In the past week, something amazing happened. It isn’t what we traditionally think of as ground-breaking or life changing, but to millions of young people in one southern state, this will be the first step in a new lens on science…..
Alabama, and the Southeastern US in general, has a long history of controversy when it comes to the teaching and learning of evolution. This isn’t to say that there are not teachers in Alabama who do an amazing job of teaching evolution, but traditionally evolution as a topic of discussion in polite company is a “taboo” likely to draw challenge, rebuke, and/or isolation. Due to our underpinning cultures, prevalence of literalist religious fundamentalism, and focus on states rights vs. federal, we have been in the negative spotlight for our refusal to teach or mention evolution, even going so far as to post disclaimers in student textbooks that explain how evolution is “just a theory” and one interpretation of evidence.
Enter Exhibit A:
You can check out Ken Miller’s dissection of the disclaimer here.
Our standards have long danced around the concept of evolution while outright refusing to mention “the E word” or, in best cases, addressed some concepts but with a weak enough language as to allow teachers to conduct a classroom “hit and run”, where they introduce the concept, discuss their discomfort and/or counter with alternative ideas, if they teach evolutionary concepts at all. Numerous cases regarding the teaching of evolution (or not) have seen the inside of the courtroom, quite a few notably from the Southern states–think Scopes, Aquillard, Epperson, McLean, Freiler, and Selman among others (NCSE 2007) . In light of the negative perceptions many around the world have of our conflict with evolution, it is nice to see Alabama, in a region fraught with conflict over controversial topics (see Louisiana and North Carolina in education news), both historically and presently (Alabama’s anti-science house bills that luckily died in committee), doing something in science that will help students in coming generations. It may not seem like much of a step forward, but considering the jump being made just in language of the standards, it is huge. For example, compare the language and coverage of evolution in life sciences for high school from the 2005/2009 rev. state science standards to that of the new standards:
Describe protective adaptations of animals, including mimicry, camouflage, beak type, migration, and hibernation. 1. Identifying ways in which the theory of evolution explains the nature and diversity of organisms. 2. Describing natural selection, survival of the fittest, geographic isolation, and fossil record
This was the extent of coverage of evolution for high school biology in the earlier standards for education. There were some concepts of evolution touched upon in prior grades, but without mention of the term evolution and with little depth and application. Compare this to the level of detail and focus in the new standards and how early we are beginning with this underpinning concept:
Unity and Diversity
9. Analyze and interpret data from fossils (e.g., type, size, distribution) to provide evidence of organisms and the environments in which they lived long ago (e.g., marine fossils on dry land, tropical plant fossils in arctic areas, fossils of extinct organisms in any environment).
10. Investigate how variations in characteristics among individuals of the same species may provide advantages in surviving, finding mates, and reproducing (e.g., plants having larger thorns being less likely to be eaten by predators, animals having better camouflage coloration being more likely to survive and bear offspring).
11. Construct an argument from evidence to explain the likelihood of an organism’s ability to survive when compared to the resources in a certain habitat (e.g., freshwater organisms survive well, less well, or not at all in saltwater; desert organisms survive well, less well, or not at all in woodlands). a. Construct explanations that forming groups helps some organisms survive. b. Create models that illustrate how organisms and their habitats make up a system in which the parts depend on each other. c. Categorize resources in various habitats as basic materials (e.g., sunlight, air, freshwater, soil), produced materials (e.g., food, fuel, shelter), or as nonmaterial (e.g., safety, instinct, nature-learned behaviors). 3 2015 Alabama Course of Study: Science 25
12. Evaluate engineered solutions to a problem created by environmental changes and any resulting impacts on the types and density of plant and animal populations living in the environment (e.g., replanting of sea oats in coastal areas due to destruction by hurricanes, creating property development restrictions in vacation areas to reduce displacement and loss of native animal populations).*
And Grades 9-12 Biology Core (2015)
Unity and Diversity
13. Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information to explain how organisms are classified by physical characteristics, organized into levels of taxonomy, and identified by binomial nomenclature (e.g., taxonomic classification, dichotomous keys). a. Engage in argument to justify the grouping of viruses in a category separate from living things.
