Now evolving in biology classes: a testier climate
Some science teachers say they're encountering fresh resistance to the topic of evolution - and it's coming from their students.
Nearly 30 years of teaching evolution in Kansas has taught Brad Williamson to expect resistance, but even this veteran of the trenches now has his work cut out for him when students raise their hands.Skip to next paragraph
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That's because critics of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection are equipping families with books, DVDs, and a list of "10 questions to ask your biology teacher."
The intent is to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of students as to the veracity of Darwin's theory of evolution.
The result is a climate that makes biology class tougher to teach. Some teachers say class time is now wasted on questions that are not science-based. Others say the increasingly charged atmosphere has simply forced them to work harder to find ways to skirt controversy.
On Thursday, the Science Hearings Committee of the Kansas State Board of Education begins hearings to reopen questions on the teaching of evolution in state schools.
The Kansas board has a famously zigzag record with respect to evolution. In 1999, it acted to remove most references to evolution from the state's science standards. The next year, a new - and less conservative - board reaffirmed evolution as a key concept that Kansas students must learn.
Now, however, conservatives are in the majority on the board again and have raised the question of whether science classes in Kansas schools need to include more information about alternatives to Darwin's theory.
But those alternatives, some science teachers report, are already making their way into the classroom - by way of their students.
In a certain sense, stiff resistance on the part of some US students to the theory of evolution should come as no surprise.
Even after decades of debate, Americans remain deeply ambivalent about the notion that the theory of natural selection can explain creation and its genesis.
A Gallup poll late last year showed that only 28 percent of Americans accept the theory of evolution, while 48 percent adhere to creationism - the belief that an intelligent being is responsible for the creation of the earth and its inhabitants.
But if reluctance to accept evolution is not new, the ways in which students are resisting its teachings are changing.
"The argument was always in the past the monkey-ancestor deal," says Mr. Williamson, who teaches at Olathe East High School. "Today there are many more arguments that kids bring to class, a whole fleet of arguments, and they're all drawn out of the efforts by different groups, like the intelligent design [proponents]."
It creates an uncomfortable atmosphere in the classroom, Williamson says - one that he doesn't like. "I don't want to ever be in a confrontational mode with those kids ... I find it disheartening as a teacher."
Williamson and his Kansas colleagues aren't alone. An informal survey released in April from the National Science Teachers Association found that 31 percent of the 1,050 respondents said they feel pressure to include "creationism, intelligent design, or other nonscientific alternatives to evolution in their science classroom."
These findings confirm the experience of Gerry Wheeler, the group's executive director, who says that about half the teachers he talks to tell him they feel ideological pressure when they teach evolution.
And according to the survey, while 20 percent of the teachers say the pressure comes from parents, 22 percent say it comes primarily from students.
In this climate, science teachers say they must find new methods to defuse what has become a politically and emotionally charged atmosphere in the classroom. But in some cases doing so also means learning to handle well-organized efforts to raise doubts about Darwin's theory.
Darwin's detractors say their goal is more science, not less, in evolution discussions.
The Seattle-based Discovery Institute distributes a DVD, "Icons of Evolution," that encourages viewers to doubt Darwinian theory.