Teach the Earth > Affective Domain > Dilemmas about Teaching > Trilobites Live

Trilobites Live!

I teach Historical Geology at a large public university. As I was setting up class the other day, a student, Eric, nervously approached me and asked a question that caught me off-guard. "How do you know for sure that trilobites and humans didn't co-exist?" he asked. I smiled, thinking he was making a joke. After all, we were several weeks into a second-semester geology course and this was the first time he had expressed these ideas. "Nice one," I said, "how can I really help you today?" But then I realized he wasn't trying to be funny. His face turned stoic and serious, but before I could gather myself and formulate an answer, he continued, "You throw around these huge numbers for the age of the earth, the age of the rocks and the age of the fossils. But how do you know? Aren't you just repeating the numbers that you have read elsewhere? In a church group, we learned that humans and all other life were created at the same time, only a few thousand years ago."

Once again, I tried to come up with a good answer. I began explaining that these numbers weren't simply reported by a single source; that there are all types of data that point to similar and consistent ages for various formations. Before I could get too far, two other students interrupted us with a question about the homework due that day. I talked briefly to them while Eric stood by. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Eric was deeply bothered. But amid the hustle and bustle of the start of class, I was struggling to give him the attention he needed. It seemed that no answer I could give would placate him. I wondered why he had never mentioned any of this before and why it seemed that all of a sudden he was expressing deep concerns with the concept of geologic time and evolution. Had his feelings been building up all through the semester and only now coming out? And meanwhile, I had a class to run and other students to attend to. It seemed there was nothing I could do to address his concerns at this time, and I felt like I was caught up in a "no-win" situation.

Questions and Responses

These questions were posed to participants at the 2007 workshop in the form of a gallery walk ice breaker. The responses were gathered as comments that the participants wrote as they progressed through the walk.

Question 1
What should an instructor do if they anticipate situations that have the potential to place students' beliefs in conflict with concepts presented in a course? Do they have a special responsibilities in this circumstance?
  • Be up front at the beginning of class:
    • This is science!
    • Not trying to attack or change beliefs
  • Are trying to teach you to understand scientific explanations and methods
  • Distinguish between cognitive and affective expectations, and be explicit
  • Discuss difference between belief and understanding
  • Be explicit with terminology (especially "theory")
  • Add awareness of education and place of science and non-science in becoming educated.
  • Have students investigate their own religious (historical) traditions
  • No 'ad hominem' attacks on individuals; but explore the evidence critically
  • Ask about multiple sources of evidence
  • Discuss difference between belief and evidence
  • For students whose faith is central to their sense of self, are we saying that they are not welcome in the class?

Question 2
What should my next step be in the historical class? What strategies do you use when teaching controversial topics?
  • If Eric really want to know "how we know," then make some time to meet with him one-on-one to talk about it calmly and share thoughts.
  • Belief does not equal understanding
  • Students must understand that faith and science are separate - two different ways of knowing the world
  • Hang in there - piece by piece
  • Get a group to talk about issues in a safe (non-ownership) situation
  • What is a scientific theory? What is science?
    • Beyond "talking head" explanation
  • What is the true nature of the "controversy?" Non-existent
  • Answer - Where do our ideas come from; by interactive method - studio exercise
  • Set up a time to talk to the individual student - know your students
  • Perhaps bring it up as an entire class discussion (without pointing out the specific individual)
  • Opportunity to discuss the nature of science

Trilobites Live  

This post was editted by Kit Pavlekovsky on Aug, 2012
I'm always surprised at what is possible. Looks like trilobites may coexist with us after all.

www.livescience.com/php/multimedia/imagedisplay/img_display.php?pic=ig62_Ceratoserolis_02.jpg&title=Slim Isopod &cap=This+serolid+isopod+can+flatten+its+body+to+increase+surface+area+and+keep+from+sinking+into+the+fine-grain+sediment+on+the+seafloor.+


Share edittextuser=3948 post_id=13143 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=408

Join the Discussion

Log in to reply