Ten Questions (and Answers) about Teaching Evolution

Bertha Vazquez, Christopher Freidhoff

1. What do you think are the main factors that influence how effective a biology teacher is at teaching evolution?

It’s all about content knowledge. A teacher should know the definition of a scientific theory, current examples of evolution, and, as a result, have confidence when teaching the subject.

2. How does evolution education differ from country to country?

Our teachers [in the United States] have to constantly defend evolution. That’s not the case in most first-world countries. Like Richard says in The Greatest Show on Earth, it’s like a professor of Roman history having to defend the existence of the Roman Empire every year, year after year. I’m not as familiar with other countries, but as far as the United States is concerned, I am getting published soon in a journal titled Evolution: Education and Outreach. I did a comprehensive state-by-state comparison of our nation’s middle school science standards.

3. Why is it important for students to understand evolution?

Evolution is cool! It’s a beautiful web that underlies biology, making everything connected. It explains the history and diversity of all of the amazing life on Earth. And, in a practical sense, it helps us develop new medications and plays a key role in conservation of ecosystems.

4. What type of evidence is important for students to view in a biology classroom?

It is important that they understand that there are multiple lines of evidence for evolution all leading to the same conclusion. Evidence for evolution comes from many areas, including the fossil record, the law of superposition, biogeography, artificial selection, homologous structures, vestigial organs, and genetics. Teachers should definitely cover phylogenetics.

5. What techniques should be used for teaching evolution?

Make sure students understand scientific inquiry first and how science finds answers through observation, experiments, data collection, and sharing results. Try hands-on activities —and it’s very important to use modern-day examples of evolution, not just Darwin and his finches.

6. What is your opinion of biology teachers who don’t accept evolution?

They do not understand how science finds its answers and are doing a terrible disservice to their students.

7. At what point do you think students should be exposed to evolution?

Students should be exposed to evolution in Kindergarten, though New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and a few other states start in early elementary. Evolution ties the life sciences together and is the perfect thread: “Without evolution, life science is just stamp-collecting.”

8. With the current administration, how do you think science education, mainly evolution, will change?

Americans are becoming more accepting of evolution. The people President Donald Trump has hired and the decisions being made (see for example Florida SB 989) will slow down this positive trend. Darwin said, “Ignorance begets confidence more often than knowledge.” People who do not know what they are talking about will make decisions that will hurt us as a nation. The United States has been a wonderfully innovative and scientifically curious country; this is one of the most wonderful things about our great nation. I’m worried that scientific discoveries and the economic benefits that accompany them will begin happening more in other countries. Look at green technology, for example, and how much profit there is to be made in that field! We are not taking advantage of it just so the fossil fuel industry can continue making profits. Imagine if the candle-makers had impeded the promotion of Edison’s light bulb! It’s tragic.

9. How should the education of science teachers change to have more effective teachers in the classroom?

We have become an assessment-mad culture, with too much emphasis placed on test scores. In my district, teaching practically shuts down for six weeks so all of the tests can be administered. Instead of so much emphasis on teaching teachers how to analyze test data, give them content knowledge on the science topics they must cover. Emphasize hands-on activities and lessons that highlight the scientific method. I know it’s costly, but new teachers should have time to observe worthy veteran teachers for as long as possible.

10. What challenges do students who don’t accept the evidence of evolution face when they go to college?

I stress the way science finds its answers to questions about the natural world around us. Evolution is an elegant example of how thousands of repeatedly tested hypotheses, countless observations, and collaborations over 170 years led to a big idea in science. Not accepting evolution can be a handicap because it means you do not understand how science works.

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.