Happy Darwin Day! Today Charles Darwin is turning 204 years young. While many of us may be aware of the abysmal state of affairs of the teaching of the theory of evolution in classrooms in the U.S. there is not much focus on the situation here in Canada. Here is a short writeup on the state of teaching evolution in Alberta high school classrooms. This essay is based on an assignment I wrote for my EDSE 352 class (Curriculum and Teaching for Secondary School Biological Sciences Majors I).
Four decades ago Theodosius Dobzhansky, on of the most influential evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, published his essay Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution (Dobzhansky, 1973). In this seminal essay Dobzhansky explores the central role evolution plays in explaining the interrelatedness of biological phenomena with the aim of establish evolution as a unifying idea in biology education. While the scientific community has confirmed Dobzhansky’s notion of Darwin’s evolutionary theory as the unifying idea in biology, among the public and in schools the concept has not gained the same acceptance. A recent poll showed that while 61% of Canadians think that humans have evolved only 48% of Albertans share this view, which is the lowest rate in Canada (Angus Reid Public Opinion, 2012).
There are at least two possible sources of misconceptions about evolution in the classroom; firstly, if the teacher is lacking a proper understanding of evolution (Greene, 1990; Christensen, 1998) and, second, when concepts leading up to the evolution unit are covered in earlier grades and in doing so create misconceptions. In the Alberta educational curriculum for science and biology, concepts leading up to evolution are introduced at various grade levels, but it is not until senior high school (Biology 20, Unit B: Ecosystems and Population Change, Alberta Education, 2007) that evolution is explicitly covered. This unit builds on many biological concepts covered in grades 7-9 that have the potential to introduce misconceptions about evolution. For example, one textbook that is approved for the Alberta junior high school science Program of Study (Guy et al., 2001) includes a definition of the concept of adaptation. When the textbook uses earthworms to illustrate the concept it says
"Earthworms have developed special features over time that help them survive in their underground environment." (my emphasis).
The problem with this statement is that it uses the term “developed”, which in a scientific context refers to the ontogeny of individual during their lifespan, as a substitute for “evolved”. Using this term together with the statement “over time” can easily be interpreted as earthworms developing (in a Lamarckian sense) characteristics during their individual lifetime enabling them to live underground. Another example occurs in a grade 9 science textbook (Lindberg et al., 2002) where, under the text briefly covers natural selection and evolution. When presenting the classical case of industrial melanism in the peppered moth it states that
"…the once rare, dark-colored moths became predominant…" (p. 65) (my emphasis).
In this context the word “became” can easily be misinterpreted in several ways. For example, the statement could be interpreted as saying that moths acquire their phenotype during their lifetime in response to a perceived need, an inherently Lamarckian concept.
These are just two examples of potential sources for misconceptions originating in textbook. What these two examples have in common is that the textbooks are not using the correct terminology for concepts that are introduced to students. An analysis of textbooks in other subjects and at different grade levels shows that this practice is common. This suggests that the choices of wording in the above examples are deliberate attempts to rephrase scientific terminology and in doing so creating opportunities for misconceptions to arise. When comparing some of the misconceptions that students have about evolution, e.g. that changes in traits are a result of need/use/disuse, with the terminology used in earlier grades I can only conclude that it is important to teach students the correct terminology from the very beginning. The task for doing this rests on the teacher and hence it becomes fundamentally important that teachers have a thorough understanding of evolutionary concepts, the Nature of Science (NoS) and how it applies to evolutionary theory and the development of evolutionary thought.
Studies have consistently shown that students’ misconceptions about evolution are often based on a naïve understanding of the NoS and the fundamental mechanisms of evolution, often with undertones of Lamarckian evolution (see Alters & Nelson, 2002; Bishop & Anderson, 1990 and reference therein). Some common misconceptions include, e.g.
