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Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science
Teaching evolution presents special challenges to science teachers. Sources of support upon which teachers can draw include high-quality curricula, adequate preparation, exposure to information useful in documenting the evidence for evolution, and resources and contacts provided by professional associations.
One important source of support for teachers is to share problems and explore solutions with other teachers. The following vignette illustrates how a group of teachers—in this case, three biology teachers at a large public high school—can work together to solve problems and learn from each other.
It is the first week of classes at Central High School. As the bell rings for third period, Karen, the newest teacher on the faculty, walks into the teachers' lounge. She greets her colleagues, Barbara and Doug.
"How are your first few days going?" asks Doug.
"Fine," Karen replies. "The second-period Biology I class is full, but it'll be okay. By the way, Barbara, thanks for letting me see your syllabus for Bio I. But I wanted to ask you about teaching evolution—I didn't see it there."
"You didn't see it on my syllabus because it's not a separate topic," Barbara says. "I use evolution as a theme to tie the course together, so it comes into just about every unit. You'll see a section called 'History of Life' on the second page, and there's a section called 'Natural Selection.' But I don't treat evolution separately because it is related to almost every other topic in biology."1
"Wait a minute, Barbara," Doug says. "Is that good advice for a new teacher? I mean, evolution is a controversial subject, and a lot of us just don't get around to teaching it. I don't. You do, but you're braver than most of us."
"It's not a matter of bravery, Doug," Barbara replies. "It's a matter of what needs to be taught if we want students to understand biology. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching civics and never mentioning the United States Constitution."
"But how can you be sure that evolution is all that important. Aren't there a lot of scientists who don't believe in evolution? Say it's too improbable?"
"The debate in science is over some of the details of how evolution occurred, not whether evolution happened or not. A lot of science and science education organizations have made statements about why it is important to teach evolution. …"2
"I saw a news report when I was a student," Karen interjects, "about a school district or state that put a disclaimer against evolution in all their biology textbooks. It said that students didn't need to believe in evolution because it wasn't a fact, only a theory. The argument was that no one really knows how life began or how it evolved because no one was there to see it happen."3
"If I taught evolution, I'd sure teach it as a theory—not a fact," says Doug.
"Just like gravity," Barbara says.
"Now, Barbara, gravity is a fact, not a theory."
"Not in scientific terms. The fact is that things fall. The explanation for why things fall is the theory of gravitation. Our problem is definitions. You're using 'fact' and 'theory' the way we use them in everyday life, but we need to use them as scientists use them. In science, a 'fact' is an observation that has