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dfishervan's picture


            While all educators face immense difficulties when attempting to impart their lessons on the next generation of students, they recognize that introductory biology instructors encounter additional complex and daunting challenges. As titles such as “Evolution’s Lonely Battle in a Georgia Classroom” and “Defending Evolution in the Classroom” suggest, unlike other educators, introductory biology teachers must engage in war or at least take a side in the evolution education battle. In one of our “Stories of Evolution” sessions, our class recreated this battle and unanimously argued for evolution’s inclusion in the curriculum. Of course, our class’ support for evolution does not represent the nation’s sentiments on the matter. According to a recent survey, three out of four public high school teachers do not endorse teaching evolution (Oldham 2011). However, this statistic does not concern me as much as the ones that state that many students who sat through lessons on evolution in their introductory biology class accept evolution as fact and yet, still “are poorly equipped to talk about it” (Redden 2007). It appears that proponents for the incorporation of evolution in school curriculums have forgotten what about evolution they would like to see in the classroom and how they would like to see it implemented and consequently, students have suffered. For that reason, this paper does not intend to engage in this education battle or to recruit members for any side of the argument. Instead, it seeks to remind those in favor of evolution what they are fighting for and hopes to minimize the battle’s student casualties. In doing so, this paper attempts to show that despite the controversy surrounding it, evolution is no different from any other introductory biology topic vying for a place in the curriculum and requiring a definition of what exactly should be included and how it should be taught.        

How one teaches evolution significantly influences what specifically one teaches about evolution. One method for teaching evolution involves the incorporation of the history of science in introductory biology courses. Looking at the ideas that preceded the theory of evolution and examining the modifications that have been made overtime to Darwin’s initial conception of it informs students that science is fallible and not static (Gooday et al. 2008). It also re-humanizes the sciences by emphasizing the collaboration and creativity involved in the scientific process (Clough 2009). Multiple studies suggest that by teaching evolution in a more memorable way, the inclusion of history of science in introductory biology courses increases students’ understanding of evolution (Clough 2009).

Jensen et al. also advocate for the utilization of the history of science when educating students about evolution as they feel that it helps instructors teach for conceptual change, a pedagogical strategy which all educators, especially those charged with the task of teaching evolution, should employ (1997). Teaching for conceptual change requires the instructor to identify the preconceptions about a topic initially held by his/her students and involves working with students to restructure their conceptual framework so as to avoid just layering new information on an ill-founded groundwork. An educator can gauge students’ initial interpretation of evolution by offering the class a verbal or written pretest consisting of questions such as “how would a biologist explain how the ability to run fast evolved in cheetahs” or “how would a biologist explain how blind cave salamanders evolved from sighted ancestors?” (Jensen and Finley 1997). When Jensen et al. posed these questions to students in a college introductory biology course, they received responses mixed with various non-Darwinian ideas and the occasional trace of elements of Darwinian evolution. In an attempt to uproot their misconceptions, the professors used the history of biological evolution to provide concrete descriptions about pre-Darwinian views of evolution (Jensen and Finley 1997). This historical lesson encouraged students to reevaluate their original assessments of biological evolution and enabled them to identify the Lamarkian, teleological, and natural theological components that infected their initial responses. The history of science helped to dispel misconceptions about evolution commonly held by students long after the completion of their introductory biology course and improved their overall understanding of biological evolution (Jensen and Finley 1997).

The University of California Berkley created a website for teachers that tries to simplify what exactly a student should understand about evolution into four fundamental terms: variation, inheritance, selection, and time (“Focus on Fundamentals”). In what seems like a ploy to convert the 60 percent of “cautious teachers” who do not fully support evolution’s place in the classroom, Berkley’s website goes on to declare that teaching evolution is easy (Oldham 2011 and “Focus on Fundamentals”). While in reality, planning lessons on evolution may not be so straightforward, the teaching strategies discussed above can guide the teacher in selecting what elements of evolution to teach.

