Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Creation Controversy & the Science Classroom

The Creation Controversy & the Science Classroom
James W Skehan and Craig E Nelson
Arlington (VA): NSTA Press, 2000. 56 pages.
Reviewed by
Brian Alters, McGill University
One of the greatest needs for biology instruction is an understanding of why many students consider a fundamental theory of science to be faulty and what to do about it pedagogically. A deeper understanding of students' underpinning religious beliefs concerning evolution, the age of the earth, and science in general benefits biology instructors (and other science instructors as well) in helping to comprehend students' learning roadblocks, why the roadblocks exist, the history of the roadblocks, and why everyone does not share such roadblocks. Naturally such an understanding is helpful, but also important is how instructors can nevertheless increase student understanding of such a publicly controversial topic as evolution.

Appropriately, the National Science Teachers Association published a 56-page booklet containing two chapters responding to these two needs of understanding and strategies: The Creation Controversy & the Science Classroom. The work is divided into two chapters, each addressing one of these needs: "Modern Science and the Book of Genesis" by James Skehan and "Effective Strategies for Teaching Evolution and Other Controversial Topics" by Craig Nelson.

In his chapter, Skehan — an NCSE Supporter — starts by taking readers through why people believed in a young earth in the past and why some still do today. He explains that both scientific education and religious education are important in a civilized society. He personally believes that the God of the Bible created the universe and the physical processes driving physical and biological evolution — identifying himself as a theistic evolutionist. In explaining the genesis of Genesis, Skehan succinctly recounts St Augustine's reasoning, the external evidence for the biblical authors, the evidence from the Genesis document itself, varying traditions of scripture scholars, and how creationists differ from those in the mainstream of scriptural studies. The significant difference between creationists and most biblical scholars is the creationist belief that the Bible is to be taken literally and must not be interpreted by techniques used on other literary works.

A transition is then made to creationist attempts to determine the age of the earth from the Bible. Skehan explains how and why biblical scholarship and science have changed over the years, including sections on the age of the earth as calculated from the Bible, and the physical and biological data concerning the age and evolution of the earth.

The chapter ends by summarizing the creationists' ultimate position: if there is a conflict between science and a literal interpretation of the Bible, then science is wrong. Skehan explains how religious and scientific endeavors are two different kinds of knowledge, explaining that those who misrepresent the Bible as science, rather than a theological document, are damaging religion.

The reader quickly comes to understand that the reasons why creationist students believe what they do about evolution often has as much (or more) to do with biblical illiteracy or marginal literalist traditions than with misconceptions in science. Because of this problem, Skehan goes as far as to state:
The education of every science teacher who is likely to face the creation science mindset should include something about the premises and procedures of modern biblical scholarship (p 16-7).
Probably everyone would wholeheartedly agree that it would benefit science teachers better to understand the reasons for their students' learning roadblocks, but encouraging future teachers to take biblical scholarship training to become public high school science teachers will be suspect by some — including many practicing science teachers. Yet it could be plausibly argued that because the history and philosophy of science has included brushes and entanglements (to say the least) with biblical scholarship, and because the history and philosophy of science should be integrated in science courses, the education of science teachers should therefore include some biblical scholarship. However, Skehan goes further and states that:
Teachers must be able to help students from varied backgrounds ... realize that there is no necessary conflict between interpretations of data from scientific studies and religious beliefs based on the Bible (p 2).
This is a stimulating statement. Most people would probably have no problem with students' coming to an understanding that no conflict exists between science and the Bible as a by-product of public school education. However, many more people might take issue with preparing public school science teachers to be able to help students to realize that their religious tradition is erroneous (or at least part of their religious tradition is erroneous). It is a subtle distinction that can be an intriguing point of discussion for educators.

This first chapter is a concise, detail-rich history of some of the relevant issues concerning science and biblical scholarship, with a good relevant criticism of creationism woven throughout for instructors wanting better to understand the biblical beliefs that may underpin their students' concluding that the science of evolution is unsound — all in only 18 pages!

Nelson's chapter on effective strategies for teaching evolution is also to the point, with a great number of useful ideas and strategies packed in a short read. His recommendations are useful not only for teaching evolution to a variety of students but also for teaching many other controversial issues. He believes that most other major scientific theories, which may be less well understood by the public than evolution is, would be rejected even more widely if the public understood these theories well.

The chapter begins with a discussion of key pedagogical strategies with corresponding problems, emphasizing the fundamental role of "active learning". The results of empirical studies supporting the use of these strategies in college-level education are given to show the significant positive effects of active learning compared to using only traditional didactic pedagogy and passive learning practices. Nelson then turns his attention to problems that arise from traditional content and curricula, emphasizing that instructors can make considerable changes here also. Some problems addressed are: (a) in the rush to cover the material, teachers often present just the conclusions, leaving out the importance of science's evidence-based critical thinking; (b) too often teachers appear to present all topics in science as equally well supported (even though evolution is far more supported than many other accepted scientific concepts); and (c) words are often used in science education in a way contradictory to students' common usage.

Not all pedagogical problems arise from using traditional pedagogy and content; many arise from outside traditional pedagogy and content. Nelson addresses some of these problems, such as public controversies that usually rest on disagreements about consequences of the science. Employing a "rusty hand-grenade" as his key metaphor, Nelson effectively illustrates risk analysis in a manner understandable to virtually all students. The intended result is that students can rationally disagree on how strong the evidence must be to justify various decisions based on the trade-offs — as recognized by students. This examination of trade-offs and consequences is then considered in light of teaching evolution. Students who perceive they have much more to risk (for example, eternal salvation) may require a great deal more evidence of the soundness of evolution than those students who feel they have little to risk.

Before Nelson proceeds to more explicit juxtaposing of evolution and types of creation, he effectively cautions his science-teacher readers not to incorporate the religious consequence approaches if they feel uncomfortable. The tools that he gives for bridging false creation/evolution dichotomies are certainly useful in post-secondary education, but some may be problematic to implement in public high school science courses due to their religious nature. However, even if some teachers are uncomfortable with personally implementing such approaches, the material is important for all teachers to understand.

More strategies are given for matters arising from outside traditional pedagogy and content. The ubiquitous problem of students' wanting teachers just to tell them what to memorize is countered with three separate strategies: (a) teaching the "game" of science — and explaining why evolution is good science, (b) drawing a clear distinction between what science does and what religion does, and (c) focusing on humans — because most students are quite interested in the details of the evidence for human evolution, they will be more motivated to do the necessary work for higher-level understanding.

The chapter ends with a table of 21 evolution questions with brief answers from "quick creation" (sometimes including "gradual creation") and basic science, including lines of evidence and applications. The information from the table is to be used in a very understandable "Big Mac" metaphor for helping students to learn the wide variation in strength of support among different statements about evolution. Nelson claims the strategies in the chapter make teaching more inclusive, effective, and fun. I certainly agree.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.