Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Teaching evolution to students of faith

"Some students may see a conflict between evolution and their beliefs ..."

Liz Barnes grew up “a stereotypical secular science-minded person” who thought evolution and religion had to be in conflict. And she noticed that her science teachers, particularly at the higher education level, often manifested this same mindset. Her classmates who were religious noticed too — one of them decided to drop a biology class as a result. That troubled and intrigued Barnes.

She knew that about half the U.S. population didn’t accept evolution, despite it being foundational to the biological sciences. It gnawed at her that the teaching approach she experienced could be contributing to that lack of acceptance, and may have even been hardening it. “It was important to me to study this disconnect in the classroom that I had witnessed,” Barnes recently told RNCSE, “be- tween the college instructors, who most of the time were secular, compared to their students, who were mostly religiously affiliated.”

Barnes, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Arizona State University at the time, talked with her advisor, Sara Brownell, and they decided to dig into the literature. They discovered that there was very little research on the relationship between science faculty communicating about evolution and the religious backgrounds of the students in their classes. But what they did find seemed to suggest that higher education faculty weren’t interested in tackling the cultural disconnect be- tween scientists communicating about evolution and the often more religious students with whom they were communicating. So they went ahead and conducted their own studies. The outcome was the development and publication of an instructional framework called Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education intended to help college-level biology instructors become more sensitive to the perspectives of students who are religious, and by doing so, help those students not just understand but also accept evolution.

Cultural competence, Barnes explained, refers to the ability of people of one culture to understand and relate to the people of another culture. The idea of cultural competence first arose in the medical profession as a means for physicians to better communicate with patients and has since been adopted for use by K–12 educators. Barnes and Brownell applied their understanding of cultural competence to evolution education, viewing religious belief as an identity type (see the table below).

ReCCEE practices table

It’s this work that led to Barnes, now an assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University, and Brownell, a neuroscientist and education researcher, receiving the National Association of Biology Teachers Evolution Education Award for 2021, the first sponsored by NCSE. The annual award (which NCSE’s Deputy Director Glenn Branch received in 2020) was presented to Barnes and Brownell at NABT’s conference in November 2021 by NCSE Director of Teacher Support Lin Andrews.

“As someone raised in Tennessee and now living in an extremely conservative state, Kansas, I know from personal experience that ignoring cultural competence in the classroom is a surefire way to alienate your students,” Andrews said. “While my first encounter with Liz and her advisor, Sara, was at the 2021 NABT Honors Banquet, I was immediately impressed by their fresh take on this research. I felt like they had eloquently verbalized what many biology teachers were trying to do every day — to recognize a student’s belief system in an appropriate fashion to provide a safe space for greater scientific understanding. Having encountered the array of variations in approaches to dealing with religious students they described during my own schooling, I can say with confidence that their findings are essential tools teachers at any educational level should consider using when discussing societally controversial topics like evolution with their students.”

What we’re seeing so far is that when instructors bring forth examples of religious scientists who accept evolution, students are more accepting of evolution by the end of the class.

The research that led Barnes and Brownell toward the Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education framework involved conducting a series of studies with professors and students at public higher education institutions. They interviewed professors who were mostly secular about how they were teaching evolution and how they were addressing the perceived conflict between evolution and religion. “The instructors at secular institutions were mostly completely avoiding the topic,” Barnes said. “A small subset of those instructors were being actively hostile to religion. They weren’t really thinking about how their students’ religious backgrounds might be influencing how they were receiving their instruction.” The two then interviewed religious students from these professors’ classrooms. “Students were already coming in with this misconception that their religion had to be in conflict with evolution,” Barnes said. “Instructors not ad- dressing that only allowed that misconception to remain.”

Barnes has heard the refrain that it’s not a professor’s job to convince her students to accept evolution but rather simply to teach the concepts. She counters by saying that if an instructor doesn’t address what Barnes described as the single most predictive factor — namely religiosity — for rejection of evolution, then that is an oversight. “Instructors say it’s not my job to teach students to accept evolution,” Barnes said. “It’s so interesting that they say that about evolution. Because I don’t think we’d say that about other topics, like photosynthesis. If I were teaching photosynthesis and the whole class got an A on the test but 30 percent of students left the class thinking photosynthesis wasn’t real, as they do evolution, for me personally I wouldn’t see myself as a successful instructor.” Barnes added that helping students grasp the nature of science is critical if they are to develop greater acceptance of evolution. For instance, distinguishing be- tween methodological and philosophical naturalism in science and describing evolution more accurately as agnostic rather than atheistic improves religious students’ comfort learning and accepting evolution. As it stands now, Barnes and Brownell’s research shows that almost half of college biology students enter their classes thinking one has to be an atheist to accept evolution.

Liz Barnes and Sara BrownellBarnes and Brownell are currently doing additional re- search on the Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education framework as part of a National Science Foundation grant. They’re attempting to determine the role the framework plays in improving acceptance of evolution by students who are religious. “What we’re seeing so far is that when instructors bring forth examples of religious scientists who accept evolution, students are more accepting of evolution by the end of the class. Conversely, if instructors are more negative about religion, we see lower acceptance of evolution at the end of instruction.” Such negativity, Barnes added, does not have to be overt. She and Brownell observed instructors who students rated as more negative about religion than other instructors. The forms of negativity about religion were not explicit. In one instance, a professor projected a comic that poked fun at a theistic version of evolution at the beginning of class. According to their analysis, subtle negativity such as this can lead to lower evolution acceptance among students.

Are there implications in Barnes and Brownell’s research for K–12 education?

Barnes and Brownell are admittedly not K–12 education experts and their work focuses on college-level evolution education, Barnes noted. However, she observed that most public school biology teachers take college-level biology and are likely influenced by the biology instruction they receive in college. If college instructors are not culturally competent when teaching pre-service teachers, this could lead to those teachers being ineffective themselves. For instance, religious teachers may avoid teaching evolution due to unresolved personal conflict or secular teachers may themselves teach evolution in a way that is not culturally competent. “College instructors are the ones modeling evolution instruction for pre-service K–12 teachers. It’s all connected,” she said.

Barnes noted there is no shortage these days of science communication that involves cultural dissonance between groups. She has decided to turn her research lens toward climate change and students’ and professors’ political identities. “Here at Middle Tennessee State University, for instance, the majority of my students are politically conservative. So how are instructors, who are mostly politically liberal, taking this into account when they’re teaching about climate change?” Her hope, as with evolution education, is to figure out ways to reduce perceived conflict between political identity and acceptance of climate change, with the aim of creating more inclusive climate change education for students from different political leanings while also increasing those students’ comfort with accepting climate change themselves.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Paul Oh
Short Bio

Paul Oh is Director of Communications at NCSE.