Helping Teachers Teach Evolution in the United States

Bertha Vazquez

Being a science teacher is the greatest job on Earth. Science can be a truly wondrous gift to share with young people. Although the day-to-day interaction can often feel like I am being pecked to death by ducks, I do not regret my decision twenty-six years ago to become a science teacher. I love working with young people and introducing them to humanity’s best way of finding answers.

One of the most important things a teacher can do is build rapport with his or her students. Because I have my students for at least two years in a row, we develop a relationship built on trust and mutual respect over time. In my classroom, learning takes place in a welcoming environment, and this firm but friendly atmosphere is compromised only during one unit of study: evolution.

Richard Dawkins (2009) said it best in his book The Greatest Show on Earth. Imagine being a professor of Roman history who has to constantly, year after year, defend the very existence of the Roman Empire. Despite the overwhelming evidence coming from various sources—architecture, art, literature, etc.—your students are not only skeptical, they can be downright disrespectful. This is what teaching evolution feels like for many science teachers.

Like most teachers, I have at least a handful of students every year who are anxious about learning evolution. For example, many students raised in faiths that totally accept evolution ask whether or not they are “allowed” to learn it in my class. I’ve had students refuse to do any assignments related to evolution or who will sit with their backs to me for the entire evolution unit. This creates anxiety, not only in the students who are told at home that evolution is false but also in the other children in the room who do not understand what all of the fuss is about. Some students who completely accept and understand what I’m teaching are told by their families or pastors that they should not believe a word I say. Last year, an eighth grader came to me in tears after she defended evolution to her pastor who proceeded to call me a “disgusting human being.”

Last year I was confronted by a parent during my school’s annual Open House event. She asked if I believed in God. She told me that I was causing tremendous anxiety in her son because I began the school year with a series of lessons on the biology of skin color (see http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/biology-skin-color). Luckily for her son, she claimed, their pastor set him straight on evolution. She also stated that evolution was a religion and that there was no evidence for it. The other parents sat motionless, disbelieving what was happening. I remained calm throughout the exchange and responded that evolution was not a religion and that there are mountains of evidence for it. I politely asked her if we could continue the conversation at a more appropriate time. Welcome to the world of the American science teacher.

The figures nationwide are disconcerting. When asked if they felt pressure to teach creationism in their classrooms, 31 percent of high school biology teachers reported that they did—and that this pressure comes primarily from students and parents. These pressures can be very stressful for teachers, who often teach evolution at the end of the year as a discrete topic instead of as the unifying theme of biology it actually is. Many teachers will begin their unit on evolution by saying to students, “You do not have to believe what I’m about to teach you. You just have to understand it and try your best on the test.” One school district in Georgia even went so far as to create an opening activity with this message:

This unit typically comes with some backlash from students and parents. It may help at the beginning of the unit to give students an analogy…. Ask students to turn to a partner and come up with a definition of a zombie…. Ask how many students believe zombies are real…. Next, do the same for aliens. Explain to the students that the class is going to be learning about evolution. We are not telling you that you have to believe in evolution. However, we are asking that you know enough about evolution to be able to explain the argument or definition to someone else similar to what you did for aliens and zombies. You can learn information about a topic or concept to have a conversation and answer questions without having to believe it. (Troup County Schools 2015)

I know this sounds unbelievable to somebody outside of education, but I understand what this school district is trying to achieve. This ice-breaker will most certainly help their science teachers avoid confrontation with anyone who does not “believe” in evolution. It’s trying to help teachers avoid phone calls and visits from angry parents. Nonetheless, this school district is dispensing unacceptable advice to its science teachers. Both the Center for Inquiry and the National Center for Science Education attempted to contact this school district about this message to students, but neither received a response.

Teachers are by nature nonconfrontational. We prefer to avoid issues that will anger parents and students. This avoidance is even worse in middle school where it’s possible a teacher may not have majored in the subject they are teaching. Middle school science teachers have to teach it all, from meteorology and space science to physical science. This means it’s possible to have an excellent teacher with no life science background, for example, who has to teach evolution. Without a firm grasp of the subject matter, teachers are even less likely to take on a controversial subject head-on.

