The Sciences

Actual Creationism (and Ample Cowardice) in US High School Biology Classes

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFeb 8, 2011 9:37 PM


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Yesterday the New York Times reported on this survey, published in Science, of high school biology teaching practices with respect to evolution across the country. The results can only be called dismal. Yes, there are about 28 % of teachers who present the science unabashedly and accurately. But then there are the unapologetic creationist teachers:

At the opposite extreme are 13% of the teachers surveyed who explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least 1 hour of class time presenting it in a positive light (an additional 5% of teachers report that they endorse creationism in passing or when answering student questions). The boldness and confidence of this minority should not be underestimated. Although 29% percent of all other teachers report having been “nervous at an open house event or meeting with parents,” only 19% of advocates of creationism report this.

But neither the good science teachers, nor the bold creationist science teachers, are a majority. That honor goes to the wishy-washy middle of the road teachers, who comprise 60 %:

Their strategies for avoiding controversy are varied, but three were especially common and each has the effect of undermining science. Some teach evolutionary biology as though it only applies to molecular biology—completely ignoring macro-evolution of species. At best, this approach sacrifices a rich understanding of the diversity of species. At worst it lends credence to the creationist claim that there is no evidence for one species giving rise to others. Others defend the teaching of evolution as a necessary evil, using state examination requirements as a convenient means to disassociate themselves from the very material they are expected to teach. These examinations have only been recently introduced in most states. Yet, many teachers told us that they tell students that it does not matter if they really “believe” in evolution, so long as they know it for the test. One Michigan teacher tells students that they need to understand evolution because the biology curriculum “is organized as if evolution is true” [emphasis added].] Finally, a sizable number of teachers expose their students to all positions—scientific or not. Students should make up their own minds, explained a Pennsylvania teacher, “based on their own beliefs and research. Not on what a textbook or on what a teacher says.” Many of these teachers might have great confidence in their students' ability to learn by exploration. But does a 15-year-old student really have enough information to reject thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers? This approach tells students that well-established concepts like common ancestry can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions.

All in all, a really sad showing in a country where the teaching of evolution has repeatedly been held up in court. Alas, court rulings, even at the highest level, only have a limited research. And unfortunately, I'm afraid that the more we teach kids about climate science in the future, the more we're going to see a very similar pattern.

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