No Compromise On Teaching Evolution by John Koonz (September 1996)

Ican’t blame students for saying they don’t believe in evolution. No one should accept that a big bang or evolution occurred based on what little information can be found in most of our public school textbooks. The textbook issued to my eighth graders only mentions the big bang once, on the second to last page of the book. It is important to go into much more detail if our students are to learn about the most important concepts in modern science.

In college I became very interested in the evolution of life on Earth and read all the books I could find by Stephen J. Gould. I naively assumed that the legal victories over creationism would virtually end the controversy before I could get involved. In one of Gould’s essays he explained that if high-school biology courses were being taught properly then evolution would be a central theme through out the year. All the effort spent fighting creationism in the courts would be wasted if the subject of evolution was ignored by classroom teachers. The real victory had gone to the creationists. They had succeeded in scaring teachers away from stressing the grand unifying theme of all biology.

I started my first year teaching earth-science by trying to tell the history of our universe from the big bang to the present. Unfortunately, my slippery grasp of classroom discipline precluded me from doing more than assigning busy work. Years later, at a different school, I was teaching one section of seventh-grade life science and five of eighth-grade earth science. I disliked having two preparations and devised a plan to make the most of it.

I developed an evolution unit for my life science class that went far beyond the text book. I wanted to counter the misunderstandings my students seem to have about evolution. I also figured it was just a matter of time until a fundamentalist parent would get upset and complain. As it happened no one complained or threatened me with a lawsuit. I did, however, discover just how enjoyable teaching about evolution could be.

The following year I took a job teaching life science at Westview Middle School. I decided to pull out all the stops and teach the entire course from an evolutionary perspective. I set the stage by explaining how the universe began in an explosion of matter and energy. Next I talked about the synthesis of elements inside stars and the development of our solar system from a spinning cloud of dust and gas. I introduced the concept of new organisms appearing at different points along the geologic time scale. I did not ignore transitional fossil forms when I talked about the different phyla and classes of organisms. My favorite unit was a 12-page comic book project that I wrote covering the highlights of the history of life on Earth. The year went pretty well. During class discussion on the evolution of the hominids I was only accused of devil worshiping once.

I am now teaching all eighth-grade earth science again. Over the last few years I have learned a lot more about cosmology and evolution. I spend the first semester teaching the way I had dreamed of doing it years ago. That old comic book project has evolved into a 157-page textbook, A Guide Book to Parts of Our Universe from Planck Time to the Hominids. My book includes some of the latest findings concerning the history of our universe and the evolution of life on Earth.

I have developed a few strategies for teaching cosmology and evolution. Students must first understand how science works before learning about “controversial” topics. The correct definition of a scientific theory must be stressed. When I sat down to write the introduction to evolution for my book I was influenced by Bob Truett’s article “Only a Theory” in the August ’95 Freethought Today. He said it all very well. Every time a student starts using the word “theory” to mean “guess,” I stop what I’m doing and review the real definition. Fundamentalists seem to view scientists as being part of some kind of conspiracy. Whenever possible I point out various debates within the scientific community as examples of scientists using a free marketplace of ideas to search for the truth.

It is possible to avoid much conflict with creationist students and parents by making the course a win-win situation. Once fundamentalist students are made to feel safe from ridicule and reprisals they can actually be an asset. When properly encouraged they will ask interesting questions hoping to expose evolution as a lie. Good. They are being skeptical about fantastic-sounding ideas. That is what a scientist is supposed to do. It helps that I am familiar with all the standard creationist arguments. I want my students to understand that they have a right to question everything they hear. This is important for another reason. A parent would look ridiculous accusing me of brainwashing kids when I am giving extra credit to students for checking on my facts and asking good questions.

Since many important concepts are abstract I have my students act out various events in the history of the universe. For example, each student gets to be either a proton or neutron during the synthesis of light elements that occurred in the early universe. They begin at a central point in a vacant lot and spread out while occasionally colliding to form elements such as deuterium.

When covering unfamiliar topics it is very important that you provide enough material to back up your statements without getting too technical. If it becomes too difficult many students will become confused. If it is too simple they may not be convinced that scientists really know what they are talking about. I avoid teleological phrases such as saying that birds are designed to fly. Although many otherwise good books do this, I think it is a mistake. There is no evidence to support the idea that any living thing is designed.