While improved science education is only one variable involved in increasing evolution acceptance in the United States, it is arguably a very important piece of the puzzle. After looking into the most effective ways to improve evolution education in America, the National Center for Science Education concluded that “requiring all teachers to complete a course in evolutionary biology would have a substantial impact on the emphasis on evolution and its centrality in high school biology courses. In the long run, the impact of such a change could have a more far reaching effect than the victories in courts and in state governments” (Berkman et al. 2008). Biologist Sean Carrol points to the fact that acceptance of evolution is up to 68 percent among adult Americans under age thirty (it’s 60 percent overall). He attributes the increased acceptance level among young people to the fact that “over the past decade, the concerted efforts of various academic and scientific organizations have led to greater emphasis in textbooks and curricula on the central place of evolution in understanding life” (Carrol 2014).

As a science teacher myself, I have seen firsthand how a good teacher can improve a student’s understanding of a science topic. As a matter of fact, many school principals will tell you that they prefer hiring a good teacher with no science background rather than a scientist with no teaching experience. A good teacher can deliver the education once the content knowledge and resources are provided to them. The key is giving them the necessary content knowledge. This excerpt from Dr. Caitlin Schrein’s interview with Stephanie Keep of the National Center for Science Education sums up this opinion.

Teachers need to feel confident teaching the subject, as well. This confidence can come from education and training, but also from access to experts and high quality teaching resources. In my opinion, teachers who are really at the top of their game can teach just about anything as long as they have the resources to do so. There are many enthusiastic and knowledgeable science teachers who don’t know specific areas of science, like evolutionary theory, through and through, but who are perfectly capable of teaching those subjects effectively when properly supported. (Keep 2016)

The above excerpt is at the heart of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), a project of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The purpose of TIES is to familiarize interested middle school science teachers with the concepts of natural selection, common ancestry, and diversity so that they may confidently cover the topics in their classrooms and fulfill their curriculum requirements. TIES introduces middle school teachers to the most important points of evolution and natural selection with a focus on the amazing advances of genetics. The success of TIES depends upon providing resources that teachers can begin to use immediately. Participating teachers or student teachers leave our workshops with presentation slides, labs, guided reading assignments, an exam, and a valuable resource list for their lesson plans. Our webpage is a one-stop shop for evolution education, and we constantly add new resources on our Facebook page as well.

Our teacher institute has modest beginnings. From 2012–2014, I decided to offer some professional development on evolution to my fellow science teachers at my own school. We often share new lessons and resources with each other. Through a series of sessions, the teachers developed a deeper understanding of modern evolutionary biology and received effective resources to use in their lessons. In November 2015, I had the opportunity to tell Richard Dawkins about my small efforts. To my great surprise and excitement, he offered to come to my school and help me present evolutionary biology to my colleagues. I’m pleased to say that my school district recognized the value of his tremendous offer and opened the event up to science teachers from across the school district. Over one hundred teachers came.

Shortly after the event, the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, Robyn Blumner (she is now president and CEO of CFI), contacted me about recreating my local workshops into a nationwide project. The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science was born.

Over the course of just two years, TIES has grown from one workshop in Miami, Florida, with one presenter to over forty-five workshops and seventeen different presenters. More than thirty more presenters have signed up for future presentations. TIES workshops have taken place across the United States, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In addition to addressing the middle school evolution standards in each presentation, TIES provides valuable sources of professional support. For example, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has issued an excellent position statement on evolution education. Other sources, such as the National Science Foundation and the comprehensive Understanding Evolution website of the University of California at Berkeley can become essential when a science teacher is confronted with unhappy parents. The teacher can demonstrate that he or she is not the one responsible for setting the curriculum for the class and the parents will have to go elsewhere to complain. Having access to these resources takes the teacher “off the hook,” so to speak.

