ERIC Identifier: ED402148
Publication Date: 1996-03-00
Author: Haury, David L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Teaching Evolution in School Science Classes. ERIC Digest.
"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." T.
What seemed like a provocative statement twenty years ago has become firmly
established as a unifying idea in biology education. Speaking at a convention of
the National Association of Biology Teachers, Dobzhansky (1973) pointed out the
remarkable diversity of life and the striking unity of life, both made more
intelligible by the theory of evolution. He went on to say:
"Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most
satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry
facts-some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a
Evolution was also identified as the unifying theme of biology by the
American Society of Zoologists (Moore, 1984); the Society's project to improve
teaching at the college level first focused on evolutionary biology.
More recently, the National Research Council (NRC) (1996) identified
evolution as a major unifying idea in science that transcends disciplinary
boundaries; a powerful idea to be used across all grade levels to guide
instruction and align the curriculum. Biological evolution was also listed as
one of the six content areas in the life sciences that are important for all
high school students to study. Following are the concepts and principles
associated with this content standard (p. 185):
* Species evolve over time. Evolution is the consequence of the interactions
of (1) the potential for a species to increase its numbers, (2) the genetic
variability of offspring due to mutation and recombination of genes, (3) a
finite supply of the resources required for life, and (4) the ensuing selection
by the environment of those offspring better able to survive and leave
* The great diversity of organisms is the result of more than 3.5 billion
years of evolution that has filled every available niche with life forms.
*Natural selection and its evolutionary consequence provide a scientific
explanation for the fossil record of ancient life forms, as well as for the
striking molecular similarities observed among the diverse species of living
* The millions of different species of plants, animals, and microorganisms
that live on earth today are related by descent from common ancestors.
* Biological classifications are based on how organisms are related.
Organisms are classified into a hierarchy of groups and subgroups based on
similarities which reflect their evolutionary relationships. Species is the most
fundamental unit of classification.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1993) also
identified the evolution of life as one of six major areas of study in the life
sciences. In addition to the guidelines provided by the NRC standards (1996),
the AAAS emphasized genetics and molecular biology, and has suggested that
students also know that:
* Molecular evidence substantiates the anatomical evidence for evolution.
* Heritable characteristics can be observed at molecular and whole-organism
levels--in structure, chemistry, or behavior.
* New heritable characteristics can result from new combinations of existing
genes or from mutations of genes in reproductive cells.
* Life on earth is thought to have begun as simple, one-celled organisms
about 4 billion years ago. (p.125, abbreviated).
BARRIERS TO MEETING THE STANDARDS
A review of the
literature on teaching and learning evolution (Demastes, Trowbridge, & Cummins, 1992) revealed several barriers, including certain intuitive ideas held
by students, teleological and anthropomorphic thinking, and the influence of
strongly held beliefs. These and other barriers have been discussed more fully
at an evolution education research conference (Good and others, 1992), and in a
special issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (Volume 31, Issue
5, May 1994).
Whether one surveys school students, college students, teachers, or school
administrators, findings reveal many misunderstandings regarding evolution, and
substantial acceptance of pseudoscientific ideas (Brumby, 1984; Demastes,
Settlage, & Good, 1995; Greene, 1990; Lord & Marino, 1993). In
developing a teaching module on evolution, Bishop and Anderson (1986) identified
several critical barriers that hinder student understanding, including:
1.Failure to make a distinction between the separate processes responsible
for (a) the appearance of traits in a population and (b) the survival of such
traits in the population over time.
2. Failure to recognize that natural selection is dependent on differences
(in genetic traits and in breeding success) among individuals of a population.
3. Misinterpreting the nature of evolutionary change in populations,
believing that all individuals change slowly over time. (pp. I-3)
Scharmann (1993) has provided some
general guidelines for designing lessons based on a conceptual change approach
to instruction. It seems particularly crucial that teachers find ways to enrich
the teaching of evolution given both the conceptual difficulty students have and
the limited attention given to evolution in textbooks (Rosenthal, 1985; Glenn,
1990; Skoog, 1979).
Hilbish and Goodwin (1994) have pointed out that the standard approaches to
teaching natural selection through artificial examples and computer simulations
show what could happen, not what is happening. They propose the use of real
examples of natural selection in action, and they have described activities
using the familiar dandelion. McComas (1991) also emphasized the importance of
direct inquiry and has provided an annotated list of activities from
For teaching about human evolution, Offner (1994a, 1994b) has described
activities using maps of human chromosomes to illustrate mechanisms of
evolutionary change. Gipps (1991) described using casts of anthropoid skulls,
and Riss (1993) suggested a related activity using photocopies of skulls.
THE "CREATIONIST" RESISTANCE
Perhaps most unsettling is the
finding that a substantial proportion of high school biology teachers hold
pseudoscientific beliefs, with nearly 40% thinking "there are sufficient
problems with the theory of evolution to cast doubts on its validity" (Eve &
Dunn, 1990). Those holding such views seem particularly vulnerable to the
influence of various groups wishing to reduce attention to evolution in science
classes. The teaching of evolution has been a source of controversy in American
schools throughout the century (Larson, 1985; Nelkin, 1982), and advocates of
evolution have continued to offer rebuttals to creationist claims (Berra, 1990;
Ruse, 1982). In the early 1980s, the controversy led to a conference to clarify
issues (Zetterberg, 1983). Though many scientific, religious, and educational
organizations explicitly support the teaching of evolution (McCollister, 1989),
many individuals also endorse the importance of upholding the integrity of
science while also acknowledging the validity of deeply held religious beliefs
(Hanson, 1986). Educators wanting more information supportive of evolution
education from a Christian perspective may be interested in a resource packet,
"Creationism, the church, and the public schools," available from the United
Church of Christ Resources, Inc. (call 1-800-537-3394), or a booklet by the
American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) entitled, "Teaching science in a climate
of controversy." The ASA is an organization of Christians with academic degrees
in science that takes no official position, but supports the teaching of
evolution as science. Contact the ASA at P.O. Box 668, Ipswich, MA 01938-0668
(Call (508) 356-5656; E-mail: [email protected]
American Association for the Advancement of
Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University
Berra, T. M. (1990). Evolution and the myth of creationism. Stanford:
Stanford University Press.
