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Media play down fear of teaching evolution
Cindy Merrick, March 7, 2011
A study shows many high school science teachers lack confidence when it comes to teaching evolution; but thatís not how the media framed it.

 

dinosaurSomewhere in America, two hard-working social scientists are smacking their foreheads. Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer just published the results of a far-reaching survey of U.S. high school biology teachers in Science Magazine. They report that as many as 60 percent of them are inadequately teaching evolutionary biology. In fact, the authors say, this group plays “a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”

After administering their wake up call, Berkman and Plutzer wake up themselves to this headline of coverage of their study: “13% of High School Biology Teachers Advocate Creationism in Class.” This is thanks to the infinite story-making wisdom of news agencies like MSNBC, LiveScience, and Yahoo News. They know that, all things being equal, we’re more likely to be stopped in our tracks by that headline. And that may be true. But it is not, unfortunately, the story they are reporting on. In fact, the headline is a nice example of bait and switch, for, the reader finds, the real story is not about creationism in the classroom. It’s about the missing science.

The study collected information from a nationally representative sample of 926 high school biology teachers, asking them about what they taught and how much time was spent on different topics. What they found, the authors say, is “a pervasive reluctance of teachers to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology.”

They estimate that 28 percent of biology teachers follow the National Research Council’s recommendations by consistently teaching according to the National Science Education Standards. This is to say that these mainstream science teachers teach the evidence science has accumulated showing that evolution has occurred, and they use evolution as a theme among their lesson plans that unifies various topics in biology. These mainstream science teachers, plus the 13 percent or so of teachers who advocate creationism, only account for roughly 40 percent of all science teachers. The rest are what the authors call the “cautious 60%.”

The “cautious 60%” provided evidence, via a “free-response” section of the survey, of broad use of risk-averse behaviors in relation to communities not in agreement about evolution. But they did this not because they hold any belief in the “young-earth” theory of creationism;  rather, many have never taken a course in evolution, and lack the confidence to defend its scientific veracity. Some admit to being inhibited by the prospect of confronting parental complaints and student questions regarding their teaching of evolution. Many develop diversionary tactics, such as presenting, to the best of their ability, the controversy over evolution and inviting the students to make up their own minds whether to accept it.

The problem is that it’s not a scientific controversy. When it comes to evolution and evolutionary biology, there is scientific consensus. The National Academy of Sciences’ publication Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science states that “evolution is the central organizing principle that biologists use to understand the world.” Evolution explains the extraordinary variety of life on earth. It explains through the notion of common ancestry why such a diversity of organisms all pass through many similar developmental stages from embryo to egg. It explains why all living things, which compete with each other for limited resources, use the same biochemical machinery to carry out the basic processes of life, and pass genetic information from one generation to the next. According to the National Academy of Science, “to teach biology without explaining evolution deprives students of a powerful concept that brings great order and coherence to our understanding of life.”

Really, isn’t it of greater journalistic value to tell America that the problem is worse than we think? The real conclusion of the research is that a full 72 percent of American children are not being taught evolution in a forthright fashion as a scientific theory. We’re not talking about a 13 percent minority of extremists, but rather about the majority that display a fundamental ineptitude. The shock of a mere 13 percent pales in comparison to the real story.


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