TIES has other goals as well. First, it promotes teacher leadership at all levels of the education system. TIES enlists teachers to present to other teachers in local school districts, at state science teacher conferences, and at NSTA conferences nationwide. In a profession where decisions are often made by noneducators, we believe that putting teachers in leadership positions is essential. Only a teacher knows the day-to-day struggles of classroom teaching. Second, TIES emphasizes modern-day examples of evolution. Sadly, many students are automatically turned off by Darwin’s name, and anti-evolutionists have deliberately and falsely tried to discredit iconic examples of evolution (Gishlick 2003). A powerful example of the influence TIES can have in a classroom with this goal in mind occurred in April. I teamed up with a local biologist, Dr. Eric von Wettberg of Florida International University. One of the participating teachers introduced herself by telling us that she doesn’t really believe in evolution. She explained that she tells her students that they must study and get a good grade on the test so she can move on. I presented the standard TIES content in the morning. Dr. von Wettberg discussed his research in the afternoon. He explained that 20 percent of the world’s population relies on the chick pea for its primary source of protein and that the yield of the chick pea crop around the world is declining due to climate change. His lab is attempting to cross the agricultural strains of the chick pea with the much more robust wild strain still found today in Southern Turkey and Northern Iraq. By introducing genetic variation into the agricultural strain, he is making it a hardier, more resilient crop. In other words, he is using the principles of natural selection to ensure that millions of people continue to have access to an important food source. Our disbelieving teacher left the workshop with a totally different perspective. We can be optimistic that her students will be receiving a very different view of evolution in her classes.

At the end of every TIES workshop, we ask the participating teachers for feedback. The teacher evaluations of TIES workshops have illustrated that TIES workshops are very well-received. TIES workshops provide content matter, ready-to-go resources, and support for science teachers. This participating teacher in central Florida sums it up very well in her evaluation:

As a teacher without formal science background, I really appreciated your presentation during the FAST conference. I currently am in my first year as a seventh grade science teacher in St. Lucie County and was a bit nervous for the unit on evolution. I am very happy to say that your knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject have made me feel more prepared and excited to teach this subject to my students. (Sonia Veiga, workshop participant)

In September 2016, we at the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science decided to expand its scope in an effort to reach even more teachers and students. Our new TIES program is titled TIES Partnerships. We are enlisting interested evolutionary biologists who are willing to volunteer to visit schools in their local areas and present the basic concepts of evolutionary biology to middle or high school students. We encourage these evolutionary biologists to share their own research with the students, highlighting the idea that evolutionary science is a dynamic, vibrant field. The interested biologists are matched up with local science teachers in their area and the biologist/teacher pair set up the best dates and times for the classroom visits. Our TIES associates work closely with the biologists, ensuring that they understand the science standards of their state.

The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science has grown exponentially since its inception. Our mission now is to continue to reach out to science teachers across the United States and expand even further. As our motto says, “TIES is unlocking the wonders of life for teachers and their students.” For more information, please visit our webpage at https://richarddawkins.net/ties/.


References

  • Berkman, M.B., J.S. Pacheco, and E. Plutzer. 2008. Evolution and creationism in America’s classrooms: A national portrait. PLoS Biology 6(5): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124.
  • Carrol, Sean. 2014. Is America evolving on evolution? Scientific American. Available online at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-america-evolving-on-evolution/.
  • Dawkins, R. 2009. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for EvolutionFree Press (United States), Transworld (United Kingdom and Commonwealth).
  • Gishlick, Alan D. 2003. Icons of evolution? Available online at https://ncse.com/creationism/analysis/icons-evolution.
  • Keep, Stephanie. 2016. America’s unwillingness to accept evolution en masse is…complicated, part 1. NCSE Blog. Available online at https://ncse.com/blog/2016/05/america-s-unwillingness-to-accept-evolution-masse-0017041.
  • Troup County Schools. 2015. 7th Grade Science Evolution Unit Information. Available online at http://www.troup.k12.ga.us/userfiles/929/my%20files/science/ms%20science/7th%20science/evolution/evolution_resources_schoolpointe.pdf?id=21261.

Bertha Vazquez

Bertha Vazquez has been teaching middle school science in Miami-Dade County Public Schools for 24 years. She has BA in Biology from the University of Miami and a Master’s in Science Education from Florida International University. A seasoned traveler who has visited all seven continents, she enjoys introducing the world of nature and science to young, eager minds. An educator with National Board Certification, she is the recipient of several national and local honors, including the 2014 Samsung’s $150,000 Solve For Tomorrow Contest and The Charles C. Bartlett National Excellence in Environmental Award in 2009. She was Miami-Dade Science Teacher of the Year in 1997 and 2008 and was one of Florida’s 2015 finalists for the most prestigious science award in the country, The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.


Being a science teacher is the greatest job on Earth. Science can be a truly wondrous gift to share with young people. Although the day-to-day interaction can often feel like I am being pecked to death by ducks, I do not regret my decision twenty-six years ago to become a science teacher. I love working …

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