Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Educating Educators

There is a new survey of high school biology teachers published in PLoS:

The good news, as shown in the above chart, is that biology teachers are more likely to accept evolutionary theory than the general public. The worst news is how little time is devoted to the subject at all:

[W]e found that those who take most seriously the advice of NSES to make evolution a unifying theme spent the most time on evolution. Overall, teachers devoted an average of 13.7 hours to general evolutionary processes (including human evolution), with 59% allocating between three and 15 hours of class time. Only 2% excluded evolution entirely. But significantly fewer teachers covered human evolution, which is not included as an NSES benchmark. Of teachers surveyed, 17% did not cover human evolution at all in their biology class, while a majority of teachers (60%) spent between one and five hours of class time on it.

On the other hand:

We found that 25% of teachers indicated that they devoted at least one or two classroom hours to creationism or intelligent design. However, these numbers can be misleading because while some teachers may cover creationism to expose students to an alternative to evolutionary theory, others may bring up creationism in order to criticize it or in response to student inquiries. Questions that simply ask about time devoted to creationism, therefore, will overstate support for creationism or intelligent design by counting both those who teach creationism as a serious subject and those holding it up for criticism or ridicule. We asked a series of supplemental questions that provided some additional insight into the character of creationism in the classroom. Of the 25% of teachers who devoted time to creationism or intelligent design, nearly half agreed or strongly agreed that they teach creationism as a "valid scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species." Nearly the same number agreed or strongly agreed that when they teach creationism or intelligent design they emphasize that "many reputable scientists view these as valid alternatives to Darwinian Theory".

On the other hand, many teachers devoted time to creationism either to emphasize that religious theories have no place in the science classroom or to challenge the legitimacy of these alternatives. Of those who spent time on the subject, 32% agreed or strongly agreed that when they teach creationism they emphasize that almost all scientists reject it as a valid account of the origin of species, and 40% agreed or strongly agreed that when they teach creationism they acknowledge it as a valid religious perspective, but one that is inappropriate for a science class.

The reason for the lack of time spent isn't just the personal beliefs of teachers:

[O]pposition to evolution can be especially intense at the local level, where teachers live and work. This may occur through the election of "stealth" school board candidates, or when teachers face organized and unorganized opposition and questioning of their curriculum from religiously motivated members of the community.

Community pressures place significant stress on teachers as they try to teach evolution, stresses that can lead them to de-emphasize, downplay, or ignore the topic. This is particularly true of the many teachers who lack a full understanding of evolution, or at least confidence in their knowledge of it.

It would seem that the short term solution is for people interested in good science education to be as noisy and insistent of proper science education as those who are against it and, in the long term, to demand better education of the educators.

Via Blog Around the Clock.

For the record, I hate the Gallup poll questions. Argh!
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