We asked applicants for the NCSE Grand Canyon Teacher Scholarship to explain, in 500 words, how they’ve addressed challenges to the teaching of evolution, climate change, and related issues. Here is part of scholarship winner Scott Hatfield’s explanation of his strategies for overcoming resistance to evolution in his Fresno, California, high school. Hatfield and Alyson Miller will receive an all-expenses-paid trip down the Grand Canyon, thanks to generous donations from NCSE supporters.
What’s the biggest challenge in teaching evolution? What I write may surprise you: while teachers can certainly not afford to be innocents in the “culture wars,” I believe that the biggest challenges are conceptual, rather than ideological in origin. Ultimately, my ability to teach evolution is not dependent on what my students learned in Sunday School. It’s dependent on how well I have identified the conceptual hurdles, and how well I prepare my students to leap these hurdles themselves.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I enjoy teaching evolution and don’t see the occasional conflict as something that interferes with instruction. In fact, I report far less problems than my colleagues, and this is very striking, because (as you might imagine) I spend far more time on evolution than they do. I have yet to meet another high school biology teacher who gives this topic greater emphasis. Yet I have the least problems!
What happens when I do encounter ideological resistance? Well, it happens every year, but when it does it typically moves the class forward as we work our way through it. We are able to work through all sorts of challenges, because we have a conceptual “tool kit” in place. Teaching evolution well requires preparation: long before my students arrive at the unit on evolution, their “conceptual pump” will have been primed.
What is the “tool kit”? How to prime the pump? A few examples: my students will already know what “falsifiability” is, what a “tautology” is, long before we teach natural selection. They will know that the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. They will have used both hierarchical pyramids and branching diagrams for other purposes in the course. They will know how mutations occur, and why most mutations are neutral at the time they occur. They will know enough about atoms that they will know some are extra-heavy, unstable, and thus useful tools: the isotopes. They will have had many chances to rehearse using scientific notation to express really large and really small numbers.
In other words, the best way to teach evolution is to deliberately prepare the students in all the non-evolution units that precede it with the concepts and tools they will need when they get to that unit. Students will use the tools and concepts, and they will experience some degree of success using them. With sufficient rehearsal as part of the other lessons, they will come to trust these tools and concepts as valid in the study of nature.