What Do I Tell Creationist Students About Evolution?

John Horgan asks a key question today in a Scientific American blog post: What should teachers say to religious students who doubt evolution?

He asked groups of students to describe their feelings about evolution.  Of thirty-five students, twenty felt that evolution allowed religious belief.  Six said that science made religious explanations unnecessary.  Nine said they rejected evolution due to their religious beliefs.

It sounds to me that his students reflect the beliefs of Americans as a whole.

Horgan reflects,

“I feel a bit queasy, I admit, challenging their faith, from which some of them derive great comfort. Part of me agrees with one student who wrote: ‘Each individual is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs… Authority figures teaching America’s youth should not be permitted to say certain things such as any religion being simply “wrong” due to a certain scientific explanation.’ On the other hand, if I don’t prod these young people into questioning their most cherished beliefs, I’m not doing my job, am I?”

This short paragraph sums up the toughest dilemma for those who want to teach evolution.  In no other case would we say that a student’s background should be belittled or dismissed.  In no other case would caring teachers suggest that they wanted students to reject their family backgrounds in order to fit in to the modern world.

But in the case of evolution, as Horgan laments, teachers seem to be stuck precisely in that position.  If teachers encourage students to remain true to their home cultures, teachers must allow students to ignore a fundamental premise of science.  But if teachers insist their students learn evolution, teachers must accept the role of hostile imposition against that home culture.

There are models out there.  Lee Meadows, a science educator at the University of Alabama Birmingham, has offered an inquiry model for evolution education that suggests “accommodations” for “resistant” students.  As Meadows argues in The Missing Link,

“From my view, science teachers trying to drive out students’ beliefs is just as inappropriate as teaching creationism or intelligent design.  This is true whether that intention is overt or subtle.  Public schools must embrace diversity of all kinds, including students from all religious backgrounds.”

Meadows does not suggest teaching a watered-down evolution curriculum.  Nor does he suggest that “resistant” students be allowed to pass through without really learning evolutionary concepts.  But he applies a basic truth of good teaching to evolution education.  Namely, we must start by caring about our students as people; we must first seek to understand them in all their complexities before we set out to teach them.  When we get to know our students as individuals, we can then talk to them about important ideas, many of which may be unsettling or difficult.

Is that an easy job with a single student?  No.  Even harder when we have 150 students every day.  But that’s why teachers earn the big money, after all.

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  1. You should check out Michael Reiss’ paper, “How Should Creationism and Intelligent Design be Dealt with in the Classroom?” from Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 45, No. 3, 2011. It caused a bit of a fuss here (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2008/sep/11/michael.reiss.creationism) and led to Michael being essentially hounded out of his job (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/dec/23/michael-reiss-creationism?INTCMP=SRCH) in the Royal Society by Richard Dawkins et al. I think his position was entirely reasonable.

    • @Jonny, thanks for the reference. Great article. For those who don’t have access to a subscription, the first Guardian article Jonny links to includes much of what Professor Reiss included in his academic journal article. I love this bit from his conclusion: “An advantage of shifting the discourse from controversy to sensitivity is that one shifts the focus from epistemology to pedagogy. One can be sensitive with someone in respect of an issue without implying that one shares the same perspective (or worldview) as the person to whom one is being respectful and considerate.” Right on. I am stumped by the ferocious hostility to this seemingly innocuous notion. I think folks trained in fields such as history or anthropology seek a sympathetic perspective with our subjects, even when we don’t share their worldviews. People from other fields see that as some sort of accommodation, a treasonous endorsement of those worldviews. It is similar, maybe, to the ways historians of the American South might try to understand the ideology of slaveholders from the inside. Trying to understand it requires an attempt to see things from a slaveowner’s perspective. This does not at all mean agreeing with that perspective.
      Maybe something similar is going on here….?

  2. I’ve just seen something… The dates don’t match. The controversy in the newspapers dates to 2008; the journal article is dated 2011. It must be a different (though similar) article that caused the initial controversy.

    I understand where both sides are coming from. I’m loathe to see science as “just one world view” (especially when YECs don’t reject science; they insist that science is on their side). But ultimately, I think Michael is right: there are Creationists in classrooms, and you’re not going to change their minds by ridiculing them.


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