Browse Introduction: Goals | Themes | Working with teachers


The overarching goal of the proposed workshop should be to improve the amount and quality of evolution education. By "amount," we mean to increase the number of teachers who teach evolution, as well as the amount of time an individual teacher spends on the topic. By "quality," we refer to improving the accuracy and currency of the information presented in the classroom. By "evolution," we refer broadly to the concept that the earth and its inhabitants have a history, that the present is different from the past. Evolution is thus a topic within astronomy (cosmology), geology (earth history and planetary geology), paleontology (fossil record, deep time), biology (common ancestry of living things), and anthropology (biological and cultural changes of human beings).



Throughout the workshop, four important unifying themes need to be communicated explicitly and implicitly. They may seem obvious, but within the current US climate, evolution is accepted by only half of the population, thus the need to reinforce these themes as you plan the workshop.
  1. Evolution is good science
  2. Evolution is exciting science
  3. Evolution is important
  4. Evolution needs to be taught

1.) Evolution is good science. Judging from poll data, the public has little understanding of evolution, largely because it is inadequately taught at the K-12 level—and because many college graduates do not understand it either. In letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and various forms of written, web, and visual propaganda, antievolutionists have surprising success promoting the idea that evolution is a "theory in crisis" and that scientists are "giving up on evolution." Teachers need assurance that evolution is good science; moreover, they need access to examples of evidence of evolution that they can use in their classrooms. Another aspect of demonstrating that "evolution is good science" is to reflect on the nature of science itself; if people understand how science works, and can see science's strengths and weaknesses, it will become clear to them that, indeed, "evolution is good science."

2.) Evolution is exciting science. Evolution is full of wonderful explanations and ideas and discoveries. Your primary difficulty will be in limiting your material to what can be presented in a 4-6 hour session, and the paramount criterion in making that choice should be "what is most helpful to the teachers." In thinking of exciting content, we suggest that the subject matter of evolution can usefully be conceptualized as being divided into pattern and process. The pattern of evolution refers to "what happened." Cosmology, Earth history, and the history of life through time are reflections of the pattern of evolution. Different societies will discuss different subject areas as appropriate to their disciplines. The process of evolution refers to the mechanisms that bring about change through time. Similarly, geologists may wish to discuss sedimentation, plate tectonics, or transitional fossils, whereas biologists may focus on natural selection, "evo-devo", and the like.

3.) Evolution is important science. For many students and their teachers, the fact that evolution is exciting science is sufficient to warrant its teaching. But it is also important to reinforce that astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, and other scientific disciplines only "make sense" in light of evolution. Providing specific examples of how the concept of evolution unifies your scientific discipline is an extremely helpful way of demonstrating to teachers that "evolution is important." In addition, there are practical reasons for understanding the concept of evolution: mineral and petroleum exploration, global climatology, medicine, and agriculture. Different societies might discuss practical applications of evolutionary theory in their subject matter as part of the workshop.

4.) Evolution needs to be taught. Many teachers in the US are under pressure to avoid teaching evolution, or to qualify the subject by "balancing" it with creation science or intelligent design "theory." With such pressures, many teachers need support in dealing with attacks on evolution. One of the ways of contributing to the overall goal of increasing the quality and quantity of evolution education is to increase teachers' "comfort levels" regarding the topic of evolution. This is done by improving their knowledge about the science of evolution (see Theme #3), as well as by arming them with ideas for handling challenges to the teaching of evolution. As will be discussed below, another way to help teachers to deal with attacks on evolution is by providing time during workshops for them to interact with one another, share problems, and discuss solutions.

It is also essential to reflect upon common misconceptions about evolution. Scientists, who are experts on scientific content, are in a good position to refute misconceptions held by both students and teachers.


Working With Teachers

Science teachers and academic scientists are natural allies and colleagues, so it is sometimes puzzling when their collaborations are less than successful. Sometimes academic scientists, confident of their superiority in the scientific realm, overlook the fact that teachers have special expertise in selecting and delivering scientific information in age-appropriate ways that they themselves lack. Sometimes teachers are too quick to be offended by perceived slights. For a successful workshop, it is essential to communicate an atmosphere of trust and respect from the very first. Have mutual respect for one another's strengths. You'll be surprised at what you can learn from educators that you can use at the college level.

In addition to "atmosphere," there are other essentials that will make your workshop more valuable to teachers. Virtually all state educational standards (and the various national science education standards) promote experiential ("hands-on") learning, and teachers are expected to incorporate such approaches in their teaching. We have, therefore, organized our workshops to include such activities—perhaps more than most academics are used to. We strongly encourage you to do so as well. Experiential learning activities will be familiar to the teachers as well as highly useful for them. Teachers are also incredibly busy. As much as they might want to, they just don't have a lot of time to develop new materials around what may be new scientific knowledge. The best thing you can do is to give educators good materials that they can take right into the classroom with little additional effort or preparation on their parts.

It is also important to keep in mind that middle or high school teachers are not going to be delivering information at either the rate or sophistication level at which you teach in college. Their responsibility is to select out the most important and salient "big ideas" from the discipline, and transmit them in a way that ensures that students will understand and retain the information. Get used to necessary simplification. All the details of natural selection, adaptive radiation, radiometric dating, or whatever topic you are discussing are not necessary to get the "big ideas" across, and the more you can delineate these big ideas for teachers, the more helpful you will be.

We have found that working with our educator colleagues has been extraordinarily rewarding—and also a lot of fun. You are likely to discover, as we have, that educators are smart, hardworking, outgoing, enjoyable people that you will be pleased to spend time with. Enjoy your workshop!

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