Tracing Our Science Illiteracy Back to High School Biology - Pacific Standard

Tracing Our Science Illiteracy Back to High School Biology

If we want the public to grasp the theory of evolution, we need to rethink the way we train biology teachers.
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(Photo: livinglegend/Shutterstock)

(Photo: livinglegend/Shutterstock)

Although we worship technology, Americans remain astonishingly ignorant about some of the basic assumptions of science. Evolution—the backbone of biology—is the most egregious example of this illiteracy; Gallup reports 42 percent of the population continues to believe humans were created pretty much as-is within the past 10,000 years.

While many people bemoan this lack of understanding, relatively few trace it back to the point where it should have been cut off at the pass: High school biology class. Why wasn't such basic knowledge instilled in us at that point? Were we asleep?

New research suggests the answer is: Not necessarily. Penn State University political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer report a big part of the problem lies in the poor training and emotional ambivalence of high school biology teachers.

"Is it reasonable for us to expect young educators to assert (the primacy of evolutionary theory) when they themselves are not fully sold on the science, have unresolved tensions with their faith, and see either watering down evolution or giving credence to 'both sides' as a means of conflict avoidance? We think not," they write in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Focus groups "revealed that the tension between science and faith is experienced—sometimes acutely—by a large number of future science teachers. Many newly minted science teachers will be entering the classroom without having personally resolved perceived contradictions between evolution and their faith."

Their analysis is based on two sets of data: a 2007 survey of high school biology teachers from 49 states, and a series of focus groups the researchers conducted on four Pennsylvania campuses in 2013. They spoke with 35 students who were training to become biology teachers.

“Required general biology classes at the college level at three of the four institutions included significant time devoted to evolution,” they report. “Nevertheless, this coverage did not translate into more than superficial knowledge for many of our focus group participants.”

The 2007 study showed that this lack of “content mastery” has a long-term negative impact on instruction. “Teachers who, while in college, had taken a stand-alone course in evolution, or took more credits in science than other courses, tended to teach evolution more consistently (in line) with the scientific consensus, and devoted more classroom time to the topic,” they report.

Berkman and Plutzer report none of the focus-group members “explicitly embraced the principle that one has to be fair and therefore teach ‘both sides,’ (evolution and creationism).” That marks a welcome change from the 2007 survey, in which “a substantial minority of practicing classroom teachers” endorsed this extremely dubious notion.

However, the teachers-in-training “did foreshadow another type of behavior we previously identified as one that dilutes evolution instruction—the instinct to downplay certain aspects of evolutionary biology to avoid controversy and confrontation.”

“They anticipate treading lightly on evolution,” the researchers write. “None showed at this early stage in their careers that they would be strong advocates of evolutionary science.”

In addition, the focus groups “revealed that the tension between science and faith is experienced—sometimes acutely—by a large number of future science teachers.” The researchers conclude that “many newly minted science teachers will be entering the classroom without having personally resolved perceived contradictions between evolution and their faith.”

Interestingly, the aspiring educators who were studying at a Catholic college “had given this more thought, and had arrived at more mature reflections on this” than their counterparts at public universities, according to the researchers. “All of these students were required to take a theology class each year, in which discussions of how the spiritual world relates to the material one were common.”

Berkman and Plutzer call the policy implications of these findings “sobering.” They argue that the training of future biology teachers needs to change, “to improve content knowledge while allowing students to work through very real concerns about what the acceptance of evolutionary science means for their faith.”

Besides required instruction in evolutionary science for all future biology teachers, they argue that “expanded experiences to work in active research activities” would be helpful, in that they would “give future teachers a better sense of the nature of scientific inquiry.”

Strikingly, they found that among members of their focus groups, “very few showed a passion for science more generally, and scientific research in particular.” In terms of both evolution and science education in general, that may be the biggest problem of all: You can’t pass down a sense of excitement for a topic that you don’t feel.

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