14. Analyze and interpret data to evaluate adaptations resulting from natural and artificial selection that may cause changes in populations over time (e.g., antibiotic-resistant bacteria, beak types, peppered moths, pest-resistant crops).
15. Engage in argument from evidence (e.g., mathematical models such as distribution graphs) to explain how the diversity of organisms is affected by overpopulation of species, variation due to genetic mutations, and competition for limited resources.
16. Analyze scientific evidence (e.g., DNA, fossil records, cladograms, biogeography) to support hypotheses of common ancestry and biological evolution.
Now, for what feels like the first time in a while, we are in the news for doing something right in education, and it is important to both address the excitement of having a new set of state science standards that are nearly identical to the NGSS national standards and look at what still must be done to improve the teaching of evolution in this state, and others. Alabama’s new standards are wonderful and receiving positive attention from bodies such as the NCSE. For the first time, we are not afraid to examine evolution in the standards, have rich language surrounding the concepts of evolution, and include it in vertical scaffolding from a young age. For the first time, teachers who have been teaching evolution as it is intended to be taught from the perspective of the scientific community, have support from state adopted standards to delve deep into the elements of this topic. This is an amazing step forward in science education in the state of Alabama!
It is important, however, to recognize that this is hardly the end of the battle for science literacy in the state of Alabama relative to evolution. Having standards is a great start, but the presence of the standards is not equivocal to the presence of a magical switch that suddenly makes evolution less subject to the regional controversy, nor does it automatically mean that all the teachers who have avoided teaching it or taught it alongside other non-scientific alternative concepts like Creationism, will now change their minds and teach evolution. Research in this state has shown that teachers struggle with teaching evolution in light of their own world-view and beliefs (Glaze, Goldston, & Dantzler, 2014; Glaze, in prep; Goldston & Kyzer, 2009). Even those who teach evolution often go through a transformation of sorts, becoming more anxious, aloof, and discombobulated when addressing the topic than when they are teaching other, non-controversial topics. Having standards in support gives a scaffold upon which to build instruction, but it does not change the atmosphere of controversy and conflict that prevents many teachers from teaching evolution, whether out of concern for their own beliefs or out of fear of the response from the community where they teach.
Now that we have the framework for teaching evolution securely in place for K-12 education in Alabama, it is time for us to come together to find ways of providing more preparation for teachers, not just here, but across the nation, as well as support, strategies, and connections. We have a responsibility as scientists and educators to be the instrument for change.
ALEX (2005). Alabama Science Course of Study. Retreived from http://alex.state.al.us/staticfiles/2005_AL_Science_Course_of_Study.pdf
ALSDE (2015). Alabama Science College and Career Readiness Standards. Retrieved from http://www.alsde.edu/sec/sct/COS/2015%20Alabama%20Course%20of%20Study%20%20Science%20%20Final%209-10-15.pdf
Alabama Textbook Disclaimer (2009). Retrieved from http://www.rationalitynow.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/alabamadisclaimer.jpg.
Glaze, A.L. (In Prep). AP Biology teachers’ and evolution in the secondary classroom. A manuscript for submission to the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.
Glaze, A. L., Goldston, M. J., & Dantzler, J. (2014). Evolution in the Southeastern United States: factors influencing acceptance and rejection in pre-service science teachers. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. doi: 10.1007/s10763-014-9541-1
Goldston, M.J., and Kyzer, P. (2009). Teaching evolution: narratives with a view from three southern biology teachers in the USA. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 46(7), 762-790.
Miller, K. R. (1999). Dissecting the Alabama Disclaimer. Retrieved from http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/disclaimer.html
NCSE (2007). Ten major court cases about evolution and creationism. Retreived from http://ncse.com/taking-action/ten-major-court-cases-evolution-creationism