Bishop, B. A., & Anderson, C. W. (1986). Evolution by natural selection:
A teaching module. (Occasional Paper No. 91). East Lansing: The Institute for
Research on Teaching, Michigan State University. [ED 272 383]
Bishop, B. A., & Anderson, C. W. (1990). Student conceptions of natural
selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching,
Brumby, M. N. (1984). Misconceptions about the concept of natural selection
by medical biology students. Science Education, 68, 493-503.
Demastes, S. S., Trowbridge, J. E., & Cummins, C. L. (1992). Information
from science education literature on the teaching and learning of evolution. In
R. G. Good, J. E. Trowbridge, S. S. Demastes, J. H. Wandersee, M. S. Hafner,
& C. L. Cummins (Eds.). Proceedings of the 1992 Evolution Education Research
Conference, (pp.42-71). Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University.
Demastes, S. S., Settlage, J., & Good, R. (1995). Students' conceptions
of natural selection and its role in evolution: Cases of replication and
comparison. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(5), 535-550.
Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of
evolution. The American Biology Teacher, 35(3), 125-129.
Eve, R., & Dunn, D. (1990). Psychic powers, astrology, & creationism
in the classroom? The American Biology Teacher, 52(1), 10-21.
Gipps, J. (1991). Skulls and human evolution: the use of casts of anthropoid
skulls in teaching concepts of human evolution. Journal of Biological Education,
Glenn, W. (1990). Treatment of selected concepts of organic evolution and the
history of life on earth in three series of high school earth science textbooks.
Science Education, 74(1), 37-52.
Good, R. G., Trowbridge, J. E., Demastes, S. S., Wandersee, J. H., Hafner, M.
S., & Cummins, C. L. (1992). Proceedings of the 1992 Evolution Education
Research Conference. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.
Greene, E. D., Jr. (1990). The logic of university students' misunderstanding
of natural selection. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27, 875-885.
Hanson, R. W. (Ed.). (1986). Science and creation: Geological, theological,
and educational perspectives. New York: Macmillan.
Hilbish, T. J., & Goodwin, M. (1994). A simple demonstration of natural
selection in the wild using the common dandelion. The American Biology Teacher,
Larson, D. J. (1985). Trial and error: The American controversy over creation
and evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lord, T., & Marino, S. (1993). How university students view the theory of
evolution. The American Biology Teacher, 52(1), 353-357.
McCollister, B. (Ed.). (1989). Voices for evolution. Berkeley, CA: The
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
McComas, W. F. (1991). Resources for teaching evolutionary biology labs. The
American Biology Teacher, 53(4), 205-209.
Moore, J. A. (1984). Science as a way of knowing-evolutionary biology.
American Zoologist, 24(2), 467-534.
National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards.
Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Nelkin, D. (1982). The creation controversy: Science or scripture in the
schools. Boston: Beacon Press.
Offner, S. (1994a). Using chromosomes to teach evolution I. Conserved genes
& gene families. The American Biology Teacher, 56(2), 86-93.
Offner, S. (1994b). Using chromosomes to teach evolution II. Chromosomal
rearrangements in speciation events. The American Biology Teacher, 56(2), 79-85.
Riss, P. H. (1993). A ration explanation for evolution. Science Scope, 16
Rosenthal, D. B. (1985). Evolution in high school biology textbooks:
1963-1983. Science Education, 69(5), 637-648.
Ruse, M. (1982). Darwinism defended: A guide to the evolution controversies.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Scharmann, L. C. (1993). Teaching evolution: Designing successful
instruction. The American Biology Teacher, 55(8), 481-486.
Skoog, G. (1979). Topic of evolution in secondary school biology textbooks.
Science Education, 63(5) 621-640.
Zetterberg, J. P. (Ed.). (1983). Evolution versus creationism: The public
education controversy. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC). The ERIC database includes
bibliographic information for approximately 800 items on the teaching and
learning of evolution, from journal articles about classroom activities to
research findings about student conceptions. Search the database using
descriptors such as: evolution, biology, science education, science activities,
science instruction, science curriculum, scientific concepts, genetics,
misconceptions, creationism, and controversial issues course content For more
information, contact ERIC/CSMEE, (800) 276-0462 or (614) 292-6717; Fax: (614)
292-0263; E-mail: [email protected]
National Center for Science Education (NCSE). The NCSE sponsors several
activities to support the teaching of evolution. The organization publishes a
quarterly newsletter for members, and a semi-annual journal, Creation/Evolution.
NCSE also distributes many books and sponsors many seminars and workshops. For
more information, contact NCSE, P.O. Box 9477, Berkeley, CA 94709. Telephone:
(800) 290-6006 or (510) 526-1674; Fax: (510) 526-1675; E-mail: [email protected]
Harvard's Evolution Virtual Library
This World Wide Web server provides an extensive collection of Internet links
to organizations, publications, academic programs, museums, collections, and
exhibits. This is a good place to start a search for current information
relating to evolution.
The Talk.Origins Archive
This home page presents files from a UserNet group, talk.origins. Though
strongly oriented toward issues relating to evolution and creation, this site
presents some very readable essays on evolutionary theory, findings, and