Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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Teaching Evolution Without Joining The Homer Parade

I argued with myself about writing this for fear of the tone that may be created in the comments. To be clear, I am a teacher, and I teach evolution to my students with best of my abilities. A lot of Internet ink has been spent at the expense of teachers claiming that we are not blatant enough when teaching evolution, or that we’re indoctrinating our youth with reductionist lies.

Teaching science’s stolid tentativeness without seeding an unproductive amount of doubt is hard to do. This is especially hard when the topic of evolution rears its head.

My students are young (14-18), and they are bombarded with popular science articles about evolution. These articles often take a militant tone, supporting evolution like a zealot does his deity. Many of these articles present evolution in such a way that it takes on a personality. What’s worse is that many of these articles paint any dissidence as idiotic, unpatriotic to the flag of science, or in other ways the position of imbeciles.

On the other side are the legions of websites with awesomely snarky URL’s like, or fantastic blogs written by quasi-religious people chaffed heavily by disequilibrium and operating with little formal religious or scientific education. These websites, books, and cautionary groups espouse positions that the earth is many orders of magnitude younger than dating methods indicate, or that genetic drift, mutation, and natural selection are not sufficient to arrive with the wildly radiated species we see alive today and in the fossil record.

Being Productive in the Middle:

So, what’s a teacher to do? Well the first thing any effective teacher does is meet his/her students where they currently are. I had to find out what my students thought, what they’ve read, and what biases they’ve adopted.

Second, I had to admit that my course will not be enough to teach every intricacy of evolutionary theory. Hell, even teaching the different connotations of the word “theory” could take up an entire unit, let alone teaching the actual content.

If I’m to teach evolution as the evidence indicates, I can’t come across as some militia member fighting against the abysmally stupid creationist masses. Painting things so black and white — so, confrontational — is never productive. Also, that’s just not who I am; I don’t believe that all creationists are stupid, I don’t believe that scientists have the right to be so dickish in their treatment of people who disagree with them. I also fear that my teaching will add to the reductionist arrogance that is plaguing every comment thread on the Internet. I teach science, not how to be a tool.

In the current trend of non-educators chiming in on how educators should do their jobs, it seems that teachers are pejoratively viewed as partially educated and wishy-washy just hoping not to make waves. I understand why people who spend zero time in schools think like this. We are the servants of our students’ parents, and there’s no better way to have an awful year than to piss off the parents, but there’s more to it:

My job is to somehow teach that science knows things but constantly updates this knowledge. You have to understand how difficult this is for a teenager with very little content knowledge.

“Is it true or not?” they ask.

“It’s just where we’re at with the evidence,” I say.

“So, it’s true, then.”

“Well, as true as we can get, but maybe not as much tomorrow.”

Can you see how this is hard to do? Can you empathize with why teaching is terrifying, rewarding, fun, weighty, and nullifying all at the same time?

So many people trying to tell us how to teach promote the just-say-it-better model of education. This doesn’t work. You can’t just talk at kids and say things ‘better’ than your teachers did. They need time to simmer. They need time to think. They need people to lay off and let them fucking think for a second.

How I Teach It:

I start with the law of natural selection and the disambiguation of laws from theories. Laws happen, because they are directly observable. If you select against 99.9% of a bacteria population, that 0.01% is left without competition to reproduce, thus changing the population.


You. Can’t. Argue. With. That.

We then watch some hilarious sex ed videos that include discussions of meiosis. We do investigations with sun block and UV sensitive materials.  We talk mutation and melanoma. We talk about staggering implausibilities strung out over mind numbing stretches of history. We do the statistics. We program the simulations.

I took them on a quick tour of the coolest fossils that first appear during each geologic period. This is important because it really does paint a mildly cohesive biological narrative. The students then chose a macro transformation to investigate further. Their job was to explain the current fossil evidence and then suggest how potential discoveries could affect our interpretation of the fossil record.

For example: A few students were interested in the transition of fish from oceans to land. The students discussed Acanthostega, Tiktaalik, and Icthyostega, and how they all show up in late Devonian rocks. What I found interesting was how these students extended the ideas. What would happen if you found an Ordivician transitionary fish? What if the current rocks were mis-dated and were actually Jurassic?

This is the kind of thinking that I feel does not subvert my teaching of evoluion but still allows my students to render the plasticity of science as a philosophy.

Finally, here’s a student response to one my assessments of the unit. “Please explain how natural selection works.”

Natural selection works like if a baby organism or whatever is ‘born’ with a mutation that helps it live longer, like say dinos grew feathers to keep warm sort of, then the others who don’t have that mutation will die faster leaving the strong one. That strong one will go on to have little strong babies that may have the same mutation and they will in turn have featheredish strong, long living babies. Then they just keep evolving into other stuff if it has a mutation that works good enough that it can pass it on.

Different stuff is found at different levels in the rocks. like we know that the triassic period was 206 MYA so if we find a fossil in the rocks that were from there then we know that whatever it is lived in the triassic period and is 206 MY old.  So depending on where you find a certain fossil, you will have certain types of rocks. Like if limestone was ONLY put down in the Devonian (idk if it was but..) and you found a freaking sabertooth tiger in it, then you know that the only way that could have gotten there was if it was alive in the devonian age instead of like the quaternary like scientist originally thought.

Isn’t it fun to see where she gets it and where she still has some misconceptions? I love teaching, because now I know exactly what we need to do tomorrow.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching Evolution Without Joining The Homer Parade
  • Loyd Lapiana says:

    Oh my. I have tears running down my face. Thanks for the good advice, and I hope you have fully recovered by now. Because that sounds painful.

  • [...] From Shawn Cornally, on teaching evolution: So many people trying to tell us how to teach promote the just-say-it-better model of education. This doesn’t work. You can’t just talk at kids and say things ‘better’ than your teachers did. They need time to simmer. They need time to think. They need people to lay off and let them fucking think for a second. [...]

  • Brian says:

    I think you’ve nailed it. Give the students the evidence and time to think about it and then ask them for an explanation. It’s amazing how easily they come up with similar explanations to those developed by scientists.

    Whenever I teach the origins of the universe, I do the same thing. Rather than start with the explanation (inflation/Big Bang theory), I start with the data – redshift of the galaxies, CMB and proportions of elements in the universe. No matter what explanation you want to use, it has to explain those three things. As you said, you can’t argue with data.