Stanford: Science Teachers Must Value Creationism

Can a science teacher do a good job if she does not value the creationist beliefs of some of her students?

According to Stanford University education scholars, the answer appears to be ‘no.’

Hard to believe?

The Teacher Performance Assessment developed by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE) has become the new standard for teacher certification or licensure in twenty-four states and the District of Columbia.

In order to receive certification in these states, new teachers must submit a portfolio of lessons and reflections.  These materials will be judged according to a series of rubrics.

According to one of these rubrics, teachers must acknowledge, value, and incorporate the cultural beliefs and backgrounds of their students.  In “Rubric 3: Using Knowledge of Students to Inform Teaching and Learning,” the Stanford folks provide a ranking of new teachers’ ability to relate to their students.  At the lowest level, new science teachers will be penalized if they don’t include enough knowledge of students’ backgrounds.  Also at this lowest level (Level 1), new teachers will be dinged if the teachers’ “justification of learning tasks . . . represents a deficit view of students and their backgrounds.”  At the higher levels, new teachers are supposed to justify their “learning tasks” by including “examples of personal/ cultural/ community assets.”

In the case of creationist students, it appears new science teachers must not view those beliefs as a “deficit.”  Indeed, to be considered truly proficient, new science teachers are encouraged to include those cultural and community beliefs in their science classes.

For those of us who have observed the creation/evolution struggles from the outside, this new rubric for judging science teachers raises a few vital questions: Was it the intention of the Stanford folks to force new science teachers to value creationist beliefs?  Will new science teachers really be judged negatively if they view creationist beliefs in their classroom as a “deficit view?”  That is, will new teachers really be pushed to see creationism as a legitimate cultural belief, instead of merely a lack of understanding of evolution?

It seems doubtful.  Maybe I’m not giving the SCALE group enough credit, but my hunch is that they did not intend to force science teachers to avoid impugning creationist beliefs in science classes.  Nevertheless, it seems the rubric they’ve created will certainly be read that way.

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  1. I’m confused, have you changed your opinion? Is creationism now a [mere] lack of understanding of evolution? If that were the case, would not evolution acceptance be sky high in the US by now? Also, the document makes no mention of origin of life (OOL) hypotheses so is it not question begging to make a connection to creationism and student background? They might simply mean different VARK learning styles. Additionally, if they were considering creationism, should they not penalize a teacher if they did not consider their prior ‘deficits’ when designing a lesson plan? There is nothing about valuing creationist belief per se. Rather I agree with the document that one should consider the student’s “prior learning OR personal/cultural/community assets” (p. 14) when designing lesson plans.

    • @ Chazing, I haven’t changed my position. I believe different forms of creationism are powerful and coherent sets of beliefs. I do not think that creationism is merely “ignorance” about evolution, as many mainstream scientists and science-activists seem to believe. I think that in order to teach evolution thoroughly, mainstream science educators must acknowledge and deeply connect with students from creationist backgrounds, just as good teachers should do with students of all sorts of cultural backgrounds.
      What I was trying to say about the SCALE rubrics is that they encourage new teachers to avoid a “deficit” model of student culture. If we understand creationism to be a cultural belief, it would seem to imply that SCALE does not want science teachers to approach creationists as merely lacking knowledge about evolution. Perhaps SCALE really does want that. After all, some of the leading voices in mainstream science education, well-regarded academic writers such as Randy Moore, agree that merely “throwing more science at them” won’t convince many creationist students.
      But I’m skeptical that creationist beliefs were part of the cultural diversity that the SCALE writers had in mind. As you say, the rubric does not include any explicit mention of evolution or origin of life issues. Indeed, this rubric seems to be similar to rubrics for other disciplines such as history/social studies. I find it hard to believe that many new science teachers will be criticized if they misunderstand creationist students’ beliefs and assume that those students only hold creationist beliefs due to ignorance about evolution.