This past year was the first time that any parent complained about my evolution unit. The initial confrontation occurred in mid-November in the principal’s office. Throughout the meeting the parents demonstrated a complete ignorance of basic science. At one point the woman complained quite bitterly about the amount of time I spent on my “cosmetology” unit. They admitted to not having read more than about four or five pages of my book. I had included the famous quote from Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” These parents were outraged that I had said this to “impressionable young children.” They expressed deep concerns that some of my students might remember this quote when they take biology in high school.

Creationists know that they will lose support for their cause if they blow their cover and admit their religious motives. I knew what their real motives were. Their kid had spent an hour after school one day trying to convince me that his god made the universe as described in the book of Genesis. He had also tried to demonstrate, using coin tosses, why randomness could never produce organs as complex as an eye. His parents, however, did their utmost to distance themselves from any religious motivation. They said they didn’t want me to stop teaching evolution, they just wanted a more balanced view. They demanded to know why I wasn’t teaching about all the evidence that refutes evolution. It was chilling to see these people, who could not produce a single well-reasoned argument, flawlessly use standard creationist tactics.

Unfortunately my principal sided with the parents. If I were a social studies teacher, he explained, it would be wrong for me to just teach about communism and not capitalism. In front of these parents I was ordered to “teach the other side” of evolution. I absolutely refused to teach any “evidence” refuting evolution based on misunderstandings, out of context quotes or outright lies made by creationists. I challenged the parents to produce real evidence by real scientists that I could use in class.

I was ten minutes late to my sixth-period class. My assistant principal was already there to do my yearly evaluation. She offered to come back another day but I declined. What better time could there be to teach a lesson on the true role of randomness in evolution? I did not lose a single point.

The parents did follow up the meeting with a written list of demands. They also sent me some “evidence” refuting evolution. It was impossible to tell where the copies had come from, though. It seemed that the masthead had been thoughtfully trimmed off. It did include a bibliography. Most of the quotes had come from The Creation Science Quarterly.

A few days later my principal told me that he had discussed the matter with the district’s upper level administrators. The curriculum guide for my course, he was told, was to include theories on the origin of the universe. He was careful to say that I was not being told to teach creationism. It was clear to me that I was being told to water down my course. It was time to bring in reinforcements.

I called Dr. Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education. She was extremely helpful and supportive. If you are teaching evolution and don’t belong to NCSE, then you are crazy. I also discussed the situation with a lawyer friend and her partner. During winter vacation they wrote a letter to the superintendent demanding to know the district’s position on the teaching of creationism. We were prepared to file an injunction against the district in federal court if the district didn’t back down.

On the first day back from winter vacation I had to meet with two of the curriculum coordinators to discuss the situation. My principal, curiously enough, had not been invited. The meeting was actually quite pleasant. After I explained the situation they agreed that I was doing a really great job. They wanted to know how things could be resolved as quickly as possible. A few days later my principal apologized for any misunderstanding that may have occurred. We all thought it was over.

My cosmology/evolution unit was now over. Each of my students got to keep a copy of my book. It was now time to move on to meteorology. I haven’t seen the parents since November but they did not drop their complaints. Over the next few months the curriculum people wasted hours listening to these people and responding to all of their written concerns. I was called to several meetings to rehash the whole thing. The creationists didn’t get their way and were now trying to wear us down. I was becoming increasingly irritated with our administrators for allowing this harassment. I put in a written request to have the student removed from my class but that was refused. The parents requested the form to officially challenge my book. A review committee would be set up for this procedure as soon as the parents filled out the paper work.

School administrators generally solve their problems by making compromises. There is no compromise on this issue. Either we provide quality science education or we give in to religious fanatics. I was very concerned that some one would give up and make a deal with these parents just to get them off our backs. I decided that our administrators could use some encouragement to do the right thing. This is Austin, home of The University of Texas. I took copies of my book to various scientists around campus. I also mailed copies to scientists recommended by Dr. Scott. With each book I included a letter explaining the situation and asking for help. The response was better than I had hoped for in my wildest dreams. Quite a few scientists wrote letters to our district’s administrators strongly supporting the use of my book. Some volunteered to be expert witnesses on the review committee. Now if anyone tries to make a deal with these parents Pflugerville I.S.D. will be the laughing stock of the area.

I would like to encourage all Foundation members to get involved in the fight for quality science education. Visit your local schools and find out if evolution is being taught. If important ideas are being ignored out of fear of religious fanatics then we have a responsibility to do something about it. Freethinkers have as much right to put pressure on school administrators as creationists do.

The author is a Foundation member from Texas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation