What's effective and ineffective in preparing high school biology educators to teach evolution?

A first-of-its-kind study investigating the relationship between the college coursework taken by U.S. public high school biology teachers and what they present about evolution in their classrooms today yielded both expected and unexpected results, according to researchers at the National Center for Science Education and Penn State.

The study, published in Evolution: Education and Outreach, found that teachers with more coursework in teaching methods classes that devoted time to teaching controversial topics and to problem-based learning were more likely to misrepresent creationism as scientifically credible in their classrooms. Only those specific types of classes, not teaching methods classes in general, showed such a correlation.

"It's both surprising and alarming that these classes, which are evidently intended to prepare pre-service teachers to teach socially controversial topics such as evolution effectively, seem to be having the opposite effect," observed NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch. "Teachers who are themselves miseducated will miseducate their students."

The reason for the correlation is not evident. As the researchers observed in the study, "It is not clear to what extent taking these types of methods classes disposes teachers to be more likely to be ineffective evolution educators and to what extent teachers who are disposed to be ineffective evolution educators are more likely to take these types of methods classes."

A less surprising but still welcome result, according to Eric Plutzer, a political scientist and polling expert at Penn State, was that "teachers with more coursework on evolution were more likely to teach more about evolution, to prioritize teaching about the common ancestry of living things, and not to misrepresent creationism as scientifically credible."

"Given the demonstrated and substantial positive outcomes of evolution coursework, those preparing future biology teachers should obviously redouble their emphasis on evolution," commented NCSE's Executive Director Ann Reid. "But they also need to take a long hard look at what's going on in their teaching methods classes."

The results come from a nationally representative survey of public high school biology teachers conducted by NCSE and Penn State in 2019. Previous results from the same survey showed a massive improvement in evolution education between 2007 and 2019 and provided the first national study of evolution education at the middle school level.

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.