      • Thanks Dr. Laats, that clears it up. In your opinion, does the average science teacher know enough about creationism (or evolutionism for that matter) to make a rigorous study plan?

      • Great question. Of course, I think all teachers could use more training in all sorts of areas, not least of which would be the content they teach. And I think they should be well paid to pursue that kind of training. Part of that training should be more familiarity with the meanings of “evolution” across many cultural groups, including religious dissenting groups. There is plenty of information out there for teachers about how to handle objections and resistance to evolution. (See, for example, this primer from the National Center for Science Education.) I would like to see more information for teachers about how to understand resistance and anxiety about evolution.

  2. I think you’re misunderstanding the intention here. What the rubric is stating is that teachers should factor their students’ family and cultural context in their lessons. It would be foolish to teach evolution without investigating whether any of your students come from creationist homes. Knowing this, and the nature of the creationism your students subscribe to, should factor into the lesson plan. So it wouldn’t make sense to belabor carbon dating if your students are old earth creationists. But if they’re young earthers, then you should spend extra time and address these students’ questions directly and respectfully.

    And that last part is the point. The goal of education is that every student succeed to the best of his or her ability. That includes students who may come from ignorant parents or right wing creationists who fill their kids’ minds with lies. You can’t role your eyes, buzz through the material, and hope/ ignore the ignorant things your creationist students say, and you can’t settle for hoping they get all the questions right on the test. You need to try to educate them on evolution, and do it in a way that you don’t insult them.

    Think of it this way: let’s say you’re teaching a unit on Martin Luther King. Would you teach a class in inner city Detroit about King the same way as you would a class in rural Alabama? Hopefully you wouldn’t. You’d have to factor in the cultural context and address the students’ prior understanding of race and equality, and do it in a way that you aren’t putting down the students within the classroom setting.

    • @ CV, thanks for the note; I sincerely hope you’re right. If the goal of the SCALE folks was really to push new science teachers to recognize the nuances of culture among their creationist students, I tip my hat to them. It might be plausible. After all, my science-education colleagues tell me repeatedly that most in-the-know science-education academics now recognize that various creationist cultures ought to be treated as authentic home cultures. Though evolution-resistant beliefs should be respected and even addressed in good science education, this line of evolution-education reasoning goes, such creationist beliefs must not be allowed to derail good science education, with science’s insistence on an unwatered message of evolution.
      If all that truly informed the thinking of the Stanford crew, I salute them. But I’m skeptical. After all, the same language is part of the evaluation rubric in other content areas, such as history. (See page 15.) This makes me think that the SCALE writers were not thinking specifically about respecting creationist cultures, but rather the sorts of cultural differences you mention between Detroit students and rural Alabama students. Plus, though a desire to respect creationist beliefs–or at least a desire to understand them and take them into account in lesson planning–though this desire might be part of the latest thinking among science-education academics such as Randy Moore and Lee Meadows, I suggest that this idea has not penetrated very deeply either among mainstream scientists or among classroom science teachers. I don’t think that many voices from either of those groups have embraced the notion that creationism must be understood in order for creationist students to learn science. I think there are still a dominant majority of mainstream scientists and classroom science teachers who simply shudder in horror at creationism. Too many of those scientists and science teachers do NOT treat cultural differences among and between creationists the same way they would treat the other cultural differences you mention, such as those between students from Detroit and rural Alabama.
      Apologies for the long-winded reply. I would like to be proven wrong here. I would love to discover that mainstream science education now agrees that we need to start by understanding creationist cultural differences, just as we try to understand every other sort of cultural difference.

  3. One thing to keep in mind is that documents like this one are written by what i like to call “educationese.” I saw this kind of language all throughout my training as a teacher. Everything is about affirming, affirming, affirming. Boost the students’ confidence, make them feel welcome, embrace the parents with open arms. It all sounds very utopic and generally its written by academics who idealize the learning process but have little experience teaching kids. But teachers in the class are smart; they know that this kind of mentality comes with the territory, But as your science teacher friends indicate, the day to day classroom experience almost never reflects the stated goals.

