Gas station without pumps

2011 January 30

Biology teachers teaching creationism

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:53
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In the most recent issue of Science magazine, there is an article (not free, unfortunately) by Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer, “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom (Science 28 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6016 pp. 404-405 doi:10.1126/science.1198902), which seems to be a followup on their earlier (free) article in PLoS BiologyEvolution and Creationism in America’s Classrooms: A National Portrait (PLoS Biol 6(5): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060124).

Despite the repeated court decisions that creationism is religion and should not be taught in public schools, they found that “13% of the teachers surveyed explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least 1 hour of class time presenting it in a positive light (an additional 5% of teachers report that they endorse creationism in passing or when answering student questions).”  This survey was a “National Survey of High School Biology teachers, based on a nationally representative probability sample of 926 public high school biology instructors.”

So 15–18% of high-school biology teachers are teaching religion instead of science, only “28% of all biology teachers consistently implement the major recommendations and conclusions of the National Research Council.” The majority of high school biology teachers seem to be avoiding the issue, and thus not teaching the most central concept in biology—the model that makes sense out of the data. The authors go on to suggest that these authors do as much harm to science education as the explicit creationists, as they give the message that scientific theories, like religion, are matters of belief rather than of evidence and predictive power.

Their suggestion for improvement seems to me to likely be ineffective: better pre-service training of teachers in biology, with explicit training in evolution. “Better understanding of the field should provide them with more confidence to teach evolution forthrightly, even in communities where public opinion is sympathetic to creationism.”

Maybe this is so, but I somehow doubt that the problem is ignorance of evolution on the part of biology teachers.  I suspect rather that it is the selection process for teachers which discourages those who favor scientific thought processes over religious beliefs from entering the field of secondary education. Education classes are taught fairly dogmatically, with memes repeated for decades even in the face of contradicting research evidence.  Such an education is bound to appeal more to those who accept authority as the basis for an argument than those who look for evidence from experiments that have falsifiable hypotheses.

In any case, it is deeply disturbing that for many high school students the only “science” class they take will be a religion class instead.


  1. When I was a biology undergraduate, I was taking ecology as one of my last requirements. In that class, I was the ONLY student who held the principle that evolution is the only explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. I was depressed then. Now that I’m in K-12 education, I hold no quarter for religion or the superstitions that it carries. Only when we replace ignorance with enlightenment will this ridiculousness die.

    Comment by Ann Priess Fiedler — 2011 January 30 @ 12:34 | Reply

  2. I don’t think creationism should be taught in biology classes, but if it is taught for an hour out of the more than 100 hours a biology class meets in a year, that hardly makes it a religion class.

    Comment by V.R. — 2011 January 30 @ 12:38 | Reply

    • Devoting any time to any religous topic in a science classroom should be considered an affront to education. Religion is the opposite of education. Survey of religions, if necessary, should be limited to a social studies class.

      Comment by Ann Priess Fiedler — 2011 January 30 @ 13:33 | Reply

      • Religion is the opposite of education? Really? Wow.

        Comment by Chris Powers — 2011 February 2 @ 21:00 | Reply

    • Maybe part of the interview process for teachers should include questions about how they would teach evolution. The Science article focuses on high school science teachers. While I am dumbfounded by the number of high school science teachers who don’t advocate evolution (73%!!!), I would guess that the numbers get even more dismal for middle school and grade school teachers. I would think that the science teacher training requirements would be less stringent at the lower grades, allowing more teachers with non-scientific interests to teach science. The irony is that kids in middle school are far less likely to question a science teacher than are high school students. This makes it even more important that teachers who teach science in the lower grades be questioned about their ability to talk about evolution in the class. Scary.

      Comment by m.k. — 2011 January 30 @ 14:35 | Reply

      • There is no question that the situation is worse in the lower grades. I’ve witnessed it.

        Comment by Ann Priess Fiedler — 2011 January 30 @ 16:17 | Reply

  3. Surely it’s a question of the whole attitude with which they approach science, with that one hour revealing explicitly what their implicit assumptions are for all the other hours?

    Comment by HelenS — 2011 January 30 @ 13:31 | Reply

  4. HelenS: I agree. Even more worrisome than “intelligent design” in the biology classroom is teachers who demonstrate a shaky or missing understanding of basic scientific concepts like falsifiability. How could this not be affecting the way they teach science in general?

    I talk about religion in my classroom too. When students bring it up, we talk about the different roles that science and faith play in our lives and societies. Maybe teachers would appreciate, more than lectures on basic evolution, realistic strategies for including faith in the conversation… in ways that do not undermine their subject’s core philosophy.

    Comment by Mylene — 2011 January 31 @ 07:50 | Reply

    • I fear that many science teachers do treat evolution as a faith (something to believe in) rather than a scientific theory testable by experiments. Discussing the difference between a belief and a falsifiable theory is certainly worth some time in science class.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 January 31 @ 09:01 | Reply

      • Exactly. As well, I suspect that teachers are often afraid to discuss religion in class, assuming that it is “thin ice” that is somehow inherently inappropriate. Both science and religion are likely to be treated superficially if philosophy (in either domain) is considered off-limits. It also reminds me of the shocking gaps between how science (and math, and history for that matter) is done in public-school classrooms vs. how it is done by the people who make their living at it. What a rigid and stylized view we have of these “subjects.” Not sure what to do about that.

        Comment by Mylene — 2011 January 31 @ 11:42 | Reply

  5. I read the PLoS article a few days ago and was dismayed by the findings. I live in Louisiana and took HS Biology from a minister’s wife (public school) in the 1980s (“Balanced Treatment for…” was in effect). I went to college as a Biology major thinking that creation was scientific. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had been duped. I can also say that by the time I got to Population Genetics, I had totally “unlearned” the creationism dogma and thoroughly learned the correct Biology. I do feel that a course that focuses on evolution should be required for ALL teachers of any grade that will ever teach any life science. It definitely worked for me, as I had a total paradigm shift.

    Comment by TLJackson — 2011 January 31 @ 16:05 | Reply

  6. […] Biology teachers teaching creationism […]

    Pingback by Blogoversary « Gas station without pumps — 2011 June 5 @ 10:51 | Reply

  7. Your bold comments inspire me as educator.

    Comment by Frisbie — 2011 October 3 @ 17:21 | Reply

  8. […] Biology teachers teaching creationism […]

    Pingback by Blog year in review « Gas station without pumps — 2012 January 1 @ 14:16 | Reply

  9. […] Biology teachers teaching creationism […]

    Pingback by Second Blogoversary « Gas station without pumps — 2012 June 2 @ 18:15 | Reply

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