Explore Teaching Examples | Provide Feedback

Teaching the Controversy

Initial Publication Date: May 31, 2005
The Isua rocks have been dated to 3.8 billion years ago

A number of science instructors (and most creationists) believe that the best way to teach the essence of Earth history and to help students develop their capacity for critical thought is to examine the evidence for and against such controversial ideas as evolution, geologic time, and creationism.

Encouraging students to address creationism (or any controversial idea) explicitly can be very challenging. If students are not prepared to respect one another's views or are afraid that their own will not be respected, they may not make a serious effort (see Rankey, 2003 , for example) and could be hurt. Instructors should use this technique with care and make every effort to ensure that students are respectful of one another.

The instructor picks a topic that can be assessed scientifically and for which abundant scientific evidence has already been collected by both sides of the controversy. Interesting topics include:

  • The formation of the Grand Canyon
  • The evolution of horses
  • The number of ice ages

These exercises require students to carefully review the geological and the creation-science arguments, not simply to dismiss them.

This sort of exercise works well with any non-denominational pseudoscientific ideas and can be helpful when it is inappropriate or uncomfortable to focus on Christian sectarian beliefs.

Another way to make students reconsider their prior knowledge is to examine common misconceptions about science and to demonstrate that things "everyone knows" to be true can be wrong.

For Further Reading

  • Project Atlantis- An Exercise in the Application of Earth Science to a Critical Examination of a Pseudoscience Hypothesis. Earle, 2003 This exercise has students who have just gone through a unit on plate tectonics examine the "crustal displacement" hypothesis which accounts for the fate of Atlantis. (citation and description)
  • What is right with 'teaching the controversy'?. Langen, 2004 The author stresses the nature of science in his basic biology class. He has his students apply scientific standards to creationist ideas and discuss whether these qualify as scientific theories. (citation and description)
  • The Use of Critical Thinking Skills for Teaching Evolution in an Introductory Historical Geology Course. Rankey, 2003 In this exercise, students rate themselves on an evolutionist-creationist continuum and write a paper incorporating at least three books or articles summarizing the view that opposed theirs. (citation and description)