Because of the prevalence of misconceptions and deeply held non-scientific beliefs many students have about evolution, teachers are likely to be confronted with challenging questions when teaching this concept. Research shows that when students are presented with new information that does not fit with what they already know or believe they are most likely to reject the new information (Sewell, 2002). Examples of teaching strategies allowing teachers to improve students’ understanding of evolution include, e.g. allowing students to evaluate their understanding of evolution from the perspective of the historical development of evolutionary thought, specifically in the context of the shift from Lamarckian to Darwinian evolutionary theories (Jensen & Finlay, 1996). This activity fits into the specific outcome 20-B2.3k in Biology 20. Another strategy that has been shown to be successful in increasing students’ understanding of evolution is the constructivism approach of the 5Es (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) (Burton & Dobson, 2009). An example of this approach is the hands-on modeling exercises sporks and beans that addresses many misconception regarding evolution using a simple and fun inquiry-based activity involving an evolving population of spoons, forks and sporks under resource limitations (Burton & Dobson 2009). This activity dovetails with several specific outcomes in Biology 20, Unit B: Ecosystems and Population Change, e.g. Specific Outcome for Knowledge 20-B2.1k, Specific Outcome for Skills 20-B2.2s, 20-B2.3s, 20-B2.4s (Alberta Education, 2007). This activity also illustrates NoS by incorporating record keeping, hypothesis testing, replication and analysis results (STS 20-B2.1sts, Alberta Education, 2007).
Alberta Education. (2007). Programs of Study, Science. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from Alberta Education: http://education.alberta.ca/media/654841/bio203007.pdf
Alters, B. J., & Nelson, C. E. (2002). Perspective: Teaching Evolution in Higher Education. Evolution, 56 (10), 1891-1901.
Angus Reid Public Opinion. (2012). Britons and Canadians More Likely to Endorse Evolution than Americans. Angus Reid Public Opinion. New York: Angus Reid Public Opinion.
Bishop, B. A., & Anderson, C. W. (1990). Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27 (5), 415-427.
Brumby, M. N. (1984). Misconceptions about the concept of natural selection by medical biology students. Science Education, 68 (4), 492-503.
Burton, S. A., & Dobson, C. (2009). Spork & Bean: Addressing Evolutionary Misconceptions. The American Biology Teacher, 71 (2), 89-91.
Christensen, J. (1998). Teachers Fight for Darwin’s Place in U.S. Classrooms. The New York Times, November 14 issue.
Dawkins, R. (2009). Evolution is Only a Theory. Retrieved January 27, 2013 from YouTube: http://youtu.be/mLeztJkhi4U
Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. The American Biology Teacher, 35, 125-129.
Greene, E.D. Jr. (1990). The Logic of University Students’ Misunderstanding of Natural Selection. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 27(9): 875-885.
Guy, D. et al. (2001). ScienceFocus 7. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ontario.
Jensen, M.S., & Finley, F.N. (1996). Changes in Students’ Understanding of Evolution Resulting from Different Curricular and Instructional Strategies. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 33 (8), 879-900.
Lindberg et al. (2002). ScienceFocus 9. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ontario.
Lord, T., & Marino, S. (1993). How university students view the theory of evolution. Journal of College Science Teaching, 22 (6), 353-357.
Ruthledge, M. L., & Warden, M. A. (2000). Evolutionary theory, the nature of science and high school biology teachers: Critical relationships. The American Biology Teacher, 62 (1), 23-31.
Sewell, A. (2002). Constructivism and Student Misconceptions: What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Them. Australian Science Teachers’ Journal, 48 (4), 24-28.
Science classrooms are unique learning environments unlike any other classrooms. As a matter of fact, some things only happen in science classrooms. Here is a collection of event that happened in my own science classroom over the last school year. It's a growing list, so check back for updates.
Report from yours truly live-tweeting and navigating the melee at GETCA 2015 (Annual Greater Edmonton Teachers' Conference).
Can a pencil be more than just your average run of the mill pencil? The legendary Palomino Blackwing Pearl can take a student or teacher's writing to new heights. We have taken a batch of the Pearls for a spin and are blown away by how much writing and sketching can be transformed by this unassuming pencil.
Dr. Pineda's Classroom is going YouTube with the release of its first screencast on the exciting topic of calculating percents. Only time will tell if this is the start of something big and shiny or just a passing fad.
After several weeks working on setting up habitats for new classroom animals the big day finally arrived. The newest addition to our classroom include aquatic denizens in our new aquarium and a teenage bearded dragon with lots of attitude and no table manners.