Teach the Controversy – Would it really be so bad?

We’ve all heard the now almost cliched battle cry of modern creationists, namely the call to ‘teach the controversy’. The plea is expressed in regard to science education and, to some extent, the scientific community. The debate over creationism and evolution no longer seems to be about science but about politics, the creationist proponents often appealing to freedom of speech rather than, in this case, truth.

 Growing up in England, I was taught the apparant controversy, as were my peers. The details are fuzzy as to the extent of the curiculum (whether it was local, county-based or national) and whether it’s still going today, but my GCSE Biology teacher was told that he had to introduce a concept commonly known as Intelligent Design. Not only that, but the students were also made to write out a list of pro’s and con’s of the Theory of Evolution. The students were obedient, taking the ID material as more of a joke than anything. I still have the essay I wrote on the subject!

Before I write my opinion on the effectiveness on the curriculum, I feel the need to define the expression. What does “teach the controversy” actually mean? It’s unsurprisingly vague. What is the controversy? How many controversies? How do we teach the controversies and to what extent? I have decided to split the concept into three different categories:

  1. Discuss the pro’s and con’s of Evolution in the classroom
  2. Inform students of the existence of the ID concept as a side note
  3. Balanced teaching of both Evolution and ID throughout the academic year

Of course it isn’t that simple, but I have narrowed it down to the three main proposals put forward by it’s proponents.

You would have to say that options 1 and 2 are the more usual proposals, and were both present in my own school curiculum, often being lumped together. Option 3 is rarer, but still has a large number of proponents, moreso in the US but there are growing numbers in other countries as well as my own.

More realistic creationists/IDers nowadays propose that the pro’s and con’s of evolution be taught, following recent court cases in which ID was knocked as religious and a simple rebranding of creationism. It is unlikely that ID will therefore will become the norm in mainstream textbooks, but as always the creationist community has filtered its ideas and come up with the pro/con idea. The aim appears to be to confuse students. Let me explain…

As a zoology student at university I am constantly being introduced to new material to do with the processes and testing of Evolution. The amount of new information often seems to much, and I will sometimes spend up to an hour trying to piece things together in my head. Just when I think the Evolution puzzle pieces have been put together, a new piece arrives and I have to reshuffle and reshape the puzzle in order to fit the new piece in. There is always something new to put into context with everything else. Evolution is a huge subject covering so many different areas in Biology, and it takes a lot of thinking time to find where everything fits.

An example is when I was taught about meiosis. We were taught about chromosomes, duplication and the copying of DNA. I was first taught about it all in my last year of A-level. I thought I knew it all. Then came university. There was so much new information that I had to relearn the basics over again just so I knew what was going on. The basic concepts of evolution are no different. The amount of new information being thrown at me becomes too much and I find myself looking back at my old textbooks, looking up the meanings of words like alleles for the fiftieth time.

Areas of doubt appear once the puzzle is pulled apart again in order to attach the new piece. After a while it begins to make sense again and the new information fits neatly into the picture. However, students can be gullible and lazy, mostly at younger ages. I was too. When made to point out the cons of evolution the students will write down things about evolution that they don’t understand. A hole in the jigsaw is discovered.

In the situation I explained before, the piece of the great evolution puzzle is given to you first, and then you yourself find where it is meant to fit. In this situation however, the student has discovered a gap and can’t find a piece to fit it, and are unlikely to search for the piece. They are left feeling like evolution has holes yet to be filled, unaware of information that they have yet to be presented with. This is what the creationists hope to acheive: students leaving the classroom feeling like evolution is incomplete and that major jigsaw pieces are missing.

This is where option 1 becomes debatable. After writing down evolutions cons, what will students do? You could say that it depends on the student – whether they leave the room without asking questions, or if they do their own research to find the missing pieces. In my opinion it depends just as much on the kind of teacher. Think about it. How would different teaches respond?

The creationists would hope that the teachers would be either creationists themselves, or be ignorant on the subject, choosing to teach straight from textbooks and not from prior knowledge. These teachers are unlikely to go over con’s in great detail, either when questioned or by their own will. The students would remain uninformed and confused about more indepth subjects within evolution – precisely what the creationists want.

On the other hand, a teacher with prior knowledge and a willingness to inform their students will take time to explain the supposed cons. The teacher has the jigsaw pieces and is willing to give them to the students. This was my experience, and is exactly what the creationists don’t want, mainly because the students understanding of evolution is actually increased.

