the other. We seemed to attach ourselves very quickly to the idea that we need to teach one thing because it's "true," and through our reading of Darwin we argued that the evidence for evolution is irrefutable, and therefore that is why we should be teaching evolution in our schools. But wait- if we automatically label topics as "true," won't our students become complacent and unconcerned with challenging commonly held beliefs? What about their critical thinking skills and the value of widening students' horizons and teaching them to question the status quo? Haven't all advances in science spawned from the minds of individuals who question the world and their existence in it?

     That brings us to the question of what is learned when evolution is taught. While many may automatically denounce evolution in the classroom due to the assumption that it would be taught as the be-all-and-end-all, or that it is disrespectful to those who believe in creationism, what about the education that our children are receiving? If creationism were taught, what useful skills would students take with them beyond their schooling? Religion aside, creationism does not foster critical thinking skills, nor does it teach the ever-important ability to challenge commonly held beliefs, an skill that proves invaluable in the real world. Creationism promotes a belief that we are all static, that someone other than us holds the power, and hence our knowledge and our potential are out of our control. While teaching creationism in classrooms is not the answer, there is a way that evolution can be taught in a more neutral way, with no labels of "true" or "definite" or "anti-religious" accompanying it. The goal should not be to define how life started, but instead how life has changed and how we have changed over time. This understanding of, or at least exposure to, the idea of change can only help improve the education that our children are receiving. If there's one thing that is important to grapple with from an early age, it is that people change and the world around us changes. Why are we letting our own hesitation and our own sensitivities prevent us from exposing children to this?

     Darwin himself questions what there is to learn from creationism, claiming, "Many naturalists think that something more is meant by the Natural System; they believe that it reveals the plan of the Creator; but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing is thus added to our knowledge" (351). Similar to ideas of the highly influential educational theorist Paulo Freire, Darwin highlights a crucial aspect of education, one that should be a no-brainer: how is our knowledge expanded? If it is expanded merely with facts and figures, "education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor...this is the 'banking' concept of education" (Freire, 72). Freire complements Darwin's ideas of breaking free of the educational mold, suggesting a shifted focus to viewing our children as students, and as participants in their own education, and not merely inactive vessels for other people's knowledge. Through On the Origin of the Species, Darwin's radical and therefore extremely significant ideas are like a call to action for science education. Darwin himself should be the poster child for teaching evolution in schools: regarded as a highly critical figure in science, he questioned the world around him and the popular ideas that were being fed to the masses. At the time his theories were seen as outrageous, but his reputation in the world of science today is beyond significant. If evolution were to be taught the way I am suggesting, with as little bias or as few labels as possible, the motivation could be to open the minds of our future scholars, our future scientists. If we were to just tiptoe around the issues that are shaping our children's education without acknowledging them, it is our children who would suffer. Instead of claiming that evolution is too controversial to teach, we should be encouraging our students to aspire to be like Darwin, to not assume that what everyone else thinks is the right way to think.

     Jean Piaget, renowned developmental psychologist and theorist, works with a very similar goal: "Education, for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society (whereas) for me, education means making creators, even if there aren't many of them, even if one's creations are limited by comparison with those of others" (Palmer, 38). Piaget emphasizes a shift from producing members of the society who are all the same to members of the society who question the world around them to create new ideas. By backing down from teaching evolution, are we not encouraging children to accept what they are told as "true?" Are we not filling up the children's "banks" with someone else's ideas? In a science curriculum concept paper written by the Oregon State Dept. of Education, one of Piaget's most significant goals was described quite succinctly: "Piaget's contribution was to change knowledge from a noun to a verb - knowledge is something students do, not something students have" (Contributions). If we don't give our students a chance to "do," a chance to grapple with their own opinions and beliefs, what is "thus added to our knowledge" (Darwin, 351)? We should be acknowledging the controversy and the opposition and the hesitation surrounding evolution, and we should be doing everything we can to implement it in a new and unique way in the classrooms. With all the strides we have made in progressive education, with the minds of Freire and Piaget, among many others, it seems that we are truly doing a disservice to our nation's students if we were to revert back to censorship and fear. Strip evolution of the labels and the stigma- and watch our students thrive.



Works Cited


Bringuier, Jean Claude. Conversations with Jean Piaget. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980. Print.

Contributions of Piaget to Science Education: Science Curriculum Concept Paper #2. Oregon State Dept. of Education, Salem. Web. 18 Feb. 2011.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2003. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Palmer, Joy, David E. Cooper, and Liora Bresler. Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

"Changing Knowledge from a Noun to a Verb"

When you come in for your conference, let's be sure to get your images loaded.

So: what I'm seeing here is a Piagetian/Freirean/Darwinian call to a libertatory form of education --one that, by avoiding the claim of "irrefutable truth-telling," helps our students become question-askers, rather than passive recipients of knowledge. I feel myself responding enthusiastically to the claim that, rather than "trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult," education "means making creators."

But your essay gestures towards a past when education was both done differently and better--"we seem to have lost sight of the value," "the inherent belief"--yet worse, and so we might "revert back to censorship and fear." On what are your descriptions of earlier forms of education grounded?

What I'm also seeing are a number of "irrefutable truth-telling" claims of your own, that really seem to cut against your overt argument, which takes such a clear stand against such a position (i.e.: "creationism does not foster critical thinking skills, nor does it teach the ever-important ability to challenge commonly held beliefs"; "creationism teaches that we are all static, that our potential is out of our control"; "The goal of teaching evolution should not be to define how life started, but instead how life has changed and how we have changed over time"; this is a "no-brainer"). How to reconcile these claims of truth w/ your larger one, which eschews truth claims? Are form and content @ odds here? Is there a dissonance between the topic and the mean you have chosen for teaching it?

For an alternative way of framing this debate, you might want to check out hannahgisele's argument that we should teach creationism as part of the social context of evolution: the concept from which it derived. It could thus "add to our knowledge," as part of the story of the evolution of the story of evolution. You might also want to read AnnaP's project, which, like yours, links up Freire and Darwin.

You end by asking why we are "letting our own hesitation and our own sensitivities prevent us from exposing children to this." Is this a real question and/or do you have some answers? Why are we, and how might we learn not to?