Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Evolution in the Classroom

hlehman's picture

 Hannah Lehman

Evolution of Stories and the Story of Evolution

February 9, 2011

Evolution in the classroom


Science is the key to our future, and if you don't believe in science, then you're holding everybody back. And it's fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don't believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don't believe in science, that's a recipe for disaster. ... The main idea in all of biology is evolution. To not teach it to our young people is wrong (Bill Nye).


When I was younger, one of my favorite parts of the day was science class.  I loved learning about geology, planets, oceanography, and watching Bill Nye The Science Guy videos.  I thought science was fun and doing hands on experiments like crushing rocks and dissecting owl pellets was always exciting.  Nye’s quote above is in response to a recent article in Science about evolution being taught in schools and the lack of support from teachers.  According to the article, “60% of U.S. high school biology teachers are not advocates for either evolutionary biology or nonscientific alternatives” (Berman).  Researchers also found that 28% of biology teachers strongly support the study of evolution in the classroom and implement recommendations by the National Research Council, while 13% of the teachers in the survey strictly advocate creationism and devote their time to presenting intelligent design in a positive light (Berman).   I agree with Nye’s qualms about this study, but I also think that the significance of teaching evolution in schools concerns more than the core of biology.  I think that science education, in general, is about teaching students the principles of life and thinking.  Science is exploration and discovery, asking questions, and ideas such as change and understanding.  If children did not have science classes, they would lose crucial opportunities to try new things and investigate the world around them.  How can one truly grow and relate to others without a foundation to thought and basic introduction to understanding?  By teaching evolution, however, and the theory behind evolutionary thinking, students gain a new perspective on life that allows them to open their minds and see beyond what they could ever imagine.     

One of the most controversial topics in society today is the study of evolution vs. creation in public education.  A debate that has gone on for decades and has lead to numerous legal cases from State County to Supreme Court level, this subject is something constantly being challenged and people may never come to an agreement.  The question behind evolution vs. creation being taught in the classroom has too much of an emphasis on the negative theoretical aspect of the story rather than what the principles of the story can actually do for us.  Creation and Evolution are both stories/ answers that we have built over time to answer our deepest questions on the world around us.  From an early age, one of the first questions we ask our parents is “where did I come from?” so we rely on these two, widely known stories to justify our place.  While the story of creation teaches an unchanging presumption based on religion, evolution is about new possibilities and the future.  It is important to introduce children to the story of evolution because by instilling this idea in growing minds, it helps support one’s imagination and provokes curiosity about one’s surroundings.  Although most public school curriculums simply touch upon the basics of evolution, such as the definition of natural selection and survival of the fittest, etc., a background in Darwin and simple knowledge of the topic can be very influential to a student’s future career.  Personally, I remember discussing evolution in almost every one of my science classes growing up, and the basics that I was aware of helped inspire my interest in science and the classes I chose to take now.

Another reason why evolution is an important subject to teach in high school and lower grade schools is because evolution is the world around us.  It is something we see every day and even if we try to deny its existence, we cannot escape its power in nature.  Students who lack exposure to evolution in the classroom miss an important part of learning that will carry with them for the rest of their lives.  According to the article in Science, general biology is the most popular science course in high school and for 21 to 25% of U.S. high school graduates, it will be the only science class they take (Berman).  The teachers who feel that they are avoiding controversy by not teaching evolution in class are significantly hurting their students and not preparing them for the real world.  To simply not teach something because one does not have enough confidence to support it should be criteria for job termination because as a teacher it should be one’s duty to convey as much information as possible to students who are open and willing to learn, no matter what.  Teaching evolution as it only applies to molecular biology, stressing to students that they don’t need to “believe” in evolution as long as they know it for a test, and giving young students the responsibility to choose what they want to believe in without a sufficient background in knowledge about the subject are all, as Bill Nye would say, “a recipe for disaster” (Bill Nye).  High school and middle school students are not at an appropriate age to make decisions about their beliefs in evolution and I’m sure that choosing what to believe in is not high on their list of priorities.  Students in lower school simply study what they are told and follow what their friends think.  To place the responsibility on students to grasp what evolution means and why it is so significant is therefore too much to expect of them.  The stress/ lack thereof emphasis on the subject can leave students with the wrong impression on how to treat it and what to follow in the future.  

Evolution is a critical subject that should be taught in all levels of school.  Not only is it the core to biology and influences almost everything in our lives and the world around us, but evolutionary thinking provides us with the skills to understand and progress.  Evolution is about change and questions, an ongoing process and story to explain why things happen.  It is important for children to have a positive exposure to the story of evolution because it allows them to open their minds and see what science does for us.  Science provokes people to think in a new way without limitations or rules.  Although the story of evolution and what Darwin found does follow a certain system, the thinking behind the story is about change and discovery and can still be influenced by new ideas in the future.  To teach students about evolution is to teach them to accept thinking beyond the boundaries they know.  To explore, imagine, second-guess, and question.  The fact that 60% of high school biology teachers are ambivalent to the subject of evolution is unacceptable because they are depriving students of something they need in order to grow, think, and relate to others and the world around them.


Works Cited

Berman, Michael, and Eric Plutzer. "Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom." Science 28 January 2011: n. pag. Web. 11 Feb 2011. < ll.pdf>.


"Bill Nye on teaching evolution." National Center for Science Education. N.p., 5 Feb 2011. Web. 11 Feb 2011. < evolution-006473>. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution, education, and "limitation/rules"

Strongly argued, and I certainly am attracted to the idea that " the story of evolution ... [encourages people] to open their minds and see what science does for us.  Science provokes people to think in a new way without limitations or rules".  But maybe that's part of the problem rather than an argument that will resolve the problem?  Maybe the argument isn't so much about evolution per se but rather about whether one wants education to encourage people "to think ... without limitations or rules"?  I'm not sure everyone shares that aspiration for education.  How far would you yourself be inclined to carry it?  

Anne Dalke's picture

Food for thought


I see that AnnaP already discovered the connection between your paper and hers; here's a nudge for you to see it, too: check out her version of Educating Evolutionarily.

What you've written here is something of a position paper, arguing that it is "unacceptable" that "60% of high school biology teachers are ambivalent to the subject of evolution." There are lots of presumptions buried in that position; I'd like to go back and dig into some of them with you. One of them seems to be that education is about discovery and change. There are of course quite a range of beliefs about what education is "for," and some of them have been expressed in our class: mindy said, in discussion, that it's really about certification; alexandrakg said, in her paper, that it's about "bettering our lives and future prospects"; it often seems, in BMC faculty and admission meetings, that it's about acquiring cultural capital. I myself am of the "discover and change" school, but I'd like to see the ground (the "foundation"? or the refusal of a foundation?) for your taking that position.

I have questions, too, about your understanding of what science is. One line that really captured my attention, for example, was your saying that "science provokes people to think in a new way without limitations or rules." You're a bio major: are you learning to think w/out limitations and rules? Or learning to think in accord w/ a very rule-based system (even an "algorithm")? Are you learning to think (as you say all students should be taught to think) "beyond the boundaries they know"?  Or do you spend your time searching for information to support what you already believe? 

"Tracking" you on Serendip, I see that we shared the ESem cluster on Food for Thought a few years ago, and I see, too, that when we read The Omnivore's Dilemma, you were not provoked to change your thinking or your habits. So: where was the education, @ that point? The discovery and change?