Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Evolution of an Evolution Discussion

We are currently teaching the evolution unit in Biology at my school and I wanted to share a couple of interesting changes one teacher made this year. Jesse Craig started the discussion surrounding evolution with a live blog, where students could share what they knew – or thought they knew - about evolution. This was before they had talked about it in class at all. A little bit later he continued the conversation with a post around the idea of a spectrum of beliefs, asking students to try to place themselves on the spectrum and share their beliefs.

A little further along in the unit, when the kids had a little bit more scientific knowledge, Jesse set up a live blog with one of his former professors at Hastings College. This was from 8:00 – 8:30 pm our time one night, and he made the professor a panelist on Cover It Live so she could see all the questions coming in. The process wasn’t perfect, Jesse tried to pick and choose questions to approve to keep the conversation somewhat coherent (there were well over 300 comments but he only approved a small subset), but the professor could see all of them and sometimes chose to respond to ones that he hadn’t approved (which meant only the student that asked the question really knew what she was responding to). After talking with Jesse, we’re thinking that perhaps next time we might have the professor ustream her responses. This would allow her to respond more naturally and not be slowed down by having to type her responses. We’d still have the kids live blog their questions (and/or perhaps submit some questions in advance), but she could reply more “naturally” for her. All in all, though, it worked pretty well, and we had a good turnout among the students considering it was 8:00 at night.

Separate from his Biology classes, Jesse and two other Biology teachers also made guest appearances in our ninth grade honors English classes. They were discussing Inherit the Wind, so the English teachers invited the Biology teachers in to talk about what it was like to be a modern day Biology teacher. While some of those students were also in Biology, most were not. It was a rare chance for us to teach/learn cross disciplinary (and I’m frustrated with how rare those chances are, but that rant is for another time). Interestingly, several of those ninth grade English students who were not in Biology also participated in the live blog with the professor from Hastings College.

So, nothing revolutionary here. (Do I dare say it was evolutionary?) But another interesting example of ways to use some of these tools to broaden student thinking. First, it allowed them to explore their thinking and beliefs about an often controversial topic in a way that felt safer for most students than having to say it verbally in class. Then they were able to state where they fell on the spectrum of beliefs, again in a way that felt fairly safe. As they began to learn more about the science of evolution, they were then able to converse (at least to a limited extent) with an “expert” from the college level. Now, Jesse is pretty darn knowledgeable himself, but – just like a parent giving advice to your own child – often hearing it from someone other than your classroom teacher resonates more. (I think bringing in “experts” virtually is something we are going to try to do more and more of at my school.) And finally, for a few students at least, the ability to think about evolution in the context of history and literature.

So, I think there’s a lot more we could do with this, but it was a great start. The other interesting part, for me at least, was that I had nothing to do with it. Typically a teacher trying something new like this would ask for my help with the tech side, but Jesse just ran with it. I think that’s a very positive sign that perhaps we are slowly getting past the idea that these are “technology lessons” but instead are just good teaching and learning.


  1. As a biology teacher, I am all for interdisciplinary opportunities. Where the lesson becomes murky is when the teacher allowed students to place themselves on a "spectrum of belief". Evolution is not a belief, and if this practice is acceptable here, why not have students place themselves on a spectrum of belief about gravity? Why not have students in English class place themselves on a spectrum of belief regarding whether or not 'Inherit the Wind' should be viewed as a work of literature? It is great to give students the chance to be introspective, but one should not give the false impression that evolution is a belief system.

  2. @Sean - the Bio teachers were very clear that evolution was not a belief (in fact one of them pretty much said your exact quote about gravity). But many of our students are coming at this from a religious belief system and have a lot of misunderstandings about what evolution is (and is not). If we ignore that aspect of it, I think it's very difficult to get them to even consider thinking about evolution.

  3. Karl,
    You and your colleagues give me hope. Thanks.

  4. Karl,
    Thanks for responding to my earlier comment--I agree evolution is often misunderstood and your teachers should be commended for not shying away from the topic. However, after having more time to read some of the links in the post, I disagree with your final sentence. I think administrators mistake a competent use of technology for good teaching. Nothing in this post leads me to believe your students have a clearer understanding of what is meant when a scientist uses the term 'theory' or why the theory of evolution is the core concept of biology. I think you have shown that your teachers, with their use of technology, have challenged students to think about their beliefs; but don't confuse this with evidence of student learning about the concept of evolution.

  5. @Sean - Well, I think we need to keep in mind that these were additions to what went on in class, you're not seeing the entire picture of what these teachers did. What you're seeing is mostly what the students brought to the table before the evolution unit started (with the exception of the live blog with the professor from Hastings, that was after they had some scientific background on evolution).

    Do the kids completely understand evolution now? Nope. Do they still struggle with the conflict (either perceived or real, depending on the specific belief and your viewpoint) between their own religious beliefs and a scientific theory? Yep.

    But do they have a better understanding of evolution than when they started? Yes. And do I think that allowing them to explore this without ignoring their religious beliefs makes them more likely to keep an open mind and learn more about evolution? Yes. I think if we ignore their "prior knowledge," they end up learning less.

  6. @Sean - As a Biology teacher it is my hope that my students understand that you can’t ignore science. It is also important for them know that many of their beliefs can coincide with scientific data. This is why I give them a spectrum of beliefs at the start of the unit and then have them re-evaluate those beliefs at the end of the unit. Too many times students are put in positions where they are made to feel like their beliefs can't possibly fit the evolutionary model. There are many scientists that say their beliefs can fit that model and it is my hope that they understand that. I do not in any way teach my students that evolution is a belief, in fact I stress over and over that you can’t ignore science. I simply want to expose them to avenues that allow them to understand that many of their beliefs can fit a scientific evolutionary model. Students become very frustrated when we ignore their beliefs. When they are frustrated they close down and learning does not happen.