The creationists appear to be betting on the majority of teachers to be themselves uninformed. They coudn’t have picked a better time. Schools are losing money and are less likely to be able to afford experienced and better prepared teachers, more likely to go for younger or less reputable teachers. The less money being spent on schools, the less well educated students tend to be. One wonders whether the creationists waited for such a moment when schools were more restricted in their budgets.

Option 1 is usually tied to Option 2, which includes the mentioning of ID to students. This is very similar to what the Dover school board attempted before the famous trial: telling students that evolution is not the only idea out there and supplying or advising extra material covering ID. Students are briefly informed that there is another “theory” known as ID.

On its own, Option 2 would be unlikely to sway students, but when combined with Option 1 it could be effective, depending on the students. After the con’s of evolution are brought up, a teacher, instead of giving the students a piece of the great evolution puzzle, can decide to offer the student a completely new idea. When Option 2 is used alone, there are rarely gaps in the students puzzle, and they don’t feel that evolution has any major holes. When sufficiently confused after the pro’s/con’s exercise, an introduction to another explanation could convince students that ID is in fact a valid idea.

Unfortunately for the creationists, the Dover/Kitzmiller trial has made it much harder for ID to be even mentioned in curriculums. This also make it near impossible for Option 3 to become reality.

Option 3 involves both evolution and creationism/ID having equal time in the classroom. Not only is this proposal absurd in its concept that a huge scientiic theory being researched for over 100 years and going through strict peer review is on equal footing with an idea proposed by a right-wing American think-tank that has never done any research and never gone through strict peer-review, but it’s also terribly unproductive. What will students be taught for half an academic year? What is there to teach, apart from there being some things that are quite complicated? What effect will it have on students, who for the first half of the year have told all about evolution and it’s processes, then in the second half told that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

Let’s face it, ID isn’t its own theory but a criticism of another. What a waste of an academic year, to basically say to students “Look at this process of evolution, how allele frequencies change over time, how mutations and natural selection work together, how environment has an impact on the evolution of species… but that’s probably not true.”

What a disaster that would be. Thankfully, Option 3 will probably never be utilised… probably….

Putting aside Option 3, are any of the options suitable for a school curriculum?

The answer may surprise you.

I talk from my own experience when I say that Option 1 would be an improvement to the school curiculum. Questioning Evolution is exactly what students should be doing. What is science if it can’t be questioned, even in a classroom setting? The thing that first turned me to evolution was its evidence (of course). How though, did I find this evidence? Well it started after I was told to write the con’s of evolution. Of the few con’s I had, a few minutes of research can find you the answers. Questioning evolution helped me corner my doubts and to confront them. If anything, it bolstered my acceptance of the theory, and now I’m even studying it at university. I am sure that other students have felt the same way, and that confronting your doubts helps you overcome them.

Of course, some students will not confront such questions, but then they were obviously not interested and would be very unlikely to take up research in any relevant field. They probably couldn’t give a damn about evolution, and probably about creationism/ID either. Sure, some students may decide that Evolution isn’t convincing them, but there would also be some students who are actually able to overcome their weaknesses. No solution is perfect, and though Option 1 has its down points, it also has its benefits.

Option 2 is a more difficult one. Most students have no doubt by now heard of ID or creationism. It is not only a scientific issue, but a political one, and its relevance in todays society cannot be ignored. If a student inquires about ID or creationism in a classroom, who are we to deny them information?

There is a fine line in Option 2.  Should the teacher bring ID up to discuss, or should teachers be allowed to discuss ID when a student asks about it. In my opinion the teaching or even mentioning of ID is a waste of time, but when students wish to discuss it, it becomes a different matter. It’s not being forced on the students, but they actually want to know about it.

Of the three main concepts behind “teach the controversy,” one i find completely absurd and pointless, another I think would be useful, and the other somewhere in between. Perhaps we shouldn’t simply shrug the expression off like we should with most other creationist talking points, but actually find out what they mean by “teach the controversy.” They may just be reasonable people with a reasonable proposition. They may also be unreasonable people with disastrous ideas, but we must find out before we come to conclusions. Immediate conclusions are often misguided and makes us seem intolerant and irrational. If we so wish to call ourselves rational people, then we must apply rationality even where rationality appears pointless. Our judgement is often misleading.