Natural Rejection: Addressing Student Resistance to Evolution Education

Reposted from the Teaching Evolution in Action blog

Israel_Day 2By Ian Zaback

It’s a moment that we’ve all dreaded in one way or another. A student approaches you at the end of class clutching a note, and as the paper changes hands the phrase leaves their lips: “I’m opting out of learning evolution.”

If you found yourself at the other end of this conversation, what would you say? Would your first move be to silence them, and use the curriculum to reinforce your decision? Or would you send an email to their parents, taking a diplomatic tone to explain why this is such an important concept to learn? This is a situation that all science educators worry about in the back of their minds, but so few have given thought to what they might say if they actually landed in the hot seat. The truth is, this is a multifaceted issue with no one simple answer.

Despite 95% of all scientists accepting the validity of evolution, the United States remains among the lowest in its public acceptance of evolution. This distrust of scientific theory is often deeply rooted in religious and spiritual beliefs, and so trying to challenge such misconceptions only drives students further into the shells constructed for them by their families and communities.

So how do you approach such a sensitive situation without it quickly turning sour? One strategy is to try and preempt the fallout before students fixate on the controversy. Evolution is a fact of life, and so much of what we know about the world makes a great deal more sense in the light of evolutionary theory. By easing into the subject just like you would with any other topic, you can present this important overarching concept as simply another thing to be learned. The advantage of this strategy is that some students may put up less resistance to the evidence behind it, gradually coming to realize just how perfectly many other ecological concepts that they’ve learned up to this point make sense in context. Alternatively, if you come into class one day and say to your students: “Alright, there’s a lot of controversy around this topic, but today we’re getting close and personal with Charles Darwin!” …you may be digging your own grave. To sensationalize the topic is to rob it of the status of peer-reviewed, highly accepted scientific theory, and instead make it seem like a political issue. Even if you don’t encounter immediate resistance, some of your students may very well grow to consider evolution to be a controversy rather than well-grounded science for the rest of their academic careers.

The important thing to understand is that it is not the science teacher’s job to challenge a students’ deeply rooted religious beliefs. Rather, the important thing is that we communicate the underlying concepts as something of value and ensure that the students develop a thorough understanding of scientific theory. For example, by stressing the scientific definition of a theory as something supported by multiple lines of evidence, we can provide students with an opportunity to understand the school of thought behind scientific theory and discovery. This carries with it the potential to broaden their horizons; in contrast, vocalizing a defined, partial stance favoring evolution as an absolute (whether you accept the theory or not) may serve only to shut them down.

When you get down to it, one of the most important lessons a science teacher can impart to their students is to ask questions. One word epitomizes scientific thought: “Why?” Everything we know about the world around us, from gravity to evolution, we know because somebody observed something that they could not explain and wondered why it was so. Science class shouldn’t just be about learning the facts; rather, the expectation should be that every student walks out of the classroom at the end of the year prepared to make discoveries of their own. So how do you mitigate unpleasant situations when teaching about evolution? You need to work with the student to show evolution in a different context. Shutting resistant students down only hinders the learning process and pushes students away from a lifestyle of scientific discovery. However, if you inspire them to adopt a more open worldview and accept them in turn, they may yet be inspired to embrace their own scientific curiosity.

About Ian: Hello, fellow scientists! My name is Ian Zaback. Hailing from Farmington Hills, MI, I’m a secondary biology education student from Michigan State, a proud Briggsie and RISE student. Officially, my role this summer is as the KBS Science Education Intern, but I am thrilled to be joining all of you in Teaching Evolution in Action as well. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been incredibly passionate about the natural sciences. From running environmental advocacy campaigns in high school to serving as an outdoor education specialist at sleepaway camp for the last two years, deep down I’ve always understood that the greatest good that I can do is in sharing my passion with others, engaging my students in active learning and inspiring them to ask questions about the world around them. I can hardly wait to grow with all of you throughout the summer!

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