    If you read enough of these documents you can fool yourself into believing that all it takes is dedication and hard work to turn little Sally into a budding physicist who can speak four languages and lead a composting project that will take the whole town by storm. Sometimes you get a Sally like that, but usually Sally comes with academic parents who have been encouraging her to recycle and have exposed her to science and visited other countries. It’s very rare that you can turn a backwater creationist student and turn her into a Sally, and teachers know this. Sometimes you’ll get aggressive families who challenge you during parent-teacher meetings, but more common are the creationist families who encourage their kids to just bite the bullet, get the test answers right, but never forget that their teacher is trying to turn them into little atheists.

    The biggest challenge as I see it is how creationism can handicap biology without overt threats or dramatic court cases. For example, in my district teachers are not supposed to introduce the term “evolution” until High School. Students spend the primary grades learning about adaptation, ecosystems, mutations, etc without mentioning the umbrella label that defines all of it. So the theory is that you can teach evolution without tacking the name “evolution” on it and scaring away the creationist families. But what happens is you end up teaching a flaccid biology that is disjointed and makes too much effort trying to avoid angering parents, so kids can graduate high school without fully comprehending that all of the stuff they learned about adaptation and mutation confirms evolution. I’m fully convinced that when researchers poll the public on whether they believe evolution is true, a large faction say “no” because their school was hesitant to use the word in class, so they never picked up on what evolution really is. It’s like teaching them how to start the day with a bagel, omelet, and orange juice without ever calling it “breakfast.”

  4. In my younger days I took both cultural and physical anthropology in high school. Both classes were taught by the same teacher. These classes were my electives. I held the creationist point of view even though I did not come from a Christian home.

    In the physical evolution class I was presented the facts of evolution. I found them wanting and the teacher could not and would not answer some of my tougher questions concerning the origins of man.

    The teacher belittled me in front of the class because I just couldn’t accept the assumptions of evolution especially considering the inability to answer my questions.

    I was told that I would not amount to anything in life because I am ignorant and that I was not worthy to untie Doctor Leaky’s shoes.

    She really tore into me on about 5 occasions. Even as a young man, I found it very hard to keep my composure and not cry because of her verbal beating, and personal attack on the value of my life. When she did this, it really wrecked my day.

    Where as most believers are afraid to teach their children evolution, I encourage it. The thing is so full of holes, people should study it. At least they can understand and talk about why they do not believe.

    To me, studying evolution is like studying Greek mythology. At least you know why you don’t worship something as true.


    • @ G.E.D., Thanks for sharing your experience, and sorry you had to endure such treatment. Unlike Christian Vagabond, I am concerned that too many science teachers share your former teacher’s attitude about creationism. Maybe I’m overly pessimistic, or ignorant, but I don’t think the SCALE folks at Stanford really want classroom teachers to respect creationist cultures the way they would respect other cultural minorities. Unlike other belief systems, creationism seems to be put in a unique category by many science educators. Most teachers would be horrified if a teacher mocked a Catholic student’s belief in transubstantiation, for example, or a Jewish student’s aversion to eating a ham ‘n’ cheese sandwich. But many otherwise excellent teachers feel strangely justified–maybe even morally compelled–to ridicule and mock creationist students.
      I wonder how common your experience is?

  5. I don’t know if you ever have watched the documentary from Ben Stine called No Intelligence Allowed.

    It is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. The attitude of academia towards intelligent design is very vicious. That is the only word for it. They think anyone who thinks there is any design in creation is a lunatic. Evolutionist can be. and a lot are, as religiously fanatic about their faith in the theory of evolution as a jihadist. At they are probably less tolerant than a jihadist.


  6. I wonder how common your experience is?

    Perhaps you can perform a study at your uni Dr Laats or sample some local high schools.


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