An educator teaching for conceptual change needs to structure his/her classes around his/her students’ preconceptions. One such misconception shared by many introductory biology students deals with their unwavering belief in the term “survival of the fittest” and its association with evolution. By reevaluating the accuracy of “survival of the fittest” in the classroom, instructors can teach the fundamental concepts about evolution. On one hand, the saying conveys a crucial piece of evidence that substantiates the concept of natural selection since it illustrates that the earth could not support the offspring of all organisms if they were to survive and reproduce. “Survival of the fittest” suggests that only one kind of “fittest” exists. However, students must realize that there are multiple forms of “fit” that successfully fit in different environments. The term “fittest” also implies that evolution has a teleological goal, a myth which teachers must clear up by emphasizing the undirected change aspect of evolution. Educators should demonstrate that organisms deemed “fittest” must possess some heritable variation since an individual that has a favorable variation that cannot be passed to its offspring may survive but the trait that increases the chances of survival and reproductive success will not. Since it cannot be deduced from the “survival of the fittest” saying, teachers need to ensure that their students understand that the individual with the variation must not only survive long enough to produce offspring but, must also be capable of reproducing.

Additionally, since the theory of evolution has transcended many discipline boundaries, teachers need to decide in what contexts they want their students to understand evolution. Several educators argue that introductory biology classes should include certain social applications of evolution so as to avoid falsely assuming that students learning evolution for the first time are capable of recognizing these applications on their own (Wilson 2005). Due to time constraints, I believe that an introductory biology course should focus mainly on biological evolution. However, teachers can still help students discover the connection the theory of biological evolution shares with other fields by assigning a paper that involves applying what they learned in the classroom about biological evolution to a non-biological topic of their choice.

            The fact that the theory of evolution influences multiple disciplines and the controversy that surrounds it causes introductory biology instructors to give evolution special consideration when planning their lessons. However, just like any other curricular topic, teachers need to substantiate evolution’s place in their curriculum and they struggle with determining what about this topic should be taught and how it should be taught. While most educators tend to get caught up with justifying evolution’s spot in the classroom, students stand to benefit immensely if instructors instead devoted more energy to defining what evolution should look like in an introductory biology course.



Clough, M. P. (2009). Humanizing science to improve post-secondary science education. Paper presented at the 10th International History, Philosophy of Science in Science Teaching (IHPST) Conference, Notre Dame, IN, June 24–28.

"Focus on Fundamentals." Understanding Evolution for Teachers. University of California. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.

Gooday, G, Lynch, J.M., Wilson, K.G., and Barsky, C.K. “Does science education need the history of science.” Isis. 99 (2008): 322-330.

Jenson, S., Finley, F. “Teaching evolution using a historically rich curriculum and paired problem instructional strategy.” The American Biology Teacher. 59 (1997). 208-212.

Oldham, J. "The Evolution of Teaching Evolution." Hechinger Report. 7 Feb. 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.

Redden, E. "Interdisciplinarity and the Science Classroom." Inside Higher Ed. (2007) Web. 10 Feb. 2011.

Wilson, D. “Evolution for everyone: How to increase acceptance of, interest in, and knowledge about evolution.” PLoS Biol. 12 (2005): 364.




Anne Dalke's picture

Engaging in War/Not

I know that you spent all of last semester working on a senior essay about teaching evolution, so I'm not the least surprised that this paper is rich both with resources and good advice for thinking about what-and-how to teach the topic. Frankly, I was a little worried about all that "battle" imagery in your first paragraph, but then you moved quickly beyond the "war" to provides lots of good info--for which many thanks!

So, moving on, now, beyond your senior thesis: I have no sense, from reading this paper, of your location in our particular course on the "story of evolution." How have our shared philosophical musings about the larger implications of "thinking evolutionarily" altered your understandings of what should be taught in intro bio classes, or of how it should be taught? For starters, I was puzzled by your claim that "evolution is no different from any other topic vying for a place in the curriculum"; all the war images you used to begin suggest that that's not the case, and certainly the way we have been framing the issue suggests that evolution is --if not a "dangerous" idea, as Dennet claims--then a revolutionary one, which challenges many of students' preconceptions about the nature of the universe. To teach evolution is, de facto, to "teach for conceptual change," to "restructure their conceptual framework," in a way that most subjects do not, or do not necessarily. How to handle that fundamental difference?

Another question I'd be interested in thinking through with you when you come to your conference is the application, to classroom pedagogy, of your claim that "there are multiple forms of 'fit' that successfully fit in different environments." The program for study that you outline here doesn't seem to allow for such multiplicity; it's rather univocal, yes?