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The Stagnation of Evolution through Standardization

Sarah Schnellbacher's picture

I am currently enrolled in an interdisciplinary biology and English course at Bryn Mawr College titled “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories” in which my classmates and I have begun to explore the process of evolutionary thought and applying this perspective to our own lives. Recently during a class discussion we were asked to define “evolutionary theory”. Though we all had a general notion of what evolutionary theory is, everyone in the course found it difficult to produce a dictionary definition that accurately could encompass the many aspects of evolution into a set of short and sweet sentences without steering into the taboo “survival of the fittest”. In smaller groups during the following class, we discussed how the ambiguity of the term “evolution” has led to secondary education instructors teaching pseudoscience out of ignorance about what they ought to be teaching and the need, therefore, to standardize the components of evolutionary theory.  We were once again asked to define evolution and how it should be taught in secondary education. Our discussion group was strongly divided between proponents of teaching evolution as exclusively a biological phenomenon and advocates of a more inclusive teaching of evolution that touched on the cultural implications of the subject within the biology class.

Having attended public school for all of my primary and secondary education, I tend to shudder from the idea of standardizing subjects as my most engaging teachers always were those who shied away from the curriculum guide and felt burdened by its presence. Those teachers who held fast to the checklist of state standards often lost touch with their students or never made time to go into greater depth on topics that sparked students’ interest. The question, therefore, is should we stagnate the “Theory of Evolution” by standardizing it as a means to ensure that it is taught properly?

Assistant Professor Claire Berube of Wagner College states in a study on the capacity of standardized tests to measure actual knowledge that “the problem is not the standards but, rather, how the standards are assessed. [She] would have been unable to teach without the Virginia Standards of Learning. They gave [her] a wonderful roadmap…” (Berube 264).  The study conducted asked students to retake a standardized test they had taken a week prior but to explain each answer. Most of the students who had passed the multiple choice test failed the same test when they were asked to explain in short answer form. Berube found that although all of the teachers described their teaching style as constructivist or a mix between constructivist and lecture, the majority (73%-100%) of the class failed the second exam in five out of the six classes participating in the study. Although none of the classes were taught strictly as lectures, Berube concludes that the teachers may have actively called on students, but they did not ask them to think critically. Instead students were taught to regurgitate answers. Because standardized tests are multiple choice, financial pressures concerning test results cause teachers to mimic the wording of the exams and teach students to pass the exam rather than critically learn the material. Furthermore, critical thinking exams available today “consist of multiple-choice items that call for response to artificial questions that have no bearing on real life” (Berube 266). While the exams were originally constructed to monitor the positive effects of standardizing subjects, they have now become the focal point of education.

Hermann Muller of Indiana University suggests that the study of evolution and biology in general is essential for the general public and high school students as it concerns real life issues such as environmental changes, the dangers of an ever higher climbing birth to death ratio, biological warfare, and the minute existence of mankind in the history of earth. Muller’s article “The Role of Biology in General Education” serves as a comprehensive outline of topics for secondary education biology and evolution in the order he believes most suitable for engaging students. Like Berube he believes in a constructivist approach to teaching students and is an advocate for an inclusive interpretation of evolution within the biology classroom. He suggests that teachers must first begin by talking about body organization from a macroscopic to the molecular level and then teach evolution as a building process from genetics to human culture. Unlike proponents of a strictly biological interpretation of evolution within the biology classroom, Muller finds that teaching students about the application of evolution in culture is a more important take away message for high school students than the biological processes of evolution themselves. Because high school freshmen lack a background in chemistry and physics, students are more easily able to relate to the macroscopic components of evolutionary theory that apply to their daily lives than to molecular biology and genetics components. By engaging them at a macroscopic level, teachers are able to inspire interest in their students and the students will naturally show more interest in the components of evolutionary theory that go beyond their daily lives.

As Berube and Muller suggest, teaching standards can be a highly valuable resource when they serve as a guide rather than a rubric to which teachers must sacrifice their own insight to conform to a specific wording. Part of the problem, however, derives from many teachers’ lack of knowledge about their specific subject. “The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in ‘educational methods’ at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught” (Beck, Hart, Kosnik 178). This lack of prior instruction in biological evolution among teachers may explain the prominence of pseudoscientific teachings in biology classrooms concerning evolution. For those teachers who have the ability to offer deeper insight into their subject by deviating from the curriculum guide, they should do so by all means to engage their students in critical thinking; however, it seems that teachers’ lack of expertise in their subject areas demands the standardization of subjects to allow for a base line of knowledge from which students can draw.

Works Cited

Beck, Clive, Doug Hart, and Clare Kosnik. "The Teaching Standards Movement and Current Teaching Practices." Canadian Journal of Education 27.2/3 (2002): 175-94. JSTOR. Canadian Society for the Study of Education, 10 Feb. 2011. Web.

Berube, Clair. "Are Standards Preventing Good Teaching?" The Clearing House 77.6 (2004): 264-68. JSTOR. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.

Muller, Hermann J. "The Role of Biology in General Education." AIBS Bulletin 13.4 (1963): 22-30. JSTOR. University of California Press. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.







Anne Dalke's picture

Teaching Uncertain Outcomes?

you're in very good company this week, in your decision to think and write about the teaching of evolution in high school. Be sure to check out How Should We Teach Evolution, The Evolution of Education, Educating Evolutionarily, and Evolution in the Classroom, for a range of alternative perspectives on the topic you are exploring here.

Your own particular focus is on the role of standards in teaching the subject evolution: can they serve as a valuable resource, or do they restrict real teaching and learning? I'm seeing you move, in the course of the paper, from one clear answer to that question to another, equally clear but oppositional. You begin your paper with a question that seems to provide its own answer: "should we stagnate the 'Theory of Evolution' by standardizing it as a means to ensure that it is taught properly?" The choice of the word "stagnate" --particularly in the course that's all about growth and generation!--makes it pretty clear that the answer, here, is "no." And yet your paper concludes with the observation that "teachers’ lack of expertise in their subject areas demands the standardization of subjects to allow for a base line of knowledge from which students can draw"--that is, an explicit "yes."

So what puzzles me, and what I'd like to understand a little better, is how you got from that "no" to that "yes," especially since the terrain in between was so clearly marked by educational theorists who advocate constructivist approaches, inclusive interpretations, and cultural applications of evolution--not a "base line of knowledge," in other words, but rather multiple interpretations and applications.
The surprising "turn" in your argument seems to occur just @ the end of the essay, with w/ the appearance of the boogy-bear of teacher prep: ed curricula that teach teachers how --but not what--to teach. And so standards are needed, to teach them the "what." But...

that just returns us to your step one. Mightn't those standards nonetheless serve as resources, as starting points rather than a final goal? As a place to step off from? Particularly if, as you say elsewhere, what matters is engaging students in what matters in their lives, in the macro, not the micro, in the social, not the biological...?

As I mentioned in my comments on AnnaP's paper, I'm participating now in a small faculty working group on assessment, where we have been focusing, most recently, on the need to teach our students about the uncertainty of outcomes. How to use that as a standard for assessment? Now that's a topic I'm eager to discuss w/ you further...