Evolution Teacher Promotes Gentler Way to Propagandize Students
Flummoxed by stable numbers of students not accepting Darwin, a teacher tries a gentler nudge.
Michael Reiss has been teaching evolution for 30 years in the UK. He has come to the conclusion that browbeating students into “accepting” evolution is not effective. Expressing his thoughts at The Conversation, the professor from University College London thinks teachers need to change from stick to carrot, because the stick isn’t working.
But the fact is that a large number of young people are reluctant to accept evolution. In the UK, 10 to 15% of students feel this way. The percentage is even higher in many countries – in the US, a country with a high proportion of practising Christians, it’s as high as 40%.
As both a professor of science education, with research expertise in evolutionary biology, and a priest in the Church of England, I believe that we need to rethink the way we teach evolution. I’ve spent 30 years teaching evolution to school students, undergraduates and teachers in training. It is clear to me that the way the subject is typically taught in schools can force religious children to choose between their faith and evolution. This is as true for Christian students as it is for Muslims, Orthodox Jews and members of other religions.
It’s not that Reiss has any doubts about his own faith in Darwinism. He began with a strong affirmation of faith, not in the Biblical doctrines once affirmed by the Church of England, but in the doctrines of Darwin:
Evolution is near universally regarded by the scientific community as a cornerstone of modern biology. Treating it as anything other than incontrovertible fact can therefore incur the wrath of scientists, who highlight the extensive depth and breadth of robust scientific evidence supporting the theory.
Certainly he is not about to incur the wrath of his colleagues. Reiss, therefore, aims to increase the percentage of students who “accept” evolution. His only concern is how to achieve that. His main proposal is to treat evolution as a “sensitive issue.” But since he has just said it is a “cornerstone of modern biology” supported by an “extensive depth and breadth of robust scientific evidence,” this is clearly an accommodation to students at best, or a lie at worst. That a Darwinist would advocate subterfuge should not be surprising. Darwinian morality would certainly accept pretense, just like a stick insect pretending to be a twig. And so Reiss pretends to make evolution a sensitive issue, using the terms of political correctness: diversity and inclusion.
I propose that a way forward may be to teach evolution as a sensitive issue.
A teacher who approaches evolution in this way is respectful of their students’ beliefs and attentive to their emotional states, rather than dismissing them as “silly”, “ignorant” or “causing problems”. Such teachers would employ teaching approaches that embrace diversity, address classroom bias, and hold in conscious awareness the individual experiences of students. These techniques are commonly used when teaching sensitive issues such as sex, pornography, ethnicity, religion, death studies, terrorism, and others….
As a science educator, I believe in taking seriously and respectfully the lived experiences of religious students. It is not the role of educators to forcefully convert doubters into accepting evolution, but to build an inclusive classroom that encourages those less comfortable with the concept to willingly engage with it. What is important is that all students can explore and understand the theory in a context that doesn’t force them to choose between science and their religious beliefs.
Presumably this would gently nudge the doubters toward accepting evolution by having them lay down their defenses. And yet one thing is clear: any evidence opposing evolution would be omitted from the lesson plans.
Teachers would still cover the full range of content when teaching evolution. However, when, for example, teaching about how humans and other mammals share a common ancestor, they would not actively seek to establish agreement among all students. When running a group exercise about the age of the Earth, they might use clicker technology that anonymises responses.
Clicker technology, as described by the NEA, is a way for a teacher to poll students’ answers without revealing their identities. For example, students could text their responses to an app that gathers and presents the data on screen as a bar chart. It would also allow the teacher to see how many Darwin doubters or un-moyboys there are in the classroom.
According to Reiss, the goal of this kind of evolution is to gently nudge the students toward accepting evolution by not fearing it.
Though more work needs to be undertaken to test the effect of shifts in teacher approaches, teaching evolution in this way is likely to help some students to consider evolution as a possibility who would otherwise not do so. People are more open to change when not put on the defensive.
But is Reiss subject to change himself? What would happen if other science educators used his method on him? What if they taught Darwin dogmatism as a “sensitive subject” and presented “extensive depth and breadth of robust scientific evidence supporting the theory” of intelligent design? Would he call this inclusive? Would he appreciate the exercise in diversity? Or would it “incur the wrath” of his own Darwin dogmatism? Questions like this are clearly the furthest thing from his mind. He ends,
Evolution does not need to be incompatible with faith. Good science teaching can be invaluable in helping students resolve any perceived conflict, at a crucial age that shapes how they see and interact with the world. I want everyone to be able to experience the same fascination that I did when I learnt about how fossils are formed, and how natural selection works. Whether it awakens scientists who would have otherwise turned elsewhere, or simply helps students to understand one another, rethinking how we teach evolution can only be a good thing for society.
Since Reiss’s method involves one-way communication, with a single acceptable outcome, it represents propaganda, not education (see “The New Teacher” in the 21 Dec 2005 entry). Reiss is not motivated by “facts and arguments on both sides of each question,” as Darwin advised. He is not interested in teaching the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s theory. He wants to lure students into the spiritual ecstasy he himself felt when he saw a vision that the Stuff Happens Law might explain everything.
Let’s dispose of the fallacies in the line, “Evolution does not need to be incompatible with faith.” Reiss is presuming that evolution represents “science,” and having a religious objection to evolution represents “faith.” Actually, if we define “faith” as the willing suspension of disbelief when confronted with reams of evidence contradicting one’s position, it takes vastly more faith to believe evolution than to accept the historical evidence supporting the Bible.
Reiss has to believe in multiple cosmic miracles to support evolution. He has to believe that nothing banged and became his brain through a long process of accidents. He has to suspend all logic in order to think that the Stuff Happens Law invented morality and logic. His classroom would be a prime venue for the new Science Uprising videos to interrupt his lessons.
If you know Dr Reiss, how about trying a nice, gentle approach on him. Take him out to lunch. Ask him some gentle questions, like “What, to you, does natural selection mean?” Nudge him toward admitting that it is equivalent to the Stuff Happens Law (see “Time to Ditch Natural Selection?” and “New Version of Natural Selection Goes Mystical“). Work with him to calculate, on the back of a napkin, the mathematical probability of getting a single protein. Discuss the fine-tuning that would require a big bang to produce a habitable universe. Gently probe his reasons for trusting in the Stuff Happens Law until he admits that he accepts it by faith. Assure him right then you do not want to incur the wrath of his Darwinist colleagues, or risk him losing his D-Merit Badge. Then say with a wink and a nod, as you hand him copies of Signature in the Cell and Darwin Devolves, “Thank you, Dr Reiss. I certainly don’t want to cause you distress by upsetting your faith.”