our broken evolution curriculum

February 16, 2009

When I was studying biology as a freshman in high school, there was a test on human evolution. The last question was designed to test our understanding of how evolution really worked and almost all of us got it wrong. We were asked if the changes that gave rise to modern humans were localized or global. After grading and handing back our tests, the teacher was surprised so many of us answered that the changes were global. It’s not like we have evidence for early hominids anywhere other than Africa. So why would we think it was global? If all the available evidence points to one place, how can we say it was worldwide?

confusion in a science classroom

But despite being told to follow the evidence, we were still taught that animals adapted to their environments. Even though that’s not how evolution works, we were taught its mechanisms in the language which implied progression and design. An animal that started eating something different than any of its ancestors was said to have changed to exploit a new food source. Now, I know that’s the reverse of what really happens. The animal found a new food source because it mutated into something new and it was the food that was the adaptation, not the animal itself. But back in freshman biology, we didn’t know any better. None of us asked about the evidence of how exactly animals could adapt on cue. As you can see by our test results, we were still not quite sure what evolution was and how it actually worked.

Students who want to ask that question are very unlikely to get a definitive answer from any of their science teachers. According to most estimates, nearly 7 out of 10 science teachers don’t have any credentials in a relevant discipline. They go by often outdated textbooks and antique course plans made by bureaucrats who’s specialty is politics that uses school funding and the students who attend the schools under their authority as pawns in their intricate games. More often than not, school boards are becoming tools of indoctrination for the personal ideologies of people with an agenda, people who seek to educate by popular consensus, rather than facts to fulfill their self-serving goals. Pupils are left confused, conflicted and unable to rely on their teachers to give them straight answers. They’re being taught simplistic, incorrect ideas about evolution with misleading and scientifically inaccurate language.

While many creationists are that way by indoctrination from birth, many more join their ranks because they’re being taught the wrong things in the wrong ways. Scientists who say that while kids are in school, they should be taught evolution without interference and creationism in all its incarnations can be discussed in college or grad school, are missing the point. You can’t tell teenagers one thing, then after they graduate and go to college, tell them something else. If the scientists really want to make sure evolution is being taught in schools, they need to confirm if it’s being taught the right way. Telling a thirteen year old that evolution designed an animal for something or that evolution exploited this or that, or that an animal evolved to do something is a recipe for an educational disaster. And that disaster is happening every day in classrooms all over the nation, undermining the quality of science education.

As long as evolution is taught backwards, using poorly written books and inaccurate language, we’re sabotaging science education. It’s not enough to protest school board decisions that try to inject pseudo-science and religious canon into public schooling. It’s important, but it’s just half the job. The other half is to fix our broken evolution curricula.

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  • I do not think it will be possible to fix the “broken evolution curricula” without addressing the far more fundamental issue of competence in the secondary-school science classroom.

    Once upon a time, I would ask students in my second-year university biology classes what careers they were considering. Invariably, those responding “Teacher” were those who ranked near or at the bottom of the class – people whom I gave passing grades only because university superiors threatened to blame the financial failure and subsequent closure of their department on me if I didn’t. In effect, I had the choice of unleashing people who had no business being in science onto the job market or finding another job (I eventually selected the latter).

    I was convinced then, and remain convinced to this day, that any person with the wit to grasp scientific concepts correctly also has the wit to avoid life as a secondary school teacher in the United States like the plagues on Pharaoh. The teacher is accountable for the performance of every student who comes within an acre of the classroom, and to every opinionated cockroach that enters the building, and is given none of the authority over curriculum or pupil necessary to accomplish mandated objectives, never mind anything that approaches real “education” – all this for a wage that a 20-year-old management trainee at Clown Burgers would sneer at.

    In Germany (to name one), teachers are amongst the highest-paid of all civil servants, and they are, by and large, granted the respect they need, by students and adults alike, to accomplish their jobs. Even with this type of system in place, creationist thinking is on the rise there too. Our prospects are not good.

  • Hello,

    How are you doing? I love your blog… I would love to speak to you sometime.

  • While many creationists are that way by indoctrination from birth…

    Wow, that’s quite a complement, a creationist at birth with that sort of comprehension unbelievable. Are you trying to imply that the reason your class did not answer the question correctly was because they were creationists?

    In an article in Nature which I believe pretty much sums up the theory of evolution as a whole, Practically, this means that although we know without a doubt that adaptive selection has been involved in the shaping of certain traits, language being one of them, the data to establish this fact conclusively remains methodologically out of reach simply because it is infeasible to collect the requisite experimental evidence.”

    In other words, in the theory of evolution one infuses or imposes the conclusion into the evidence rather than come to a conclusion from the evidence. A theory is not based or formulated on the “hope” new data will shed light like evolution is, but rather formulate the theory with existing evidence.

  • Greg Fish

    “Wow, thats quite a complement, a creationist at birth with that sort of comprehension unbelievable.”

    I don’t know how much comprehension it should take to think that digging out fossils and comparing them to each other is the work of whack jobs while believing that we were poofed into existence by an omnipotent, omniscient creature to whom the laws of the universe don’t apply, is perfectly reasonable.

    “Are you trying to imply that the reason your class did not answer the question correctly was because they were creationists?”

    Um, no. Random out of context quotes being applied to something that was already explained don’t make an argument. They make a fallacy. I explain that the reason we didn’t answer the question correctly was because we weren’t taught the theory correctly about two paragraphs above that.

    “In an article in Nature which I believe pretty much sums up the theory of evolution as a whole”

    There are two problems with that statement. First is what’s the article? Where can I find a copy? What’s it’s title? Secondly, you’re taking another random quote from an unnamed article which you say sums up what you “believe” about the theory of evolution. Well, after reading an article where I explain that students made mistakes on a test because evolution was being taught incorrectly, you just said that you believe I’m trying to imply that people who make mistakes on tests about evolution do it because they’re creationists despite the explanation being given clear as day right after the anecdote.

    Creationists are really good with throwing around quotes from people who are either supposedly scientists or from important scientific magazines. But the quotes they generally throw out either have nothing to do with evolution or they’re taken vastly out of context, sometimes copied from websites where they’ve been gnarled as distorted to make them sound supportive of creationism.

    So after throwing out this quote that you claim is from some edition of Nature, you project this single case to the entire theory of evolution. By the same token, a single factual error from the creationist side should allow me to make a blanket invalidation as well and we all know there are plenty of those to be found. For example, Kent Hovind, quoting a supposed expert, claims there’s no appendix in other primates. But we know there is and that chimps can suffer from very acute appendicitis. See where this random quoting thing gets you?

    So there you go. Creationism just makes things up as it goes along all based on one example, just like you’ve tried to argue here.