Evolution Workshop Helps Teachers Reconcile Science, Faith

The workshop also increases their confidence to answer students’ and parents’ questions.

Evolution

Evolution can be a rough topic for science teachers.

On one side is a group claiming the Bible’s version of creation is literal and to believe anything else imperils one’s salvation. On the other side is a group claiming that God has no role in evolution and anyone who thinks it does is unintelligent.

The debate can create discomfort in anyone but especially in the individuals who have to explain evolution to children and answer the questions they’ll have about it.

That’s why Patricia Hawley, a professor of educational psychology in the Texas Tech University College of Education, has created the workshop, “Declawing the Dinosaur in Your Classroom: Reducing Teachers’ Anxiety about Evolution,” with the help of Matt Olson, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. The workshop is designed to give teachers the tools to reduce their anxiety so their confidence is boosted when it’s time to teach the topic.

Hawley

Patricia Hawley

“Serious difficulties can arise when we are told – incorrectly – that we cannot accept evolutionary theory and still have faith in God, or that accepting evolution undermines salvation. Extreme voices from an atheistic perspective claim that there is no room for God in evolution,” Hawley said. “The vast majority are left questioning somewhere between these two positions and understandably get lost in the rhetoric. This middle position can be fraught with anxiety. Our workshop speaks to teachers who are in the middle of the extremes, which is most of them.”

The pervasiveness of the debate in popular culture means most people are aware of it; this can complicate teachers’ jobs in the classroom.

“Teachers are in a very difficult position fielding concerns from students and parents that arise when they worry that science and faith are in conflict,” she explained. “There are even websites for students that provide ‘questions for your biology teacher’ that in the end undermine authority and confidence of the teacher. Often the teachers are not prepared to answer them well, such as, ‘Doesn’t evolution violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics?’ Our workshop gives them to the tools for addressing these concerns effectively and with respect for where they are coming from. At the same time, we are teaching evolution in a way that is completely accepted by the scientific community.”

Hawley said teachers’ religious and scientific concerns are often based upon common misconceptions about evolution that make it appear science and faith are at odds, which she stressed they don’t have to be.

Evolution

“Because teachers’ faiths give their lives so much purpose, we ought not to dismiss that part of them. Our curriculum addresses their faith concerns without diminishing their truths,” Hawley said. “Instead, we’re targeting how they think about evolution and the nature of science. I give the teachers the tools to reconcile these on their own.

“Often times, what we hear from anti-evolutionists and pro-evolutionists is confusing. We help the teachers wade through the arguments to support them in finding their own firmer footing. In turn, they can better answer questions from students, parents and even the community.”

While the evolution-creation debate is often represented as a clash of beliefs, Hawley said the sticking points about evolutionary theory are less about beliefs than many people think.

“People in general are skeptical about the strength of evolution as an ‘origin theory,’ as in, the origin of life or the origin of the universe,” she said. “We show them it is not an origin-of-the-universe or even an origin-of-life theory. Then they realize that their beliefs about these things play little role. It is a theory that explains change. Even the Creation Museum in Kentucky endorses it as a theory of change. But whether or not a teacher believes that God created a world where such change takes place plays little role in effective teaching. You can be a theistic evolutionist and be an effective teacher of evolution. It is exactly this point we want teachers to feel comfortable with.”

"Whether or not a teacher believes that God created a world where such change takes place plays little role in effective teaching. You can be a theistic evolutionist and be an effective teacher of evolution. It is exactly this point we want teachers to feel comfortable with."

Starting from that perspective, the workshop content was developed based entirely on the misconceptions that give the impression that faith and science cannot be reconciled.

“For example, ‘if we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?’ can quickly be explained by the fact that biologists do not claim we evolved from monkeys, because evolution is not linear,” Hawley said. “We also explain that the Cambrian Explosion – the ‘sudden’ emergence of various animals – did not in fact come out of nowhere and actually occurred over the course of 20-30 million years. Not so sudden at all. Teachers don’t have the time to research all the misconceptions to work them through, so we have done this for them.”

Evolution

The reactions from workshop participants have been stronger and more positive than Hawley anticipated.

“Teachers held misconceptions less after the workshop than before, and they reported feeling more positive and less negative toward evolution and teaching it,” she said. “Most importantly, they reported greater confidence in the classroom. Some of the teachers even shared a year later that they used our handbook to discuss sticking points about evolution with their students and school communities in a way that did not require an atheistic outlook. In this way, our workshop was both freeing and empowering. And teachers were appreciative that someone was actually talking directly to their concerns.”

One workshop participant commented: “I really enjoyed the workshop and it made me feel much more prepared to handle tough questions students bring up about evolution and God. The workshop helped me to personally see that my passion for science and my faith do not have to be in conflict.”

Because of the positive results she’s seen, Hawley’s next goal is to be able to expand the workshop so more teachers can participate.

Scott Ridley, dean of the College of Education, said the workshop’s message should resonate with teachers.

“I am one of those persons who wants and needs to hear this information,” he said. “I believe we do teachers and children a disservice to leave them with the belief they are in spiritual jeopardy if they try to reason through evolution as possibly being compatible with creationism.”


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