Teach the "Controversy?"

Whether providing students with an opportunity to evaluate the scientific credibility of creationism actually advances their understanding of evolution depends on the level of students, the objective of the assignment, and how the assignment is designed. Research indicates (Verhey 2005) college students gain a better understanding of why evolution is accepted science, and why creationism, creation science, and intelligent design are not appropriate scientific topics when given an opportunity to examine antievolutionist claims.

However, “teaching the controversy”, as though there are scientific controversies about whether evolution occurred, is another matter altogether, and particularly inappropriate in a public high school science classroom. As Scott and Branch (2003) [link to article] point out, “presenting all sides of a controversial issue appeals to popular values of fairness, openness and equality of opportunity”, but they reject this approach when applied to evolution, pointing out that it is “scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible to teach that scientists seriously debate the validity of evolution”.

Scott and Branch (2003) further outline criteria for determining which controversies to teach:
(1) the controversy ought to be of interest to students;
(2) the controversy ought to be primarily scientific, rather than primarily moral, social, or religious;
(3)the resources for each side of the controversy ought to be comparable in availability;
(4) the resources for each side of the controversy ought to be comparable in quality;
(5) the controversy ought to be understandable by the students.

Given these criteria, evolution should not be treated as controversial within a science class. It is not scientifically controversial, nor are resources for each side of comparable quality – evidence for evolution comes from peer-reviewed literature whereas evidence against evolution is built on flawed assumptions and popularized misconceptions.

If, as a science teacher, you hope to help your students understand that the controversy is social rather than scientific, we suggest teaming up with a social studies teacher to develop lessons that help students explore the social and historical aspect of the controversy, emphasizing that there is no scientific controversy about whether evolution has occurred.

Literature Cited

Scott, E.C. and G. Branch. 2003. Evolution: what’s wrong with ‘teaching the controversy’. TREE. 18:499-502.

Verhey, S. 2005. The effect of engaging prior learning on student attitudes toward creationism and evolution. BioScience. 55:996-1003.