Cutting Edge > Affective Domain > Teaching Controversial Topics > Teaching Evolution

Teaching Evolution and the Affective Domain

This summary was compiled by Karin Kirk, SERC, and is drawn from the sources referenced below.

View looking northeast from the Yavapai Observation Station on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
View looking northeast from the Yavapai Observation Station on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

Few topics engage the multifaceted challenges of the affective domain as much as evolution does. From the faculty point of view, teachers may be frustrated by judicial, political and social pressures against the teaching of evolution that seem poised to undermine the science. Meanwhile students may be faced with the difficult decision to "believe" in the science or to maintain their faith in another interpretation.

There is no shortage of information written about the teaching of evolution. Upon review, some useful themes for addressing the affective domain while teaching emerge.

  • Understand and be respectful of where the students are coming from. Teaching evolution should not make students with religious beliefs feel that their beliefs are wrong. Teachers should make a clear distinction between the roles of science and religion; the two need not be in conflict.
  • Be clear about your role as a faculty member. Is your goal simply to teach the science or to change students' personal beliefs?
  • Employ active learning techniques. Students will be more receptive to controversial topics if they have an active learning experience. A lecture-only, authoritative approach will do little to encourage students to have an open mind.
  • Many of the references below recommend teaching science as a process, rather than a finalized "truth." Students should come to understand the ways that scientists formulate and test ideas, how science can resolve events that happened long ago, and how critical thinking plays a role in science.
  • Even if there is political, social, departmental or parental pressure against the teaching of evolution, it is imperative that frustrations about that be left outside the classroom. While teaching a controversial topic it is especially important to maintain a classroom atmosphere that is positive, open and encouraging.

Resources for Teaching Evolution and the Affective Domain

Examples from Across the SERC Website

  • Structured Academic Controversy

    This is a type of cooperative learning strategy in which small teams of students learn about a controversial issue from multiple perspectives.This technique is designed to engage students in controversy and then guide them to seek consensus. In addition to documentation about the technique, there is also a specific classroom example developed for teaching about science and religion

    A thumbnail image from a video demonstrating the Structured Academic Controversy technique
    See video clips about Structured Academic Controversy. This page contains two video clips and a PowerPoint presentation describing this role-playing technique, plus links to references for using this method in your classroom. This is an excerpt from the 2007 Affective Domain workshop.
  • Addressing Creationism
    This Earth history module is intended to assist science faculty who are teaching Earth history, evolution, or plate tectonics by providing them with access to solid information about creationism and about teaching science to students who may have creationist beliefs.
  • The Evolution/Creation Debate
    In this course students are exposed to the modern scientific theories of the earth and life and to the diverse brands of Christian creationism and how they measure up to scientific analysis. Students explore these topics through readings, lectures, discussions, and essays.

General References

This list is not intended to present a comprehensive list of evolution resources. Rather, the papers and web sites below offer strategies that are useful for teaching evolution while minimizing conflict and maximizing learning.
  • Evolution Resources from the National Academies (more info)

    This web page provides easy access to books, position statements, and additional resources on evolution education and research. These materials have been produced by the National Academies and other sources. This is a handy clearinghouse of reliable information for teaching evolution.
  • About Life. Concepts in Modern Biology

    Agutter, Paul S., Wheatley, Denys N., Springer 2007
    This book uses modern biological knowledge to tackle the question of what distinguishes living organisms from the non-living world. The authors first draw on recent advances in cell and molecular biology to develop an account of the living state that applies to all organisms (and only to organisms). This account is then used to explore questions about evolution, the origin of life, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The novel approach taken by this book to issues in biology will interest and be accessible to general readers as well as students and specialists in the field.

Approaches to Teaching Evolution

  • Perspective: Teaching Evolution in Higher Education

    citation and bibliographic information This paper presents statistics and explanations for students' (and the general public's) misunderstandings of and feelings toward evolution. The authors note that traditional pedagogy does little to unseat students' misconceptions, largely because the teaching is passive. The key recommendation is for constructivist teaching methods including tools such as discussion, concept mapping, and using a historical perspective.
  • The Creation Controversy and the Science Classroom

    citation and bibliographic information This book provides science teachers with extensive information and useful techniques for teaching evolution and other controversial issues. The second section, "Effective Strategies for Teaching Evolution and Other Controversial Topics," is particularly relevant for teachers. A key recommendation is that teachers should teach science as a set of processes for thinking critically about alternatives. The author lists potential problems that may be encountered when teaching controversial topics in science and suggests specific strategies for addressing them.
  • Structured Academic Controversy: A Peaceful Approach to Controversial Issues (PDF file)

    citation and bibliographic information This article describes the use of structured academic controversy to teach evolution to pre-service science teachers. This pedagogic strategy is designed to engage students in controversy and then guide them to seek an agreement. The format includes time for readings, thinking, questions, small group discussion, large group discussion and consensus building. A follow-up survey indicated that the participants felt that the process allowed for consensus-building, avoided confrontation, and emphasized currently accepted scientific thinking.
  • The Evolution Solution: Teaching Evolution Without Conflict (PDF file)

    This paper presents a strategy for teaching evolution that is built around a novel sequence of topics – using a series of classroom-tested interactive lessons. This strategy effectively minimizes conflict while students come to recognize many misconceptions and to understand why evolution is considered one of the strongest of scientific theories.
  • High School Students' Perceptions of Evolutionary Theory (more info)

    This article offers a useful literature review along with results from the authors' own study. The conclusions from this paper are that teachers should take great care not to alienate students, that they should educate the "whole" student and that teaching methods should include time for reflection and discussion.
  • Changes in students' understanding of evolution resulting from different curricular and instructional strategies

    citation and bibliographic information This study assessed students' learning of evolution by natural selection within four different sections of an introductory biology course. The authors used different combinations of curricular materials and instruction methods. Pretest-to-posttest differences within each section showed gains in correct conceptions but few reductions in alternative conceptions. Comparisons between sections support the use of the paired problem-solving instructional strategy in conjunction with a historically-rich curriculum.
  • The Goal of Evolution Instruction: Belief or Literacy? (more info)

    This paper discusses an approach to teaching evolution that allows students to develop an accurate understanding of the nature of science and the scientific process, resulting in improvement in their scientific literacy. The author contends that attempting to make students believe in evolution is both ineffective and is not the most important goal in teaching evolution. It is stressed that teachers should respect students' beliefs. General suggestions for teaching approaches are provided, with recommendations drawn from a variety of other papers.
  • Exploring the Social, Moral, and Temporal Qualities of Pre-Service Teachers' Narratives of Evolution

    citation and bibliographic information This article from the Journal of Geoscience Education is particularly relevant for evolution education. This qualitative study explores pre-service teachers' conceptual representations of an evolutionary process through their personal narratives of evolution for an imaginary humanoid species on a far-off planet. The connection among social and moral issues, evolution, and difficulties envisioning the future may provide important clues into pre-service teachers' conceptualizations of human evolution. Addressing personal barriers and misunderstandings that might impede geoscience education may become an effective tool for teaching scientific principles.

Specific Examples and Activities

  • Structured Academic Controversy - Science and Religion
    This is as example of the structured academic controversy technique, which aims to provide deeper content knowledge about evolution as well as to broaden students' perspectives to help them be more understanding of their own and others' views.

Do you know of an article, example or other reference for teaching evolution? Please tell us about it.

If you have a classroom activity that is useful for teaching evolution, you can add it to the teaching activities collection.