Meadows and the Missing Link

According to author Lee Meadows, (check out his blog here) the main goal of his evolution-education book is to get “resistant students [to] understand evolution, but they don’t necessarily have to accept it.” (xxi) His 2009 The Missing Link: An Inquiry Approach for
Teaching All Students about Evolution
promises to train teachers to seize the middle ground in the evolution culture wars.  It offers practical and specific ways to teach evolution to students who come from anti-evolution backgrounds.

Unlike other models, Meadows’ approach never waters down the science of evolution.  It does not attempt to teach “the controversy;” it does not teach a balance between creation and evolution; it does not teach evolution “lite.”  Instead, it teaches the science of evolution in a way that frankly recognizes student resistance to the notion.  It offers coping mechanisms for science teachers to deal with that resistance in a caring, thoughtful, respectful way.  It does not view that student resistance as a challenge to be crushed, but rather as a legitimate part of student identity.  For example, he speaks in helpful terms of “accommodation for resistant students.”  As Meadows argues, “Public schools must embrace diversity of all kinds, including students from all religious backgrounds.”  (xiii)  This tone shifts the
discussion from combat in classrooms to education.

The essence of Meadows’ strategy is nothing new to teachers.  He hopes to use an inquiry method to allow students to wrestle with difficult questions that might challenge their religious faiths.  By using student inquiry instead of teacher-led direct instruction, Meadows hopes to have science teachers avoid the charge of evolutionary indoctrination.
Students can gain an authentic understanding of central questions of evolution and science without feeling that such notions have been imposed by a hostile ‘secular humanist’ school.

In my view, that kind of inquiry learning is worth pursuing for its own sake, in all
classes.  When teachers, schools, and students can pull it off, it is a powerful and effective way to learn.  Of greater promise to the continuing controversies over evolution education, however, is Meadows’ sustained tone of caring for all students, regardless of their backgrounds.  It does not approach student creationist beliefs as a problem for science teachers to overcome.  Instead, it recognizes those beliefs as part of the young person for whom the teacher is charged to respect, care for, and educate.

This is not a philosophic tome, but a practical teaching guide.  It includes lesson plans and specific teaching strategies.  More important, perhaps, it is full of helpful reminders for eager
science teachers of how NOT to proceed.  It identifies the distinction between an evolutionary and supernatural worldview, for example, then warns:

You can’t resolve these tensions for your students, so please don’t try. It’s not our place as science teachers to impact students’ religious beliefs, even if we’re being “helpful.” That’ssomething that we must leave to their families and their spiritual leaders. (61)

Meadows’ approach will earn him some flak, inevitably, from both sides in the  creation/evolution debate.  Some mainstream scientists will undoubtedly protest that students should not be allowed to decide if they will accept evolution after they learn about it.  To many evolution-believers, that makes no more sense than asking students to decide if they believe in the Pythagorean Theorem.

From creationists, on the other hand, I can imagine Meadows will come under fire for teaching evolution as true, as fact.  And more, creationists might object that Meadows’ suggested methods simply sugarcoat evolution by pretending to care for creationists’ beliefs.  Better, some creationists might say, to honestly attack those creationist beliefs rather than to sneak in evolution education under false pretenses.  I can imagine creationists objecting that Meadows’ distinction between guaranteeing that students KNOW evolution but allowing them not to BELIEVE it is a false one.  It would never be suggested for other subjects.  For example, it is hard to imagine knowing that 2 + 2 = 4 without believing it.  And how could my child learn and know how to identify an indirect object without believing it?

It is a similar dilemma to those parents who object to explicit sex education in public school classrooms.  Since the first days of SIECUS in the 1960s, for instance, sex educators have insisted that they are not advocating sex.  Conservative parents, however, insist that merely by knowing how to use a condom, students have been hurt.  Those parents do not want their
children to know about condoms (or evolution) at all.  They vigorously dispute the notion that their children can learn something in school about such topics without that knowledge
causing fundamental harm.

I believe that these potential objections prove that Meadows is onto something.  When the more extreme elements on both sides attack, it suggests that Meadows is speaking to the great wide middle: Creationist parents who do not want their children attacked in schools;
creationist students who feel as if ‘school science’ is not for them; teachers who feel they can’t simultaneously care for their creationist students and teach those students something the students see as blasphemous; school administrators who need to reach out to parents and students while still encouraging evolution education in their science classes; and mainstream
scientists who want to see more authentic evolution education in American classrooms.

It is a tall order, but Meadows’ work promises something for everyone in this moderate middle.

For a taste of Meadows’ approach, you can read a chapter of his book at his publisher’s webpage.